Class-Size Mandates Overrated, Studies Show
What is the ideal class size for students?
It is a question that has been debated for years, and before lawmakers impose expensive new class-size requirements on Nevada classrooms, it is worth considering what kind of impact it will have on students.
As scholars from the left-leaning Center for American Progress wrote, “Large-scale (class-size) policies certainly fail any cost-benefit analysis because they entail steep costs and produce benefits that are modest at best.”
Over the past 30-plus years, Nevada has spent $3.64 billion to hire and retain additional teachers under its mandated class-size program, which began in 1991.
The Nevada Assembly Committee on Education has introduced Assembly Bill 42, which would apply the following class-size restrictions for each kindergarten to third grade teacher:
- Kindergarten would have a maximum of 18 students, an increase from the previous limit of 16;
- First and second grades would have a maximum of 20 students, an increase from the previous limit of 16; and
- Third grade would have a maximum of 20 students, an increase from the previous limit of 18.
It would also result in the following for English and math classes for each fourth to twelfth grade teacher:
- Fourth to sixth grades would have a maximum of 25 students; and
- Seventh to twelfth grades would have a maximum of 30 students.
AB 42 would also require charter schools and all school districts to comply with the state-mandated class sizes, including smaller districts in counties with fewer than 100,000 residents which are currently allowed to have alternative ratios.
Class-size mandates are costly, and because charter schools receive less funding per pupil than traditional public schools, this legislation would hurt charter schools by straining their budgets and limiting their financial flexibility to experiment with new schooling methods.
While it intuitively seems that there would be some benefit to class-size mandates, extensive studies in Tennessee and California have proven that it is one of the least effective reforms to boost student achievement. In 2001, it was even demonstrated that students in larger classes in Nevada public schools actually outperformed those in smaller classes – further confusing the issue.
Another in-depth study in 2017 by New York University professor Michael Gilraine produced similar results to Tennessee and California.
Gilraine explained that class-size mandates require hiring new teachers, which could potentially lead to hiring lower quality or inexperienced teachers – which could be part of the reason benefits are not guaranteed.
As a result, evidence of the impact of class size on student achievement is “surprisingly unsettled,” Gilraine told Nevada Policy.
He suggested that when lawmakers weigh the benefits of class-size mandates against their costs, “they must also take into the account the pool of teachers who will fill the newly created positions as the quality of these teachers will have a large effect” on student achievement.
Meanwhile, proponents argue that smaller classes enable teachers to provide more attention to each student – boosting teacher satisfaction, improving student achievement and bolstering behavior management.
While some of this might be true in certain contexts, it seems unlikely that lawmakers would ever be able to accurately identify a “perfect” class size to impose on every school in the state.
Nevada Policy believes class-size mandates should be eliminated due to how costly they are, and funding should be put towards an aggressive program of teacher merit pay. Lawmakers should also remove existing class-size mandates and allow school districts to determine how best to allocate resources.
Hoover Institution has argued that schools should actually increase class sizes for the most effective teachers, along with increases to their pay, so more students can benefit from highly skilled and gifted educators.
Other groups have suggested that schools should improve curriculum and prioritize teacher quality, and Berry College economics professor E. Frank Stephenson argued for “genuine school choice.”
“The ideal class size (or sizes) can be determined only in a competitive marketplace in which parents can choose among schools offering classes of different sizes,” he said.
Mandated class-size is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It may be popular as it intuitively sounds beneficial, but in practice it has mostly failed to advance student achievement while consuming a large share of school budgets.
Lawmakers need to consider these other options before implementing a one-size-fits-all class-size mandate on Nevada schools.