NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Smaller Is Better Myth

July 15, 2011

Teachers like smaller classes, and understandably so.  The advantages include fewer papers to grade, fewer students to manage and fewer parents to deal with.  The teachers' unions like smaller classes, too.  Smaller classes mean more teachers -- and more union dues.  And parents like smaller classes because they believe that their children benefit from more individual attention.  Everyone agrees that smaller classes are better, right?  In a word: no, says Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

Much of the rhetoric supporting small classes is demagogic and runs afoul of the research.  Let's begin with the oft-heard union claim that classes are getting larger.

  • Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. student population has increased by 60 percent, while the number of public education workers, including teachers, administrators and other non-certificated staff, has exploded by 300 percent.
  • What's more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one.
  • By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one.
  • And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one.
  • In California, going back to 1999, the student-teacher ratio across all elementary and secondary schools was 20.9 pupils.
  • Today, it's 21.3 -- a paltry 1.9 percent increase.

For many, the possibility that reducing class sizes may have negative effects on student achievement might at first seem counterintuitive.  But what happened to student test scores as classes got smaller between 1970 and 2007?  Nothing.  The fact is, scores have stagnated for almost 40 years.  Moreover, classes are larger in Korea and Japan -- two countries that regularly clobber us in educational comparisons, says Sand.

Source: Larry Sand, "Sizing Up Classrooms," City Journal, July 7, 2011.

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