Small classes, big debate Learning: Despite the push for reduced class sizes, it hasn't been proved that having slightly fewer students results in increased learning.


IF YOU WANT TO resonate with voters, propose a reduction in class size. It's simple, reduceable to a political sound bite. After all, who could oppose smaller public school classes?

Parris N. Glendening is one of a dozen governors seeking re-election this fall with promises of a significant reduction in class size; he would hire 1,110 new teachers, most to be assigned to the first, second and seventh grades.

Not to be outdone, Glendening's opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, offers Marylanders a numerical palindrome: 1,001 new teachers by 2002, a $40-million-a-year largess from a fiscal conservative.

Meanwhile, as of midday yesterday, Congress was hung up in federal budget deliberations over President Clinton's State of the Union proposal to hire 100,000 teachers to reduce average class size nationally from 22 to 18.

Federal involvement

Republicans opposing the Democratic measure weren't criticizing the concept of smaller classes. Rather, they were wringing hands over federal involvement in local school policy-making.

Glendening, in announcing his education platform Aug. 31, described the sacred cow in a single sentence: "More classrooms plus additional teachers equal smaller class size, and smaller class size means a better education."

But does it?

No one has yet proved that reducing class size by a few students has any long-term effect on achievement. But that didn't stop California from spending $2.5 billion in a two-year mandate to reduce classes statewide to 20 students.

As a result, "California is a public policy disaster," says Eric Hanushek, an economics professor at the University of jTC Rochester. Hanushek says the California experiment has been particularly harmful to cities, which have had to scramble to fill classrooms, in many cases with unqualified teachers.

Teacher quality stressed

"There's no evidence that across-the-board reductions [in class size] have any effect," says Hanushek. "Teacher quality is what has an effect. When it comes to student achievement, teacher quality just swamps all the evidence we have on class size, just swamps it! If I had my choice between small classes and mediocre teachers and large classes with good teachers, I'd take the latter any day."

The trouble with across- the-board class reductions is that they're too expensive for what they produce. By definition, reducing class size is labor- intensive, and you have to build schools to accommodate additional classes. (Glendening would spend $250 million over two years on school construction and renovation.)

After Clinton's proposal last January, I polled the Baltimore metropolitan districts and did some math. It would cost $40 million in salaries to reduce average class size to 18 in the six subdivisions. That's in addition to the buildings that would be required.

STAR study

Those who defend reducing class size as a viable "reform" always refer to the STAR report. No, not that Starr. This is Tennessee's Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), one of the nation's longest-running experiments in class size reduction and one of the few researched with a well-designed, long-term study.

"Project STAR made a believer out of me," says Jeremy D. Finn, an education professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who worked closely with the team conducting the Tennessee experiment. The research, says Finn, found a small-class advantage in achievement in kindergarten and the first three grades. Moreover, smaller classes reduced the achievement gap between whites and blacks and improved discipline.

But Tennessee achieved a real difference in class size, from 24 to 15. Classes of 15 are more effective, Finn says, because they allow for more "engagement behaviors." In other words, kids are more apt to pay attention in a class of 15 than in a class of 24.

Hanushek and other critics readily concede that more learning is likely in a class of 15. But Tennessee couldn't sustain Project STAR, which cost only $3 million a year in the mid-'80s, and no politician is going to find the money (or the qualified teachers) to reduce class size to the point where it's meaningful -- 14 or 15.

Better to carefully target smaller classes at the kids who need them, and to combine small classes with other, less costly, reforms, such as pairing trained aides with master teachers.

Which is entirely too sensible.

Man makes a royal effort to land a teaching job

Frank T. Brown will not be ignored. In an effort to land a teaching job in city schools, the Baltimore resident sought help from Glendening, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Queen Elizabeth.

Glendening and Schmoke each returned signed letters saying they could not intervene in Department of Education employment matters. The queen's private secretary wrote that her majesty read Brown's letter "with sympathy. She fears, however, that she is not in a position to help you."

Brown says he's heard not a word from the only party that counts -- the schools' personnel office.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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