Economic downturns aren't all bad news: one upshot is that they force people to reexamine their expenditures. When money's tight, most of us start to scrutinize where every cent is going. We reprioritize. Spending $25 for a night out at the movies, when we stop to think about it, doesn't really make much sense -- especially when we could wait a few months and own the movie on DVD for half the price. Four-dollar lattes each morning suddenly seem absurd.
Recessions and depressions help us see, and correct, our wayward ways. We trim the fat, after having insisted for years there wasn't any fat to trim.
But when the economy is flying high, nothing looks fatty -- though that's only because no one's really looking. We invent and grow accustomed to new toys, and we wonder how we ever lived without them. We forget that there's a world of difference between needing what we have and having what we need. "Want" and "need" become synonyms.
The field of education isn't exempt from this phenomenon. In boom times, we expand curricular and extracurricular offerings, we upgrade facilities, we hire more staff and we reduce class sizes. We have no doubt that if we build it, they will come. That was the theory behind the construction of the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, which will open to 4,200 public-school students in September. It sounded like a great idea back in 2006 when voters approved bond measures to the tune of $20 billion for such projects.
California has proven particularly adept at the game of conflating "want" and "need," which helps explain its current fiscal woes. In 1996, when the Golden State was awash in cash, California decided to launch a state-wide class-size reduction program that would, over time, reward districts for capping classes in grades K-3 at 20 students. The effort is estimated to have cost the state at least $20 billion.
By many accounts, class-size reduction is a success story. Parents love it, as their children get more individualized attention. And teachers, of course, love it. Who wouldn't want fewer students in each class? Costs were initially irrelevant because in the heady days of the late 1990s, California was routinely running multi-billion-dollar budget surpluses.
Now it's 2010, and class-size reduction programs in California and elsewhere -- especially Florida -- look foolish. They were built on a shaky foundation, a single study out of Tennessee that was conducted in 1985. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared the academic achievement of low-income elementary students in small classes of 13-17 with that of similar students in larger classes of 22-25. In the much smaller classes, modest but enduring gains were observed among poor African-American kindergarteners and first-graders.
Thinking they'd found the holy grail to raising student performance and erasing the achievement gap between poor and affluent children, politicians and policymakers in some states sought to shrink class sizes.
The trouble is, they didn't pay close enough attention to the study's results, and they crafted programs that bore little resemblance to the conditions in the Tennessee study. California, for instance, went universal with its program -- handing out money to any district in the state that capped classes at 20 in grades K-3. This had the unintended effect of creating a run on good teachers: the best teachers tended to flee to the suburbs, which were suddenly hiring and which offered better pay and working conditions. (Many also already had smaller classes, so they were given state money for doing nothing -- simply a case of the rich getting richer.)
Harder-to-staff schools soon found themselves in desperate need of bodies at the front of their classrooms. Overnight, nearly 21,000 new teachers were needed state-wide. People were hired off the street and granted emergency credentials to teach. The percentage of uncertified teachers skyrocketed: in 1995, about 1 in 50 California teachers lacked full credentials, compared to 1 in 7 teachers four years later. Poor children were, predictably, much more likely than middle-class or affluent children to be taught by unqualified teachers.
It's little wonder, then, that the successes of Project STAR were nowhere to be seen in California.
An even more disastrous scene has unfolded in Florida, where voters in 2002 approved an amendment to the state constitution that gradually reduced class sizes in all grades. At the high school level, classes in core disciplines cannot exceed a school-wide average of 25 students. Beginning with the 2010-11 school year, the amendment's requirement will have to be met at the individual classroom level. The state legislature, realizing the classroom-level requirement will cost taxpayers an extra $353 million this year alone, will ask Florida's voters to loosen the regulations in November. The state has spent an estimated $16 billion on class-size reduction thus far.
Increasing class sizes makes no one happy. When Chicago school officials announced their intention to raise class sizes in June, the teachers' union immediately filed suit to block the move. In New York City, some parents and teachers are outraged that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have allowed class sizes to creep up on their watch, despite campaign promises to the contrary.
The reality, though, is that of all the things we should worry about in providing a quality education to our children, class size isn't high on the list. Teacher quality matters a lot more. Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder of The Equity Project Charter School in New York City, knows this. His teachers are the most highly compensated public-school educators in the country, earning minimum salaries of $125,000 per year. How does the school afford such salaries? Because Vanderhoek decided he'd much rather have the nation's top educators teaching classes of 30 students rather than mediocre folks teaching classes of 20 students. And the research backs him up.
Champions of small classes, who invariably cite Project STAR, fail to grasp that the study's findings have little bearing on current debates about class size in this country. The STAR study wasn't about tinkering at the margins, reducing classes by one or two students, and it certainly wasn't about the effects of small classes on student achievement at the middle- or high-school levels. The study has very little external validity, which is a polite way of saying its findings shouldn't be generalized to other contexts.
The question isn't whether class size matters. Of course it matters -- at the extremes. Elementary students in classes of 50 would almost certainly learn a lot less than similar students in classes of 10 or 20. But what we're talking about in the U.S. is marginal reductions to class size, going from 30 to 25 students per class, and the benefits versus the costs of such reductions.
The real question is whether across-the-board, marginal reductions to class size are a sounder investment than any number of other reforms we could try. That is, is reducing class size a move that yields a disproportionate bang for our buck? Decades of research suggest the answer, sadly, is no. Investments in teacher quality would do much more than smaller classes to raise student achievement in the U.S.
I'm a teacher myself. If given the option, I naturally prefer to teach fewer rather than more students. Because my time is finite, I fear each of my students will get less of my attention as my classes increase in size. But, all things considered, smaller classes aren't the smartest investment we can make. They're a bit like flying first class: lovely if you're flush with cash, but by no means necessary to arrive at your desired destination. Yes, first class offers you extra leg room, better food and more attention from the flight attendant, but it also costs ten times the price of coach. In other words, it's a luxury -- like small classes -- we can no longer afford.
A version of this article appeared in The Providence Journal on September 5, 2010.