Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about the need for additional classroom space to support the initiative of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, to reduce class size.
Presenting to the board was Kenton Cox of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the school district’s favorite architect. This firm stands to earn millions in fees and commissions if the bond issue passes. Their motives must always be kept in mind.
Smaller class sizes seem like a great idea. Teachers like them, as it means less work for them. Teachers unions like them, as it means more teachers paying union dues. Parents love them. Who doesn’t like the idea of more individual attention given to their child? This is the reasoning that Wichita school board member Barb Fuller uses, and mentions constantly.
But what does evidence tell us about the effect of small class sizes on student achievement? After all, that’s what counts. It’s not about the teachers or the parents. It’s about the students — or at least it should be.
The Tennessee STAR experiment is the most frequently cited evidence that small class sizes are better. But this study has many problems, and these are not mentioned by the education bureaucrats and teachers unions that rely on it.
For one thing, the study shows that incentives make a difference in education, something that many people deny. The teachers in the experiment knew that if it was judged a success they would get more funding for small class sizes in the future. Researcher Caroline Hoxby writes “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.”
Researcher Eric Hanushek found these problems with STAR’s methodology, which serve to overstate benefits from class-size reduction:
- Between 20 and 30 percent of the students quit the project each year, with less than half the original number remaining at the end.
- The students who quit tended to be below-average achievers, giving the smaller classes a perceived boost in achievement.
- No pretests were conducted on any students upon enrollment, which provided no benchmark to assess their level of achievement.
- Neither the teachers nor the schools chosen for the project were selected randomly.
So relying on the Tennessee STAR experiment as a basis for formulating policy in the Wichita school district is unwise.
What about the new teachers that will be hired to support smaller class sizes? If the district hires the most-qualified teachers first, then by definition the new teachers to be hired will be the least qualified. So more students will be in classrooms lead by less-qualified teachers.
Further, class size reduction is very expensive. What Wichita school bond supporters don’t tell us is that the bond issue is just the start of the costs of class size reduction. There are ongoing costs: maintenance, utilities, janitorial service, and the personnel costs of more teachers, teachers aids, and instructional coaches.
Reducing class size is great for teachers and their union, school administrators, architects, and construction companies. But for taxpayers and students, it’s a different story.