Asking voters whether they want smaller class sizes for their children in this November’s constitutional referendum is like asking voters whether they want to have a personal chef — everyone imagines he’ll get Emeril shouting “bam!” right in his own kitchen.
But there aren’t enough really great chefs to hire one for everybody. Once you’ve hired Emeril, Julia Child, and all four of the Iron Chefs, you have to start lowering your standards. So if every single Florida voter were to get his own personal chef, instead of Emeril you’d be more likely to get a teenage fry cook from a fast food joint.
The same is true for class size reduction. To dramatically reduce class sizes, the state would have to hire many new teachers; to fill all those new teaching positions, it would have to dip deeper into the labor pool. Thus the person standing in front of your child’s smaller class would probably be significantly less qualified than the teacher your child enjoys now.
Proponents of mandating smaller classes often point to the Tennessee STAR project, in which elementary-school students were randomly assigned either to relatively small classes or to regular classes for four years. An evaluation of the STAR project by researchers at Princeton shows that 40% of regular-class students went on to take either the SAT or ACT college entrance exam, while 43.7% of small-class students took one of those exams — a modest but statistically significant improvement.
However, that program stands in marked contrast to the track record of class size reduction in the population at large. Tennessee STAR was only a small pilot program that didn’t require the mass hiring of new teachers. When class size reduction has been applied on a large scale, results have been decidedly less promising, because schools must hire many less qualified teachers to expand the number of classes.
A report just released by the Broward County School Board found that smaller classes there, made possible by a federal grant, had no effect on student achievement. That’s consistent with the national picture: class sizes have been declining across the country for at least the last five decades, with no sign of significant improvement in education.
For example, in 1970 there were 22.3 students per teacher in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Since then the student-teacher ratio has declined steadily, to an estimated 15.1 in 2001. That’s a big reduction in class sizes. And yet over the same period, test scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been close to flat. For 17-year-olds, the average science score was 305 in 1970; today it’s 295. The average reading score was 285 in 1971; today it’s a marginally higher 288. The average math score was 304 in 1973; it’s now 308. A few points’ difference out of a 500-point scale is not much to show for such a sizeable reduction in class sizes. What’s more, again according to the U.S. Department of Education, from 1970 to 2000 the percentage of 17-year-olds with high school diplomas has dropped from 76.9% to an estimated 70.6%.
Why hasn’t large-scale reduction in class sizes been associated with improvements in education? It hasn’t been for lack of spending money — inflation-adjusted education spending per pupil has almost doubled since 1970. The most likely explanation is a simple law of economics: if you want to hire more people to do a certain job, you must accept a lower quality of worker.
California’s much-ballyhooed effort to reduce class sizes makes this point abundantly clear. In 1996, persuaded by the Tennessee STAR project that smaller classes would raise its students’ dismal test scores, the state appropriated $1 billion to reduce elementary school class sizes. But a Rand Corporation study shows that California students who attended larger elementary school classes have improved at about the same rate as students in smaller classes, and concludes that no link can be shown between smaller class sizes and improvement in test scores.
However, the study did find that smaller classes had produced one major change in California education: a breathtaking increase in the number of people without full credentials serving as teachers. Implementing the new policy required a sudden expansion of state teaching staff — from 62,226 teachers to 91,112 in just three years. By the time this frantic hiring spree was over, the percentage of teachers without full credentials had jumped from 1.8% of all teachers to 12.5% - a sevenfold increase.
Florida voters would do well to remember this problem as they vote on this November’s constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes, which is estimated to cost as much as $27 billion over the next ten years.