Class Size Reduction

The Half Billion Dollar Folly

By Mary K. Novello, Ed.D.
  • Friday, July 7, 2000

Executive Summary

Reducing class size is a persistently seductive idea. It just "seems" as if it should be advantageous to everyone: to the students who would garner more teacher time, to the teachers who would have less paper work, to the administrators who would have a contented staff and satisfied parents. It "feels" right, but it raises many questions. First of all, what is the optimum student/teacher ratio? How much does it cost? Will it favorably affect achievement?

Several decades of research settled on fifteen students per teacher in kindergarten and the first three grades as a somewhat arbitrary goal. All the research indicated that it was a costly effort, and the results were decidedly mixed regarding achievement gains. Then along came Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) in Tennessee, a study which convinced many legislators and educators about the efficacy of Class Size Reduction.

Nevada was one of the states to jump on the CSR bandwagon, passing legislation in 1989 for a three-year phase-in of the program. The goal of 15 to 1 was to be established in first grade and "at risk" kindergartens, then spread to second grade, and finally third grade as well. Unfortunately, during the period of 1990 to 1992 that the program was to go into effect, Nevada encountered unprecedented growth, especially of low socio-economic families and those with limited English proficiency as well as a budget shortfall. The net result was that the state has not yet reached its stated goal of 15 to 1 and, in fact, was rated by the Heritage Foundation as 44th out of 51 states (and the District of Columbia) in 1999.

Nevertheless, the Nevada State Board of Education and the Nevada State Department of Education faithfully presented reports evaluating the program in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 1999. For the first two years, the reports included the results of a questionnaire sent to principals, teachers, and parents. In all cases, the opinions were overwhelmingly favorable towards class size reduction.

On the other hand, the achievement results were desultory. In some cases, children in the small classes did worse than their counterparts in larger classes. In a few cases they did better. White, Asian and Black children seemed to benefit a little from the program, as did special education students, but Hispanic, American Indian, and low socio-economic groups did not. The test data were analyzed with the most modern and sophisticated of statistical tools, and even those could not produce a bias in favor of the program.

And yet, in typical governmental fashion, each of these reports recommends spending more money on the program, more money on studying the results, and more money on special training for teachers. So far the taxpayers of Nevada have forked over nearly half a billion dollars for an idea which has produced nothing whatsoever. C. Northcote Parkinson, after whom all those satirical economic "laws" were named, would be pleased. 

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