NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Class-Size Reduction isn't Effective, But is Costly

March 29, 2004

Class-size mandates are a growing trend across the United States, as states are looking for ways to improve the quality of their public schools. Currently, at least 20 states have adopted some form of class-size reduction legislation. However, according to two new studies on student achievement in class-size reduction programs, it appears questionable whether they generate either improved student performance or value for taxpayers.

Recently, the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) of Arizona State University and the RAND Corporation, a research institution, released studies on Wisconsin's Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) and California's "SB 1777" programs, respectively. Both of these programs were state-wide efforts to increase academic achievement through class-size reduction in grades K-3. The SAGE program is somewhat more comprehensive in that it also incorporates a more rigorous curriculum, before- and after-school activities and professional development.

Overall, the studies found that the cost-effectiveness of these programs has been mixed:

  • Without distinguishing class-size effects from the effects of other program elements, it found that SAGE students outperformed non-SAGE students by about 25 percent to 30 percent by the end of first grade.
  • However, SAGE students produced no further gain made in later grades.
  • California's class-size reduction program did not result in any significant test-score gains among students in smaller classes, although it costs California taxpayers more than $1.7 billion a year.

California's program also had the unintended consequence of encouraging qualified teachers in urban schools to flee to higher-performing schools in the suburbs where new positions opened up as a result of class-size reduction. The RAND study suggests that other types of school reform may be more effective at lower cost, pointing to the effectiveness of California's standards-based reforms.

Source: Lisa Snell, "Class-Size Reduction Brings Mixed Results," Heartland Institute, January 2004.


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