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Two years of cuts in state support saddled the Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif. this spring with what school board president B. Teri Burns said were “horribly painful” choices: fewer teachers and larger classes, or keeping teachers but cutting athletics, counseling, after-school programs and other services.

Like many school districts across the nation, Natomas chose to lay off teachers. Where this year there were three classes of 20 students each, next year Natomas schools will offer two classes of 30. The teaching staff in this 10,000–student district will be cut by 100 to 340 next fall. No one’s happy, Burns says: “We have to make choices and none of them are good.”

class sizes and budget cuts
(Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA)

Conventional wisdom says the smaller the classes, the better the education, because teachers can pay more attention to each child. But while smaller classes are popular among parents who factor them into decisions about where to send their children to school, decades of research have found that the relationship between class size and student outcomes is murky.

“The research doesn’t show that you get significantly different student outcomes when you go from a class of 25 to a class of 30,” Burns says.

With state and local budgets still in flux, it’s hard to know exactly how many teachers will lose their jobs this year. However, educators and politicians alike agree that the layoffs won’t be nearly as harsh as once expected now that President Barack Obama has signed into law a $26 billion plan to preserve thousands of jobs. States will receive $10 billion specifically for saving teachers’ jobs, and though they’ll have until September 2012 to spend the money, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is urging states to use it immediately.

The U.S. Department of Education had predicted that as many as 300,000 teachers and other personnel could be laid off without this new infusion of funds. The department now estimates that some 161,000 educators who had received pink slips will be heading back to school this fall, with the new money funding 16,500 positions in California, 14,500 in Texas and more than 9,000 in Florida.

But even with $10 billion in additional federal funds, the current fiscal crisis is expected to reverse a decades-long trend toward smaller classes. Education statistics shows that school personnel were hired at twice the rate that student enrollment grew between 1999 and 2007.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average class size of U.S. elementary schools dropped from 24 pupils in 1993 to 20 in 2007. The ratio of students to teachers – bearing in mind that not all teachers work in classrooms – has fallen even faster. In the 1960s, there were about 26 students per teacher. By 2005, that ratio was about 16 students per teacher.

Robynne Rose-Haymer, whose three children have attended the Natomas schools, said class-size increases in recent years have negatively affected educational quality. One child now in high school writes half as many essays as an older sibling did who graduated in 2006. Classroom aides who once helped with grading and taking attendance have already been cut. More of the “testing now is one-line answers,” with multiple-choice tests graded by machines. “You can’t get a good understanding with multiple-choice” tests in history class, Rose-Haymer said.

In Chicago, plans to increase the size of elementary school classes have been dropped but high school classes will rise to 33 students this fall, up from 31 last year.

New York City schools will shed 2,000 teaching positions this year through attrition – teachers who retire or leave the district without being replaced – but there won’t be other teacher layoffs, according to Anne Forte, a spokesperson for the city’s department of education. The average class size is expected to grow by one student. In addition, hundreds of classroom-aide positions will be slashed this year, on top of the 530 cut last year, but Forte said exact numbers won’t be available until principals finalize their budgets.

An experiment drives change

In the early 1990s, when many states were flush with cash, policymakers championed the findings of a 1985 experiment in Tennessee. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared academic achievement in small classes of 13 to 17 low-income students with that of students in classes that had 22 to 25 students per teacher. The experiment found modest but lasting gains for impoverished African-American students in the much smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade. States extrapolated from those narrow findings to justify spending billions of dollars to make relatively modest cuts in class size in all schools, not just in those serving the poor.

About three dozen states now fund either voluntary or mandated class-size reduction programs. In 1996, California launched the first and largest such effort, eventually providing incentives for school districts to lower class size to 20 in kindergarten through third grade at a cumulative cost of $20 billion.

In 2002, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that reduced class size over time in all grades. The state estimates that it will cost an additional $353 million this year, on top of the $16 billion the state has spent so far on class size reduction, to meet the amendment’s requirements. In November, Florida voters will be asked to loosen those requirements to avoid massive spending cuts in other school services.

The effects of these two state programs on student achievement have been extensively studied. A study released in May by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University found that the Florida program had no effect on student achievement.

Research on California’s program also showed no gains in achievement attributable to smaller classes. Michael W. Kirst, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, was part of a research team that studied the California program. He said excitement over the program resulted in school districts hiring “all sorts of teachers just off the street” who lacked any formal training. Space shortages forced schools to hold the newly created classes in hallways and closets and on auditorium stages. In some cases, two elementary classes shared a single classroom, the space divided only by a curtain.

Nonetheless, Kirst said, the program was popular. “One lesson from California is that, with parents, smaller class size is overwhelmingly favorable and they don’t give a fig about the research that says this is not going to help their kids,” he said. “They intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention to flow to their children. Therefore, they want it.” Elected school board members have a hard time resisting parental pressure for small classes, Kirst said.

Slippery slope?

Dan Goldhaber, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington- Bothell, says that “the effects of class-size reduction are pretty marginal,” except in the early grades for disadvantaged students. With rampant teacher layoffs, Goldhaber says, “it probably makes sense … to focus, not so much on class sizes, but on making sure that the teachers you are keeping are really effective teachers.” But seniority provisions in most teachers’ contracts do not permit that, although some districts and states are now seeking to change these provisions.

Still, he said, class-size reduction has been popular over the years “because it’s very obvious and tangible. Teacher quality is not stamped on teachers’ foreheads. So, the tradeoff between the two is not so clear.”

“But,” Goldhaber said, “as a parent, I would much rather have my daughter in a classroom with a very skilled teacher who has 25 kids than with a relatively ineffective teacher who has 20 kids. It’s no contest.”

Teachers’ unions favor smaller classes. “Fifty-two million schoolchildren are going to show up in September and there won’t be enough school teachers to give them what they need,” said NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen. “This is real. I’ve taught 39 fifth-graders in the same class. I know class size matters. No student should be in a class with that many other kids.”

The Florida chapter of the NEA is fighting efforts to scale back the class-size reduction program there, saying the amendment was approved by 60 percent of the voters.  Ever since it was passed, “there’s been an effort to either repeal it or scale it back,” says Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association.

Julie White of the Association of California School Administrators said the state has long had the largest classes in the nation, even with the massive amount of money spent to lower class size. White says it’s unclear if the 26,000 teachers in jeopardy of layoffs this summer will still lose their jobs, despite the passage of the jobs bill. Some classes still could have 40 or more students.

“The last two years alone, California schools have been cut by $17 billion,” says White. The governor initially proposed to cut $2.5 billion “and now has bumped it up to $4 billion.”

Los Angeles Unified School District has grappled with $1.5 billion in budget cuts and nearly 3,000 teacher layoffs during the past two years.

“The education community says ‘enough is enough,’ ” says White.

“I think it’s a very dangerous period,” says Kirst of the situation school districts face. “We are increasing class size to extremely high levels. I don’t worry about going from 20 to 25 students that much, or 15 to 20,” he said. “But when you go from 20 to 35 in a year or two, I don’t think we don’t know the effects of that.”

What happens in California often influences policies nationally. And it is teachers’ unions that hold the key to how big classes become. If they don’t accept salary freezes or reduced health benefits, they’ll almost certainly see colleagues laid off and class size climb.

Susan Sawyers contributed reporting. Tamara Henry is a lecturer in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland and a former national education writer for USA Today. A version of this story appeared in USA Today on August 26, 2010.

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  1. This is a very shoddy and poorly informed article. You write that the research indicates that there is no advantage to going from 30 to 25 students per class; this is simply wrong. There are many studies showing that the benefits of class size reduction are roughly linear — that is, for every student class size is lowered by, the other students benefit. And class size reduction is one of only three reforms that have been proven through rigorous evidence to improve learning, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research branch of the US DOE — so it’s not clear why researchers are pushing unproven experiments on our kids instead of research-based reforms.

    And STAR showed significant benefits for all students, not just “impoverished African-American students in the much smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade” as you write, though poor and minority students gained the most; and the benefits have lasted into high school, college and beyond.

    This is an incredibly biased and inaccurate summary of the research; next time perhaps you should hire a fact checker or try to do a minimal amount of checking yourself.

  2. Leonie — please cite your sources. You write that “There are many studies showing that the benefits of class size reduction are roughly linear — that is, for every student class size is lowered by, the other students benefit.” Which studies do you have in mind?

    Surely you cannot believe, and surely the research does not support, the idea that going from 300 students in a class to 299 students in a class brings the exact same benefit as going from 10 students in a class to nine students in a class. Or that a reduction from 500 to 410 students — in, say, an introductory-level college psych class — has the same effect or benefit as a reduction from 100 to 10 students.

    Whatever the relationship between class size and student achievement or learning is, it’s almost certainly not linear.

    Another mistake many people make when talking about class-size reduction is that they talk about it as if the specifics don’t matter and as if there were a unitary class-size “effect” — as if the ages of students are irrelevant, or as if going from 40 to 45 students is the same thing as going from 10 to 15 students. In reality, the specifics matter greatly.

    One reason the STAR study out of Tennessee has limited use in today’s policy debates is because it compared classes of 13-17 students on the one hand to classes of 22-25 students on the other hand. These are large differences; a class of 25 students is almost twice as large as a class of 13 students. But what’s on the table and up for debate in most states today — think of California or Florida — is a reduction from 31-32 students to 30 students, or a reduction from 21-22 students to 20 students. The STAR study says nothing about such small reductions. Nor does the STAR study speak to the issue of universal implementation of class-size reduction, which brings with it very significant challenges (such as plummeting teacher quality) that never arose in Tennessee because STAR was targeted, not universal.

    I am very familiar with the research on class-size reduction and would like to offer you and other readers the best summary I know of extant research on the topic — Douglas Ready’s nuanced and comprehensive “Class-Size Reduction: Policy, Politics, and Implications for Equity” (April 2008), accessible online at Among other things, Ready points out that “the optimal class size may not be the same for all students, in all subjects, across all grades.”

  3. Justin, are you aware of any studies of the effect of huge class sizes? The average class size at my Los Angeles-area high school is 43.5.

  4. What dramatically increasing class size will reveal is just how weak the current teacher corps is. And dramatic increases probably aren’t the way to go. Our best teachers – the real professionals – will do fine. In many cases, they already are. But too many teachers, the teaching disabled, will be swamped. Of course, a short term, incomplete answer – the one we’ve already tried unsuccessfully – is to adapt to teaching disabilities by having smaller classes. The real answer, and the only one that will get American public education where it needs to go, is to focus on eliminating teaching disabilities. That’s certainly easier said than done. But, we can’t keep blaming our failures on our customers. Professionals don’t do that. To be sure, all the usually quoted factors – poverty, lack of parental engagement, dysfunctional life styles,the lack of importance of education in the home – make it harder to teach kids. But it doesn’t make it impossible. And the professionals get the job done anyway.

  5. As an actual teacher, which I’m sure most of you aren’t, I can tell you there is absolutely an inverse affect to student achievement when you increase class size. It may not appear in skewed standardized test scores as significant, but that is because those tests don’t measure a student’s quality of education. Increased class size means that a teacher, who will get the job done, is required to spend less time with each student on any given subject. Consequently, that means teachers are forced to remove things from the curriculum that won’t appear on the standardized tests, because he or she simply doesn’t have the time to indulge in something as trivial as broadening a students horizons or exposing a student to knowledge that isn’t on the list.

    One last point of ridicule for this shortsighted piece of journalistic fluff designed to make my life more difficult: It is ridiculous to compare results from states like Florida to states like California and Massachusetts. Having worked with the children of armed service personnel and other students who have moved from various points around the country, I can tell you that not all states educational systems are equal. Florida for example did not teach phonics for much of the last several decades. California and Massachusetts have much higher standards in regards to the qualifications of teachers and in what students are expected to learn in a given year.

    The next time you talk about cutting funding for education, or increasing class size, or cutting teaching jobs think about your children, and the level of education you’d like them to have. Because every dime of money you take from education makes your children, and the rest of the coming generations, less educated. Have a nice day.

  6. Hi,
    The class size of 25 or 30 students does not really influence student learning. Educational resources materials and opportunities given to students to succeed become the criteria that influence student learning and understanding in a safe nurturing environment.
    Teachers knowledge, understanding, delivery of course material and allowing multiple ways and choices for students to demonstrate learning and understanding of academic subjects become essential.
    On another note, if required, what are the requirements for private school facilities regarding bathrooms in NYS?

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