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The Debate Over Class Size Part 2:
The Critics Have Their Say


In Part 2 of Education World's "The Debate Over Class Size" we focus on the critics of President Clinton's class-size initiative. Could the money spent as part of Clinton's plan be better spent in other ways? many critics wonder.

[Last week, an Education World story focused on The Debate Over Class Size: Class Size Does Matter. This week, in Part 2, the critics have their say.]

Have you seen the previews in theaters for this fall's blockbuster movie Godzilla? As Godzilla is about to strike, three words dramatically burst onto the screen


The Godzilla preview would make a great advertisement for those who insist that small classes = better education. But not everybody is in agreement about President Clinton's proposed initiative that would reduce class size in grades 1 to 3 to a nationwide average of 18.


President Clinton's plan has fueled anew the longstanding debate over the issue of class size. His plan has lots of skeptics wondering aloud -- and loudly!
  • Many critics point to conflicting research about the benefits of smaller classes.
  • Many wonder where school administrators will find the classroom space for new classes and the quality teachers needed to fill them.
  • Other critics take issue with the cost of Clinton's proposal. The money, they say, might be better spent on other programs.
The balance of this story will examine these concerns and others that surround the Clinton class-size reduction initiative...


Last week, in Part 1 of this story, we took a look at California's CSR (Class Size Reduction) program. In little more than a year, 18,000 new classes were created in the state's schools. Today, about a million of the state's pupils are in classes of 20 students or fewer. Reports of participation rates and early test results indicate that the program has had some success. But that doesn't mean that everybody in California is singing the praises of CSR.

The biggest concern for many school administrators has been finding the teachers to fill the new openings created by the program.

Is it better to have an inexperienced teacher teaching a class of 18 students or an experienced teacher teaching a class of 25?, critics wonder.
Some school administrators are being forced to dip low into the applicant pool to fill many new openings. Almost two thirds of the teachers hired to fill new slots in California have little or no teaching experience, according to some reports. Many of those inexperienced teachers, critics add, are poorly prepared.

Inner-city schools -- where the need is arguably greatest -- have been hit especially hard. Many new teachers don't want to teach in inner city schools. And many experienced teachers are leaving the cities to take higher-paying and less stressful jobs in suburban schools. The "raiding" of experienced teachers by wealthier school districts just exacerbates the problem city schools face in providing a quality education to hard-to-reach students.

The focus on smaller classes is happening at an inopportune time, some California administrators add. It's happening at a time when enrollments are growing. Baby-boomers are having kids before it's too late and Generation Xers are starting families. An expected boom in retirements in the decade ahead adds to the dilemma.


"If I've got the math right, more teachers teaching smaller classes requires more classrooms," President Clinton said in his State of the Union Address. "So I also propose a school construction tax cut to help communities modernize or build 5,000 schools."

Clinton's initiative calls for 100,000 new K-3 teachers. But, critics say, 100,000 new classrooms won't get built overnight! Many school administrators will face a "class struggle" as they attempt to make space to accommodate new teachers and new classes.

In California, finding space for 18,000 new classrooms last year was one of the biggest challenges school administrators faced. Many schools had to give up libraries, art and music classrooms, science labs, and computer labs to create new class space. Many others turned playground space into parking lots for portable classrooms. Some other schools, especially crowded inner-city schools, have no space for portables -- so they haven't been able to participate in the CSR program.

"You can't reduce class size if you don't have any buildings," adds Henry Fraind, spokesman for the Miami-Dade County school district (Daily Report Card, 2/5/98).

Philadelphia's Superintendent of Schools David Hornbeck knows that simply reducing class size will "not solve all the city's education problems." But the "biggest challenge" will be recruiting qualified teachers and finding space to house the new teachers and classes (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/30/98).

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, superintendent of schools James A. Connelly would like nothing more than to bring down early-grade enrollments. Kindergarten classes in his city's schools average 23 students. But even if he wanted to he couldn't do it, because there are no classrooms.

"Many of our youngsters have some many problems they bring to school, we really need to bring class size down," Connelly told the Hartford Courant last month. "We just don't have the fiscal ability to do it."

President Clinton's initiative -- which includes money to support construction of new schools and classrooms -- might help schools like those in Miami, Philadelphia, Bridgeport, and other large cities. That remains to be seen.


President Clinton has placed a $12 billion pricetag on his education initiative. The pricetag on California's two-year CSR program is $2.5 billion.

Reducing class size is one of the most expensive approaches to school reform, critics argue. Cutting class size drains money that might be spent on better programs, they add.

Perhaps U.S. News & World Report summed it up best in their special October 1997 report, Does Class Size Matter?: "Smaller classes could be one of the most important school reforms of recent years -- or a colossal waste of money."

"States that shrink class size by only a few students across the board will probably be throwing their money down the drain," the report continues.

An awful lot of attention is being paid to a few studies -- especially Project STAR. (For more information about Project STAR, refer to Part 1 of this article.) But do a few studies make a definitive case for small classes? skeptics ask, adding, researchers have published findings from more than 1,100 studies on class size over the years. Those studies offer mixed and contradictory findings.

"I don't think a single study proves that much," Herbert J. Walberg, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Education Week of the STAR study. "You can find some studies that indicate that bigger classes have better effects on learning."

One of the leading critics of class-size reduction plans is Eric A. Hanushek, a University of Rochester economist and public-policy professor. Education Week reports ("Less Is More," 7/12/95) that Hanushek "has analyzed 300 studies and concluded that across-the-board reductions in class size are not worth the expense."

"Dropping a class from 25 to 22 students increases classroom expenditures by more than 10 percent," Hanushek wrote in his 1994 book, Making Schools Work: Improving Performance and Controlling Cost.

"Nationally, class sizes have fallen dramatically for decades, while student achievement has not improved," Hanushek told the Christian Science Monitor ("The Quest for Smaller Classes," 2/3/98).

"For $12 billion you could give each of the nation's 12.7 million teachers a $1,000 tuition grant to go learn math or really effective teachniques for teaching reading," Chester Finn, of the Washington-based Hudson Institute told the Monitor. "The question the public needs to ask is 'Do you make a national policy change on the basis of a hunch?'"


In what other more beneficial ways might $12 billion be spent? Critics offer all kinds of suggestions. Train teachers in better intervention strategies and teaching techniques, such as cooperative learning, some critics suggest. Add aides and special teachers whose job it will be to focus on helping students in need, others say. Focus on low-achieving schools first, individual tutoring, early childhood programs. Suggestions abound.

In Montgomery County (Virginia), school superintendent Paul L. Vance recently announced a $9.2 million plan to reduce class size. The proposal would add 238 teachers, according to a Washington Post report (Should Classes Be Smaller?, 12/15/97). Officials said it would cost $7 million to lower the average class size in Montgomery County by one student.

"Instead of recommending an across-the-board reduction, Vance proposed hiring more teachers for elementary reading, middle school math, and high school algebra, saying that those were the students who would benefit most from smaller classes," the Post reported. "The plan would reduce the average student-teacher ratio for first- and second-grade reading instruction to 15 to 1, from the current 24 to 1."

Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University professor, agrees that money could be better focused. Slavin said in U.S. News Online's Does Class Size Matter?>, "California could have improved instruction in it elementary schools dramatically for a fraction of the money it spent simply by hiring and carefully training retired teachers and other part-timers as reading instructors to reduce the size of classes during the time reading is taught."

"Reducing class size seems to be most effective in combination with other reforms," reports U.S. News Online. "Evidence comes from a study of 16 low-income schools in Austin, Texas. In the late 1980s, each of the schools was awarded an extra $300,000 a year for five years as part of a desegregation case. Fourteen of the schools spent the money to reduce class size and yet in five years didn't manage to improve student attendance or test scores. But the other two schools reduced class size, set higher standards, provided intensive teacher training, and established health clinics on their grounds to address physical problems that were keeping students from learning. Test scores and attendance both improved significantly at those schools."


Critics often point to test scores in other countries. How can countries with class sizes of 30 to 40 students consistently outscore U.S. students on standardized tests? they wonder.

Fourth-grade students in Sinagpore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong have large math classes and teachers typically rely on whole-class instruction and independent seatwork -- yet fourth graders in those four countries scored highest on the recently released TIMMS (Third International Math and Science Study) results.

Sonia Hernandez, deputy superintendent for the curriculum and instruction at the California State Department of Education, responded to this concern on a special Online Forum on class dynamics and class size, presented by PBS: "As for schools in high-achieving nations, we actually visited classrooms in Japan and Singapore. In the lower grades, their schools do have fairly small class sizes (e.g., 15 students), particularly in urban areas. This is so even though their average seems to indicate a class size much higher. We noted that in the lower grades, classes are small, but as students move up to fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, the class sizes expand considerably.

Notes U.S. News Online in their report: "Japan is, however, concerned that its education system discourages creativity and independent thinking, and a government panel recently recommended that the average class size of 29 students be lowered to help teachers nurture students' talents."


Ronald Ferguson, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told the Washington Post last December (see Should Classes Be Smaller?) that his research shows that "teacher quality, not class size is the most important factor in education."

"The issue is whether teachers teach any differently to a small class than to a large class," he said. "If you cut class size and the teachers don't teach any differently, it won't matter."

Indeed, class size reduction must be accompanied by other reforms in order to achieve the goal of improving student learning, says Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Education Marshall Smith. "Teachers have to do something different with it," he says. "They can't just stand up in front of the class and put things on the blackboard."

Clinton's proposal addresses those issues, Smith adds.


For certain, class size reduction is not as easy as A,B,C.

Issues of space availability, teacher availability, and teacher quality will need to be addressed.

Then there's the bottom-line question: Is reducing class size really the way to go?

The debate continues.


Be sure to check out the resources that are highlighted in both parts of this story.

The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early School Grades
A 1995 report by Frederick Mosteller documents the Tennessee class size project, a three-phase study designed to determine the effect of smaller class size in the earliest grades on short-term and long-term pupil performance.

The Condition of Education
Scroll to the section about class size (page 136) in this 1997 report; this section summarizes the plusses and minuses of reducing class size.

Class Size Reduction: Is It Working?
An article from the September 1997 issue of Thrust for Educational Leadership, the magazine of the Association of California School Administrators Association, reports on the California CSR program at the one-year point.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 02/23/1998
Last updated 12/31/2009