Latest Study: Reducing Class Size Doesn’t Benefit Student Achievement

As often happens within education research, major studies contradict one another, and that is again the case with the new study on whether state-mandated class size reductions in Florida improved student achievement. In a word, the study out of Harvard said "no."

The question bears consideration here in Georgia where many systems are increasing the number of students in a class to save money.

According to the official release:

A new study finds that Florida’s 2002 constitutional amendment mandating a reduction in the size of classes in school districts throughout the state had no discernible impact upon student achievement, either positive or negative.

Florida’s constitutional amendment, which forced districts to use state funds for class reduction unless they had already reduced class sizes to an acceptable level, had no impact on average student performance. Students in schools where districts were not forced to spend their money on class size reduction improved as much on state tests as those attending schools in districts subject to the constitutional mandate. The study also found no significantly different impact on the average performance of ethnic and racial groups or between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The study, conducted by Matthew M. Chingos, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, analyzed student-level data provided by the Florida Department of Education to follow all students in grades four through eight who took the state reading and math tests between 2001 and 2007. During this time, average class size was reduced by about three students. Chingos found that students attending schools that were required to reduce class size did no better on state math and reading tests than students attending schools that were given funding to spend as they saw fit. The study also showed no discernible impact on student absenteeism and behavior problems.

“We do not know from this study whether giving districts more unrestricted state funds has positive effects or not,” Chingos said, “but the study strongly suggests that monies restricted for the purpose of funding class-size reduction mandates are not a productive use of limited educational resources.”

The class size amendment is estimated to have cost about $20 billion over the first eight years of the program and $4 billion per year subsequently. Florida’s voters will be asked this coming November whether or not they wish to revise the constitution’s class size requirement to apply to average class size in each school rather than the size of every individual classroom.

“This study is extraordinarily important given the great strain that Florida’s class-size reduction policy is putting on the Florida state budget,” commented Paul E. Peterson, director PEPG. “I hope this study serves as a wake-up call to state legislatures across the nation as they make tough budgetary decisions,” he added. In recent years, 24 states have mandated class-size reduction policies.

In an essay in the journal Education Next, Peterson — who is also editor-in-chief of Education Next — offer insights into why this research study does not agree with an earlier study of class size out of Tennessee that found benefits:

Peterson writes:

Why do his results differ from those found in Tennessee? Chingos does not offer any definite explanation, but here are some possibilities. The teachers in Tennessee knew they were participating in an experiment, which if successful could persuade the legislature to make class size reduction a statewide priority. Knowing that a positive result could be of benefit to them, the teachers assigned to smaller classes might have become more assiduous and enthusiastic than those assigned to larger classes.

Secondly, the schools with larger classes did not receive comparable fiscal resources in Tennessee, as was the case in Florida. The gains in Tennessee may have come from extra resources, not anything specific to class size reduction. Finally, the Florida information tells us what happens when a state government tries to bring about class size reduction on a large scale, whereas the Tennessee experiment was limited to only a fairly small number of schools and to much larger reductions in class size.


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