The Nation ran quite a headline last month: “To Reduce Inequality in Our Education System, Reduce Class Sizes.” Surely we might expect substantive evidence to follow such a pronouncement, especially in the midst of a staffing shortage. Yet while the author alludes to “abundant research” and lists various anecdotes, she discusses not a single study that actually proves her claim.
In reality, the research on this topic is inconclusive at best. If anything, it tilts in the direction of showing that class size reduction policies (CSRPs) are largely ineffectual. According to one Brookings report, there is “surprisingly little quality research” to support such policies, and what evidence as does exist “is not consistent.” Countless others have made this case time and again. But this Sisyphean rock always rolls back down the hill, and we have this argument yet again.
What do we actually know? Proponents of class size reduction policies often point to the Tennessee STAR study, which did find some positive benefit of smaller classes. But it only measured reductions down to thirteen to seventeen students in a class—a substantial change. (Typical reduction strategies take classes from thirty to twenty-five or twenty-five to twenty-two.) On the flip side, another pilot program from Connecticut found no statistically significant results. Countless other analyses fall across the board—some positive, some neutral.
Such policies never happen in a vacuum, however. Legislators cannot snap their fingers and improve teacher-to-student ratios. Even if a law or mandate capped class sizes at twenty, the same number of students show up the next day and someone needs to teach the additional classes that this reduction creates. Within this real-world difficulty, CSRPs can work against academic achievement.
Christopher Jepsen and Steven Rivkin sought to determine these effects by examining a billion-dollar CSRP in California schools—one which created 25,000 new teaching positions. They found that this demand for staffing did in fact require buildings to hire inexperienced teachers on emergency licenses. This new demand created a particularly difficult situation in schools that were already struggling with record staff shortages.
What’s more, this inflow of new teachers came largely to high-poverty schools, while simultaneously incentivizing experienced instructors to seize newly created positions in affluent districts. This reality “partially or, in some cases, fully offset the benefits of smaller classes.” Understood in this way and contrary to The Nation’s headline, sweeping mandates risk worsening inequality, bringing inexperienced teachers into and experienced teachers out of the schools in most need of better instruction for needy kids.
In theory, smaller classes seem utopian—individualized instruction, fewer students to manage, more time for one-to-one feedback. In reality, when the research is surveyed, CSRPs seem to hold the most promise in lower grades and would only work if targeted at schools that need them most.
I’ve worked in affluent and impoverished schools with large and small classes. In my experience, class size made little difference. Smaller classes sometimes worked against positive behaviors as fewer students meant less peer pressure to behave. Parental involvement, curricular materials, behavioral rules, and most importantly, my own professional development were far more important than the number of pupils in my room. In my first years, it didn’t matter if I had six or thirty-two students. As an experienced educator, my larger classes now cover far more material more effectively, and with better behavior than even my smallest classes at the outset of my career. Like a child’s snack, in my experience, it did not matter how large or small the bag is if it only contains potato chips.
And that still isn’t the end of the discussion. A better question isn’t if class sizes benefit students, but if they’re the best use of funds. Put simply, they’re not. For example, devote these dollars and efforts to the policies and practices within schools that do have a track record of success—like Mississippi’s promotion of the “science of reading” that rocketed them from the bottom to the top of NAEP scores—not shifting around superficial characteristics.
And perhaps that’s the greatest trade-off of these policies. They distract our attention, advocacy, and public monies away from tried and true interventions that research has shown over and again to be effective. Alas, this false promise will likely arise yet again, and like Camus’s Sisyphus, we must roll the rock back up the hill once more with a smile on our faces.