by Gary Knepp
The relationship between class size and student performance has been a controversy for years. And it has become an issue in this year’s Board of Education race. One candidate has charged that “Milford is breaking the law” because one class at McCormick exceeds the mandated 25 students to one teacher ratio. He claimed that he has threatened to sue the district over this alleged infraction.
Does he have a case?
Ohio regulations state that in grades K-4 there shall not be more than a 25 student to 1 teacher ratio on a district-wide basis. The key term is district-wide. The regulation, therefore, allows for some individual classes to exceed the mandate. The figures provided by the administration show that it complies with state regulations. The district is not “breaking the law.”
Does size really matter? Do students perform better in smaller class settings? It depends upon what expert or research study you consult.
The most frequently cited study by advocates of smaller class size is the Tennessee STAR program which defined a small class size as 17. That report showed statistically significant improvements in student achievement, especially among disadvantaged minorities. A Wisconsin study, which defined small as 15, showed similar results.
The results were different, however, in Florida and Connecticut. Florida spent $20 billion reducing class sizes and showed no positive results. After conducting research in Connecticut, educational economist Caroline Hoxby wrote, “the estimates indicate that class size does not have a statistically significant effect on student achievement.”
Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek analyzed the raw data from the research conducted to date and concluded “the evidence about improvements in student achievement that can be attributed to smaller classes turns out to be meager and unconvincing.”
A Brookings Institute report focuses in on a crucial point when discussing class size reduction and, frankly, every school program. We should always conduct a cost-benefit analysis, asking whether the benefits outweigh the costs of the new program.
The class-size reduction programs are terribly expensive. At Milford, reducing class-size to 15 or even 17 would require spending millions of dollars in new salaries, benefits ($55,000+ per teacher per year) and classroom construction (estimated between $225,000 and $250,000 per new room). These “improvements” simply can not be funded from current revenues, but would require substantial new tax and bond levies. With the research results so unconvincing, it does not make sense to “invest” in smaller classes.
There hasn’t been significant research about comparing class-size with alternative investments such as increasing teacher salaries, cross-age tutoring, and blended learning. We don’t know whether these approaches are more effective in improving student performance than smaller class sizes.
One final point made by the Brookings report: fiscal problems make it likely that the real debate in the future will be “the consequences of increasing the size of classes” rather than contemplating reductions.
Gary Knepp is a candidate in the November 5, 2013 school board election. Visit his website at kneppbradyforschoolboard.com.