NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Class-Size Mandate Hampers Education Quality

May 1, 2003

California is currently pumping $1.5 billion a year to fund the 20-pupil classes in kindergarten through third grade mandated by law. Class size has been studied extensively, and the evidence, so far, suggests that it is not closely related to student achievement, says Eric A. Hanushek.

Pupil-teacher ratios in public schools have fallen nationally from 26-1 in 1960 to under 16-1 today, while performance in math, science and reading among seniors has remained essentially stagnant since 1970. The one controlled study that found some benefits, the mid-1980s STAR experiment in Tennessee, randomly assigned K-3 students to small classes of 13 to 17 students and regular ones of 22 to 25.

  • At the end of the initial year, kids in the smaller classes outperformed those in the larger ones.
  • But the difference in their performance didn't grow in subsequent years of small classes.
  • More telling, the typical benefits were too small to justify the large expense of reducing class size by one-third.

The irony is reducing class size requires hiring more and more teachers -- a need that often sacrifices quality for quantity. Yet the available evidence suggests that the difference in benefits gained from a good teacher (even in a large class) and a mediocre one (even in a small class) is far larger than any difference produced by class size.

In California, if a district targets class-size reduction for, say, particular teachers or specific groups of students and tries to use remaining funds to attract better teachers, it immediately forfeits small-class money. So, districts frequently look for other ways to satisfy the law, such as increasing class size in grades four through six.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek (Hoover Institution), "End Class-Size Straitjacket," Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.


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