NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Smaller Class Sizes Benefits Limited And Costly

October 18, 2000

Teachers' unions and the Clinton administration are pushing for smaller class sizes. But a researcher in Wisconsin finds reducing class size is costly to implement and benefits only a small number of students.

Wisconsin implemented the SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) program in the 1996-1997 school year as a pilot program in 30 schools serving predominantly low-income students. The program primarily focused on reducing class sizes to 15 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade.

Although the program was targeted at low-income students, it has rapidly expanded to include other students. Thus in the 1999-2000 school year, the program served 13,635 students, only 8,935 of whom were considered low-income in 78 schools in 46 districts.

The Wisconsin research found that:

  • Smaller classes in the first grade showed consistent gains in student achievement but smaller classes had minimal or no impact on student achievement in the second and third grades.
  • In particular, African-American students in the smaller second and third grade classrooms did not continue their gains from first grade, nor did they gain compared to other African-American students in regular-sized classes.
  • Smaller class size had no effect onachievement among nonAfrican-American students, even though nonblacks were the majority of students in the smaller classes.

The students' gains have been relatively meager. Scores improved on average about one and one-half to five percentage points on tests despite, at a current cost of over $90 million per year, which is projected to increase as high as $131 million. By adding the $2,000 per at-risk student to the regular per pupil instruction cost of $3,600, the program increases costs 56 percent for at best a five percent increase in student achievement.

Source: Thomas Hruz, "The Costs and Benefits of Smaller Class Sizes in Wisconsin," September 2000, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, P. O. Box 487, Thiensville, Wisconsin, 53092, (262) 241-0514.


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