Education reform means different things to different people. To Governor Bob Miller, education reform means class size reduction of grades K-3 as evidenced in his recent State of the State address. But the policy has drawn fire from free market reformers since there are no studies which agree with the Governor’s claims of drastically improved achievement. Legislators during the 1995 session expressed their own skepticism with their votes and refused to approve class size reduction for third grades throughout the state. Yet Bob Miller continues to insist that if we are serious about improved education this policy must be implemented. Will the Governor succeed? Not likely … and here’s why.
A Climate of Skepticism
Education policy has come increasingly under scrutiny by both lawmakers and the general public alike, and with good reason. In an effort to save the sagging system the cry has gotten louder and louder for more money, more "junk" psychology, and more trivial academic pursuits. The logic which has equated money with success now rings hollow and has resulted in taxpayer fatigue and skepticism. Miller’s plea for increased education funds during the State of the State address were couched in words loaded with emotional blackmail, charging that non-support of this plan is akin to child-hating.
Miller seems to be counting on the legislators' short memories to pass this budget allocation since the same measure failed last legislative session. A glance back at the historical record demonstrates that the benefits of class size reduction do not measure up to the Governor’s purported promises.
Findings of Two Class Size Studies
Dr. Mary Snow, from Nevada’s own Department of Education, conducted "The 1993 Class Size Reduction Evaluation Study" to examine the effects of smaller class sizes. The study showed that although smaller class sizes were said to have spurred "new teaching practices" and contributed to "positive student attitudes toward learning," the effect on student achievement was disappointing. Her study read:
"Most of the students tested over the three year period showed that achievement levels remained about the same when small classes were compared with larger classes."
Tennessee also experimented with class size reduction in grades K-3. The program symbolically called, "Project STAR" decreased class sizes by approximately 40 percent (from an average of 25 students per class to 15). The findings in Tennessee showed a minuscule .25 percent increase in performance compared to students in larger classroom environments. This is the only experiment that has ever shown any correlation between class size and student achievement. And if addressing cost-benefit concerns the program arguably has no merit whatsoever. Further, it should be noted that the first year these students returned to a regular class size environment, the supposed benefits were reduced by half. High school seniors who had taken part in the class size reduction experiment, had no academic advantage over those students in standard size classes for the duration of their school careers.
What can Nevada further learn from Project STAR, the best documented study on the benefits of class size reduction? John Folger of the Peabody Journal of Education cites five lessons:
The maximum effect of reduction in class size is in kindergarten and first grade. The effect on achievement levels off and declines in second and third grade even when students remain in small classes.
The achievement advantage of students in small classes dropped about 50 percent the first year they were returned to regular sized classrooms (21-28) in the fourth grade.
Class size reduction is expensive. The cost of reducing class size is proportional to the size of the reduction. For Project STAR, the one-third reduction in class size increased operating costs by 24-28 percent.
The high cost of substantial reduction in class size and the modest achievement gains that can be expected, even in kindergarten and first grade, suggest that less expensive targeted reductions should be tried.
Changing class size without changing what is taught or how it is taught will probably have modest results, because various factors all influence achievement.
Teacher Sentiment and Costs
One positive result of smaller class size is a rise in teacher morale, according to Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. But, after a full examination of the implications of class size reduction it is unlikely that teachers will go to the barricades to defend it.
Adding 700 more teachers in Nevada to the 1,343 already added for the K-2 class size reduction plan, would require a huge increase in each districts’ budget. Given a choice between more frequent pay increases and sharing the teaching load among more of their colleagues, teachers would likely choose the former. Also, mandated class size reduction treats teachers as if they are undifferentiated inputs in the educational process. It says that the quantity of instructors is more important that the quality of the instruction. Good teachers don’t come cheaper by the dozen.
The price tag of limiting third grade class size to 16 students is not insignificant. The Nevada Department of Education estimated the cost at about $18 million, which excludes consideration of Nevada’s rapid growth rate. Further this figure does not include the extra classrooms needed to meet the 16:1 required ratio — requirements only 2 out of 17 school districts have been able to achieve for K-2.
Once this plan has been implemented, there’s no turning back. If after a few years it is determined that the advertised benefits of smaller class sizes just aren’t there, who is going to terminate the 700 teachers that have been hired or sell the portable classrooms? The Department of Education is asking for money to execute a study evaluating the current K-2 class size reduction program. How much sense does it make to increase a program which has not been evaluated? And for that matter why repeat what has already been done in 1993?
Nevada’s education system desperately needs to be overhauled … Our "C-" rating is unacceptable. However, a closer look needs to be given to the cost/benefit analysis of class size reduction. Elected officials should learn from the expensive lessons learned by other states and look at more effective reforms.
Erica Olsen is a research analyst for NPRI.