Proof Points: Weak evidence for small-class spending

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By Jill Barshay

According to media reports I’ve read, schools are planning to spend their coronavirus relief money on reducing class sizes. I was dismayed because there’s not a lot of research evidence that hiring lots of new teachers to create smaller classes will be an effective way to help students catch up after the months of missed instruction during the pandemic. It’s a large, sometimes muddy body of research. Here’s my recap of what the research community knows.
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Key Findings 
  • A landmark Tennessee study in the 1980s showed that reducing  class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from over 20 to 15 students resulted in strong short-term and long-term benefits for students.
  • The Tennessee success was replicated in Wisconsin but large statewide efforts in California and Florida failed.
  • In California, potential gains from small classes were sometimes offset by lower teacher quality because of all the new teachers that had to be hired.
  • A 2018 review of all the high-quality class size experiments around the world, including in the U.S., found, at most, small benefits to small classes when it comes to reading. In math, the review found no benefits.
Teacher Takeaway 
  • Students often appear more engaged in smaller classrooms but students in large classrooms can be just as engaged with a good teacher who breaks the class down into small groups for hands-on activities, discussions and projects.
  • Tutoring would be a stronger evidence-based approach for helping students catch up instead of reducing class size.
Lit Review 
  1. Molnar, Alex, et al. “Evaluating the SAGE Program: A Pilot Program in Targeted Pupil-Teacher Reduction in Wisconsin.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 21, no. 2, 1999, pp. 165–177.
  2. Millsap, Mary Ann; Giancola, Jennifer; Smith, W. Carter; Hunt, Dana; Humphrey, Daniel C.; Wechsler, Marjorie E.; Riehl, Lori M. (2004) A Descriptive Evaluation of the Federal Class-Size Reduction Program: Final Report. US Department of Education.
  3. Meta-Analysis of Research on Class Size and Achievement. Author(s): Gene V. Glass and Mary Lee Smith Source: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 1979), pp. 2- 16 Published by: American Educational Research Association
  4. Education Partnerships Inc., “Research Brief Class Size & School Size
  5. Trine Filges, Christoffer Scavenius Sonne-Schmidt, Bjørn Christian Viinholt Nielsen. (2018) Small class sizes for improving student achievement in primary and secondary schools. Campbell Collaboration.
  6. Achilles, C. M. (2012).Class-size Policy: The Star Experiment And Related Class-size Studies. NCPEA Policy Brief, 1(2), 1-9.
  7. Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., & Brown, P. (2011). Examining the effect of class size on classroom engagement and teacher-pupil interaction: Differences in relation to pupil prior attainment and primary vs. secondary schools. Learning and Instruction, 21(6), 715-730.
  8. Blatchford, P., Russell, A., Bassett, P., Brown, P., & Martin, C., (2007). The effect of class size on the teaching of pupils aged 7-11 years. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 18(2), 147-172.
  9. Bowne, J. B., Magnuson, K. A., Schindler, H. S., Duncan, G. J., & Yoshikawa, H. (2017). A meta-analysis of class sizes and ratios in early childhood education programs: are thresholds of quality associated with greater impacts on cognitive, achievement, and socioemotional outcomes? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(3), 407-428.
  10. Robert E. Slavin (1989) Class Size and Student Achievement: Small Effects of Small Classes, Educational Psychologist, 24:1, 99-110.
  11. Wei Li, Spyros Konstantopoulos. (2017) Does class-size reduction close the achievement gap? Evidence from TIMSS 2011. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 28:2, pages 292-313.
  12. Chingos, M. M. (2012). The impact of a universal class-size reduction policy: Evidence from Florida's statewide mandate. Economics of Education Review, 31(5), 543-562.
  13. Chingos, M. M. (2013). Class size and student outcomes: Research and policy implications. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 32(2), 411-438.
  14. Chingos, M. M. (2011). The false promise of class-size reduction. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
  15. Cho, H., Glewwe, P., & Whitler, M. (2012). Do reductions in class size raise students' test scores? Evidence from population variation in Minnesota's elementary schools. Economics of Education Review, 31(3), 77-95.
  16. Dee, T. S., & West, M. R. (2011). The non-cognitive returns to class size. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(1), 23-46.
  17. Jepsen, C., & Rivkin, S. (2009). Class size reduction and student achievement: The potential tradeoff between teacher quality and class size. Journal of Human Resources, 44(1), 223-250.
  18. Konstantopoulos, S. (2008). Do small classes reduce the achievement gap between low and high achievers? Evidence from Project STAR. Elementary School Journal, 108(4), 275-291.
  19. Wyss, V. L., Tai, R. H., & Sadler, P. M. (2007). High school class-size and college performance in science. The High School Journal, 90, 45-53.
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