November 7, 2002

November 7, 2002 | Commentary on Education

ed110702: Small Classes Can Mean Big Changes

Election Day brought some surprises, but the fact that voters in Florida passed an amendment that would reduce class sizes in their state isn't one of them.

Naturally, most parents would rather see their children in classes with just 19 other kids and a qualified teacher, instead of in classes with 30 students, possibly taught by someone who barely got through school himself.

It's a measure other states are sure to copy. But parents and legislators need the facts before they can make a decision at the polls on whether smaller classes will truly benefit little Jimmy and little Jennifer.

One thing to keep in mind is what happened in California. In 1997, it launched a statewide push to reduce class size to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade. To me and my fellow teachers, it seemed like a great idea. Smaller classes would ensure that we would be able to spend more time with our students.

The problem was, there weren't enough teachers to go around. And in many cities, there weren't enough classrooms. Schools yards, most of which already had a portable classroom installed, had to make room for new ones. Not a big deal at first, but there were consequences. At my school, for example, we saw bad behavior increase during recess and lunchtime because there was less space for the students to play in.

Portable classrooms weren't the only things moving around at California schools. Teachers moved as well. Elementary school teachers with the most experience and tenure transferred to lower grade levels with newly mandated small classes. That left the newest, least-experienced teachers with the largest classes. Teachers also left their positions for newly created ones in districts offering higher salaries. And teachers from fourth to 12th grade were left wondering why their class sizes couldn't be reduced, too.

Today, some California districts aren't sure they can pay the bill for smaller classes. Although the state has spent some $8 billion, the aid doesn't keep pace with rising teacher salaries.

In Florida, estimates show that meeting the size limits mandated in the amendment (no more than 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in grades four through eight, and no more than 25 in high school), would require constructing at least 30,000 classrooms. It also would mean hiring as many more teachers in the next eight years. The projected costs vary widely, but the official estimate is $27 billion for the first eight years, and $2.5 billion each year after that.

The amendment itself doesn't shed much light on how to pay for this. It just says "the payment of the costs associated with reducing class size to meet these requirements is the responsibility to the state and not of local school districts." It doesn't say where those billions of dollars will come from. Most likely, it will have to be funded through a bond initiative or a tax increase.

Some Florida taxpayers might accept an increase if they can be assured that having fewer students in each class will increase academic achievement. But unfortunately, the effect of class size on student achievement hasn't been proven.

On the Third International Math and Science Study-1999 (also known as TIMSS-Repeat), Singapore had the highest scores of any nation taking the test. It's average class size? Thirty-seven students. In contrast, the United States, which had scores in the middle of the pack, had an average of 26 students.

A Heritage Foundation study found similar results. It analyzed the 1998 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reading examination, and found that children in classes with 20 or fewer students didn't score higher than children in classes with 31 or more students.

Other researchers, including economist Eric Hanushek from the University of Rochester, have concluded that initiatives to reducing seldom produce gains in student achievement. "Broadly reducing class sizes is extraordinarily expensive and, based on years of research and experience, very ineffective," he said in a recent study.

The "one-size fits all" constitutional amendment on Florida ballots doesn't allow for variations based on the needs of the students, and the content of courses. Ensuring small classes is important in classes when students are being taught remedial work and need more individual attention. But no one can guarantee that smaller classes will boost overall student achievement.

That's a hard lesson to take. But can voters -- and taxpayers -- afford to ignore it?

Megan Farnsworth, an education fellow at The Heritage Foundation (, is a former curriculum specialist and bilingual teacher at high-poverty schools in Burbank, Calif.

About the Author

Megan Farnsworth Education Research Fellow
Domestic Policy Studies

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