NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Smaller Classes Better?

September 8, 1997

Education analysts question the efficacy of the current move to cut class sizes in public schools. While smaller classes do produce modest improvements, those improvements come at a high cost, they argue, and divert attention from more serious reforms.

Cutting class size will be difficult.

  • The Department of Education reports 52.2 million children will attend public and private elementary and secondary schools this year, up one percent from last year's record number.
  • That number will grow to 54.3 million by 2007.
  • Public schools will need a million new teachers over the next five years, and two million over the next 10 years.

Some states have tried to legally limit class size, but it's expensive to do so. In California, for example, it costs an extra $800 per pupil to reduce class size. And some studies say the expense may not be rewarded by greatly improved performance. University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek reviewed 277 studies that looked at pupil-teacher ratios' impact on learning. His findings:

  • Only 15 percent of the studies showed that a lower ratio caused a significantly positive impact on performance.
  • Conversely, 13 percent showed a negative effect.
  • The remaining 72 percent yielded no conclusive results.

While other studies suggest somewhat better results from cutting class size, education specialists say the best way to improve student performance is to improve the quality of the teachers. However, the push to make classes smaller could have the effect of diluting the quality of the teachers, analysts warn. In California, for example, 24 percent of the new teachers weren't even certified.

Source: Carl F. Horowitz, "Cutting Classes Down To Size," Investor's Business Daily, September 8, 1997.


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