note: This is the seventh in an ongoing
series examining school funding myths.)
Reducing class size is often promoted as a surefire way to
improve student achievement. The argument is intuitive and simple: the fewer
students per teacher, the more individualized attention each student will get;
the more individualized attention, the better students learn.
Yet smaller class size has less impact on outcomes than its
backers would have people believe. For example, class sizes in Michigan have
been shrinking steadily for more than a decade without any measurable boost in
student achievement. This is also one of the most expensive proposals for
The argument that smaller class size yields better outcomes
is not entirely groundless. An experiment done in Tennessee nearly 30 years ago
known as the STAR project did find that, on
average, students in the lower elementary grades randomly assigned to smaller
classes performed better on standardized tests than peers in larger classes.
Some education researchers have questioned
the study's methodology, and others have shown that, while statistically
significant, the effect was nevertheless limited
and relatively small. Importantly, beyond the confines of a single modest
study in a single state, reducing class size on a large scale has not been
linked to improve learning.
In 1997 and 1998, California gave out an average of $725
more per pupil to schools that reduced class sizes to 20 students in
kindergarten through third grade. Florida has spent $20 billion since 2002 to
reduce average class sizes by three
students in certain districts. Studies of both states
have found no conclusive evidence that all the extra spending raised student
Although Michigan hasn't undertaken any similar large-scale
initiatives, the statewide pupil-teacher ratio has still fallen considerably.
From 1996 to 2009, the ratio of students to certified, "basic programs" teachers
dropped by 7.5 percent, from 24.5 to 22.6, according to the Michigan
Department of Education. Furthermore, the ratio of students to all school
employees fell by 12 percent over this same period, and now there's one school
employee for every 7.8 students.
Moreover, pupil-teacher ratios have shrunk
nationally for at least the last six decades, yet there have been no
quantifiable improvements to student achievement nationally or in individual
states, including Michigan. Indeed, student performance
in the United States lags behind many industrialized
nations where class sizes are substantially greater.
These facts don't prevent the public school establishment
from continuing to push for smaller classes (and thus more teachers), but the
costs here would be prohibitive. Given no change in the current level of
teacher salary and benefits, reducing student-teacher ratios in Michigan by 10
percent (from 22.6 to 20.3) would cost taxpayers some $1.3 billion, or $850 per pupil. The
state would have to boost combined school revenues from personal income taxes
and the 6 mill state education property tax by one-third to afford this extra
expense. Reducing class sizes to 15, (as in the STAR experiment and advocated by
teachers unions) would more than triple the amount needed.
Other unseen costs need to be considered, too. To cut class
sizes, the state would have to hire a slew of new instructors, potentially
diluting quality of the teacher labor pool. Additionally, since funding would
be directed to putting more instructional bodies in classrooms, districts would
be less able to incentivize the most effective classroom teachers to stay by
offering them pay increases. These cost increases don't even take into
consideration the expenses that would be involved with building more classrooms
to accommodate the smaller student-teacher ratios.
It's no coincidence that the nation's two largest teachers
unions both adamantly support reducing class sizes. For the American
Federation of Teachers and the National Education
Association, a lower teacher-per-student ratio means more members, more
money and more political power. As the NEA's retiring general counsel admitted in 2009, that
power stems solely from the hundreds of millions in dues that more than 3
million members fork over each year.
Reforms such as improving teacher
quality are far more cost-effective, and have been shown to actually boost
student achievement. Unfortunately, seniority-based staffing policies dictated
contracts and state
tenure laws prevent districts from identifying, attracting and rewarding
high-performing teachers and putting them in front of as many kids as possible.
Michael Van Beek is director of
education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are