Former governor Miller makes the case against class-size reduction

Victor Joecks

That’s not what former governor Bob Miller intended to do in his column today on class-size reduction. But while I was reading through his piece, it was impossible not to notice that Miller had no evidence – beyond parent surveys and numerous assertions – to back up his claim that class-size reduction benefits students.

The first phase of class-size reduction was put in place for kindergartners and first-graders in the 1990-91 school year. …

[W]e preserved class-size reduction, because it was a cornerstone of our commitment to helping every child in Nevada succeed in school.

This has been a significant financial commitment by the state to provide the best opportunities for our children and their future. Since its inception, about $1.8 billion has been invested in class-size reduction. Hundreds of thousands of our students have benefited from it. Every survey conducted has found parents believe strongly in smaller classes, and that their children are better off because of them.

If something were a cornerstone of my “commitment to helping every child in Nevada succeed in school,” I’d want to know whether my commitment actually helped Nevada’s children succeed in school.

Unfortunately, Nevada’s educational performance has been stagnant for decades, despite its class-size reduction program and massive spending increases in education. Nevada now has the nation’s worst graduation rate, 41.8 percent. The data also shows that from 1997 to 2007, Nevada’s graduation rate declined by nearly 24 percentage points.

To be fair, you can’t draw causation from this, because many factors influence graduation rates. If class-size reduction were as important as its supporters assert, though, one would expect to see some (positive) impact on graduation rates.

Instead, Nevada’s scores on the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam have been stagnant from 1998 to 2009, while Florida, which passed a series of dramatic reforms starting in 1999, has seen its scores skyrocket.

On the other hand, 32 is the average class size in South Korea, which routinely outscores the United States on international tests. Large class sizes are an intentional part of South Korea’s education system, because larger classes allow highly effective teachers to teach more students.

Research has also shown that teacher quality is a much greater factor than class size in determining student achievement.

Government programs need to be judged by their results.

By failing to provide any evidence that class-size reduction leads to better outcomes, Miller actually makes the case that Nevada’s class-size reduction policy needs to go.