Focus on class size in Wichita leads to misspent resources


A popular measure proposed to produce better educational outcomes in public schools today is to reduce class size. The Wichita, Kansas public school district is currently proposing a bond issue with a partial goal of reducing class size. At least some of the recently-mandated increase in school spending in Kansas was used to reduce class size.

It seems that smaller class sizes should be great for students. Research, however, doesn’t always verify this assumption. The Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby, now at Stanford, has stated this about her research into class size:

I have a study in which I examined every change in class size at every elementary school in Connecticut over a 20-year period. In schools, class size varies from year to year because enrollment varies. Therefore, with 20 years and 800-some schools, there is a tremendous amount of variation in class size to examine.

I found there was no effect of class size on achievement at all, even when children were in small classes for all six years of elementary school.

There is, however, one study that shows increased student performance with smaller class sizes: the Tennessee STAR experiment. It is probably the study cited most often by education bureaucrats, so learning a little about it is useful. In this experiment, students were assigned to either a regular class with about 24 students, a class of the same size but with a teacher’s aide to assist the teacher, or a smaller class of about 15 students.

Jay Greene has written about the problems with the STAR experiment. The first problem he finds is that “students were not tested when they entered the program. Such point-of-entry tests would establish a baseline for each student’s performance as it stood before the experiment began. Without this baseline measurement, we cannot confirm that the STAR project’s random assignment method was successfully carried out.”

Second: “[there is] an anomaly in the research findings: the improvement in test scores was a one-time benefit. … This is an unusual and unexpected finding, because if smaller classes really do improve student performance we would generally expect to see these benefits accrue over time.”

The STAR program produced a one-time improvement in tests scores that are the equivalent of a student in the 50th percentile moving to about the 58th percentile. Greene says this increase “may not amount to an educational revolution, but it is not trivial.”

One interesting aspect of the STAR program is that participants, particularly the teachers, knew they were part of an experiment. Caroline Hoxby describes the implications of this:

More importantly, in the Tennessee STAR experiment, everyone involved knew that if the class-size reduction didn’t affect achievement, the experimental classes would return to their normal size and a general class-size reduction would not be funded by the legislature. In other words, principals and teachers had strong incentives to make the reduction work. Unfortunately, class-size reductions are never accompanied by such incentives when they are enacted as a policy.

Education bureaucrats and teachers often claim that schools are not like a business or other areas of human endeavor, so incentives don’t work. Education, they say, is somehow different. But it appears in the STAR program that teachers had a powerful incentive to make the small class sizes work, and they responded to that.

Reducing class size is a very expensive measure to implement. The STAR program reduced class sizes by a large amount: from 24 to 15 students, a reduction of 38%. Many more teachers and classrooms are needed to implement reductions of this scope, and that’s why it is so expensive.

That leads to an aspect of the problem that’s not often mentioned. Right now Wichita has a teacher shortage. The district can’t hire and retain enough teachers. Implementing class size reduction programs requires more teachers and makes the shortage even more acute.

Compounding this problem is that research shows that teacher quality is a very important factor in the success of students. If we can assume that the most highly-qualified teachers are hired first, then increasing the number of classrooms means hiring more less-qualified teachers. So some students will be taught by poor teachers, and since class sizes are smaller, fewer students will be in the classrooms led by good teachers.

There is no doubt that teachers and the education establishment like smaller class sizes. Smaller classes mean an easier workload for teachers, larger budgets for school district administrators and politicians, and more teachers union members paying dues. The local board of education can tell parents that they have “saved the children” and the parents will believe them. The research, however, is not settled on the benefits of smaller class sizes, and the unintended consequence of more students being taught by less-qualified teachers is a large negative effect.


3 responses to “Focus on class size in Wichita leads to misspent resources”

  1. Tye Pameticky

    What the general public doesn’t seem to understand are the reasons behind the teacher shortage. First would be salary. Many states pay much better than Kansas. Most careers that require the level of education that teaching does pay much better. The teachers that choose to remain in Wichita are here because they love to educate children and want to make a positive difference in their lives. The benefits here are also lacking in comparison to many other states. Class size is a major issue. Why would a new teacher choose to work in a district where they will have 30+ students in a class when they can go elsewhere with better pay and benefits and have 20 students in the class? If anyone thinks having the summer off makes up for the lower pay they are mistaken. My wife works at least 10 hours per day. She puts time in on weekends as well. Being a teacher doesn’t start and stop with the school bell as is does for students. Teachers report to school after the end of the year is over for the students and are back before the year begins for students. They also spend a lot of time in the summer planning and preparing lessons and gathering supplies. Supplies that many purchase with their own money I might add. And anyone who actually believes this propoganda stating that a reduction in numbers in the classroom makes no difference obviously has NEVER spent time teaching public education. It has a direct connection to the amount of time spent on content rather than discipline and classroom control. Less students are much easier to handle and spend more one on one time with the teacher which allows them to develop the particular skill much more quickly and thoroughly. And by the way, If you don’t push to build more schools now and get those schools populated with teachers you are going to really be in a jam when the towns population growth exceeds the schools capacity completely. Students should NOT be going to class in temporary trailors! If you don’t invest in your own childrens futures who will? I don’t want to hear any of you complaining about high crime rates or the welfare rate increasing in the future. Both seem to have a direct relationship to lack of education. Give the students a chance to succeed and I think you will be supprised. Maybe they will remember and grow into taxpaying citizens that will work for a better community. That same community that you will be retiring in about the same time they are old enough. Who do you want to depend on? People with no investment in their community or citizens who make a difference? You choose.

  2. Jennifer S

    And yet if you look elsewhere, you’ll see things such as:
    “While much has been written about class size and student achievement, there is no
    scholarly consensus on the issue. However, more scholars than not suggest a direct connection
    between the two variables. In a meta-analysis of research up to the early 1980s, Glass et al.
    (1982) maintained that the evidence suggested small classes were associated with higher levels
    of achievement across all grades at the primary and secondary level.”
    “Some of the most compelling evidence on the connection between class size and student
    achievement has come from Tennessee’s experiment with class size reduction, and the
    systematic tracking of student performance after the initiation of that program in 1985 (Finn and
    Achilles 1999; Pritchard 1999). The Tennessee study involved 79 schools, more than 7,000
    students, and a random assignment process to control for school level and curricular effects. The
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    study found that primary school students in smaller classes consistently outperformed their
    counterparts in large classes on standardized exams; that the impact was even larger for minority
    students in early stages of the experiment; and that the impact of small classes in early primary
    grades had a lasting impact that persisted beyond five years (Pritchard 1999, 4; Nye, Hedges, and
    Konstantopolos 1999, 127). Krueger and Whitmore (2001) discovered that the impact of the
    Tennessee program could even be traced to ACT and SAT college entrance test taking patterns
    and student scores, with more noticeable increases for black students.”


    Class size does have an affect on student achievement. Yes, it’s expensive. But it’s what is good for the children, and that’s ultimately all that matters.

  3. Bob Weeks

    The Tennessee STAR program had many flaws, as described above.

    And what about Caroline Hoxby’s findings?

    And what about that with smaller classes, more students are taught by less-qualified teachers?

    The people in favor of smaller classes are parents, who have the understandable but mistaken impression that it is good for their children, the teachers union, and education bureaucrats. All these groups have an extreme self-interest in this matter.

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