May 30, 2000
By Nina Shokraii Rees and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.
President Clinton claims to have the cure for what ails the U.S.
education system: hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class
sizes. There's just one problem (OK, two). First, there's no
evidence that smaller class sizes alone lead to higher student
achievement. And second, even if smaller classes were the ticket to
better performance, 100,000 new teachers won't appreciably shrink
the size of the average classroom.
The teachers unions and education gurus often point to Frederick
Mosteller's research on the Tennessee STAR program as evidence that
smaller class sizes boost academic achievement in early elementary
school children. Recently though, Eric Hanushek, a researcher from
the National Bureau of Economic Research, found flaws with the
methodology of the Tennessee study, pointing out that the bulk of
the data fail to provide systematic evidence of achievement
Our own analysis of the 1998 National Assessment of Educational
Progress data from the Department of Education backs this up. We
found that after controlling for income, family background, and
other demographic factors, fourth and eighth grade students in
small classes (fewer than 20 students) do no better in reading
achievement than those in large classes (more than 30
Further, 100,000 new teachers will hardly make a dent in the
nationwide student-teacher ratio. According to the Digest of
Education Statistics, there are 46.8 million public school students
and 2.8 million teachers, yielding a student-teacher ratio of
16.8-to-1. If 100,000 teachers were hired tomorrow, it would only
drop the student-teacher ratio to 16.2-to-1. Even Mosteller's
research finds positive effects from class-size reduction only
after the class sizes have been reduced by at least a third.
If class-size reduction were a magic bullet, there wouldn't be
an increasing number of success stories like New York City's Public
School 161. When Irwin Kurz became P.S. 161's principal 13 years
ago, the school's test scores ranked in the bottom 25th percentile
in Brooklyn's 17th District. Today, P.S. 161 ranks as the best in
the district and 40th out of 674 elementary schools in New York
City, even though a majority of its students are poor. The
pupil-to-teacher ratio at P.S. 161 is 35-to-1, but the teachers
make neither class size, nor poverty, nor anything else an excuse
for poor performance. According to Kurz, now the Brooklyn Regional
Superintendent for Instruction, "Better to have one good teacher
than two crummy teachers any day."
Instead of focusing on class-size reduction, the Clinton
administration should be exploring ways to give principals like
Kurz more freedom. Why not let individual schools spend federal
education dollars any way they desire, so long as it leads to
higher academic achievement? If some schools want to reduce class
sizes, great. But it seems unwise to make class size a federal
mandate, especially when figures from the administration's own
Education Department don't support the benefits of smaller
So far, the president is unmoved. His devotion to class-size
reduction is such that he's already moistening his veto pen, this
time over reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act (ESEA). If Congress doesn't cave to his demands for 100,000 new
teachers, he'll scratch the bill, regardless of the other good
reforms - such as increased accountability - that it might contain.
And with congressional budget leaders already cutting the
president's $1.75 billion teacher-hiring proposal by a sizable
amount, a veto appears certain.
Hiring more teachers might be good for teachers unions, which
would love to see their membership rolls expand at taxpayer
expense. But it will do little to help school children get a better
Nina Shokraii Rees is a former senior education policy
analyst with The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) and
Kirk Johnson is a former policy analyst in Heritage's Center for
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service.
A Lesson in Smaller Class Sizes
Nina Shokraii Rees
Read More >>
Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.
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