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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Special Topic / Should We Try to Keep Class Sizes Small?

Class-size reduction is the subject of much debate in the education community. Findings from research studies on three top class-size reduction programs can help states and schools decide whether reducing class size will work for them.

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The current focus on reducing class size has become a controversial topic in the education world, and contradictory findings from various research studies have yielded speculation about whether smaller classes actually improve student achievement. Hanushek (1999) and other researchers' doubts about the value of class-size reduction have led to much discussion challenging the alleged benefits of smaller classes. In addition, many states and school districts, dealing increasingly with shortfalls in revenue, are reexamining their commitment to smaller classes. Yet class-size reduction initiatives have enjoyed wide support from parents, teachers, and the general public. And although abandoning class-size reduction programs would be financially advantageous in the current down-turned economic cycle, legislators know that suggesting a return to larger classes would be politically unwise. As Jacobson notes,It is said that even though test scores do not show it, people will still believe that smaller classes are a good idea. (2001)
Viewing this dilemma in strictly economic or political terms, however, will not serve the best interests of the states and school systems trying to make informed decisions about the best use for their limited funding. Learning about the experiences of several statewide class-size reduction programs—Indiana's Project Prime Time, Tennessee's Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), and California's CSR (Class-Size Reduction) Program—may help. Background information, research findings, and a prognosis for the future of each of these programs will provide valuable information for states seeking to understand the current status of class size policy.

Indiana: Project Prime Time

Background. Indiana first implemented Project Prime Time, its K–3 class-size reduction initiative, in the 1984–1985 school year. Although Prime Time has not received as much attention as Tennessee's STAR or California's CSR, Indiana was the first of some 25 states to implement a class-size reduction program. Prime Time is also one of the most popular of the statewide class-size reduction initiatives, with all but one of Indiana's 300 school districts participating in the program. And because Indiana implemented Prime Time gradually and is experiencing little population growth, it has not suffered any teacher shortage, one of the most common problems resulting from reducing class size. Indeed, the state has a surplus of certified elementary teachers, and frequently employs fully certified teachers as teacher aides. Nobody wants to increase class size in Indiana; in fact, school superintendents wonder how they would cope with larger classes because many primary teachers in Indiana have never taught classes of more than 18 students.
Nevertheless, some Prime Time schools are having problems funding smaller classes. The efforts of the tiny Shakamak school system illustrate the struggles of many Indiana schools. For example, Prime Time dictates that class size must average no more than 18 students in grade 1 and no more than 20 students in grades K, 2, and 3. Each of the four Prime Time grades in Shakamak's elementary school has approximately 75 students. If the school divided each grade into three classes of 25, it might not qualify for Prime Time. To reduce class size and meet Prime Time standards, the school would have to employ extra teachers, thus driving up the costs. The state of Indiana does not provide such districts as Shakamak with enough funding to pay the salaries of all the teachers that Prime Time requires, so these school districts end up supplementing their funding by appropriating money from other school programs. As a result, some school administrators are wondering how they can stay afloat and still meet Prime Time's requirements.
Research findings. In 1985, the Indiana State Department of Education cancelled a contract for a proposed longitudinal, 17-year study of Prime Time that would have concluded in 2002, and instead conducted two studies, one after the first year that Prime Time was conducted in grade 1 and the other after Prime Time had been implemented in grades 1–3 for one year. The first official study (Mueller, Chase, & Walden, 1988) was positive and encouraging, and an independent study of Prime Time during its first year also showed favorable results for student gains in achievement, self concept, and attitude toward school (Swan, Stone, & Gilman, 1997).
The second official Department of Education study, however, which evaluated Prime Time after students had experienced smaller classes in grades 1, 2, and 3, showed that the third year of Prime Time had produced no favorable results (Farr, Quilling, Bessel, & Johnson, 1987). And two independent studies of Prime Time (Malloy, 1989; Tillitski, 1991; Varble, 1990) concluded that after three years of smaller classes, the effects on student achievement were negligible; the gains that were reported during the first year had disappeared. Finally, a 2001 study of Prime Time conducted by Lapsley and Daytner found little evidence that teachers teach differently in smaller classes than in larger ones, or that smaller classes perform better than larger ones.
Prognosis. Despite Prime Time's popularity, many school districts will face tough decisions of whether to take money away from other school programs to support smaller classes or to just increase class size. Indiana's budget shortfall will likely force the state to make cuts in K–12 education funding. These cuts may mean that schools will have to lay off teachers, thus increasing class size. And because even a school district that does not meet the mandatory low limits of Prime Time can obtain its funding from the state provided that it is “making a reasonable attempt toward attaining the goal of smaller classes in grades K–3” (J. Ferguson, personal communication, August 28, 2002), class sizes in Indiana are increasing. These two factors—reduced state funding coupled with the program's leniency toward noncompliant participants—have caused serious concern.
It is probably fair to say that the overall satisfaction of teachers and parents with the smaller classes that Prime Time has produced is enough reason to continue the program. However, Indiana's financial crisis makes the state unlikely to ever provide full support for Prime Time.

Tennessee: Project STAR

Background. Among the nationwide efforts to reduce class size, Tennessee's Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) is probably the best known. Project STAR emerged from a compilation of studies of the effects of class-size reduction on student achievement. In 1985, these results, coupled with information from Indiana's experiences with Project Prime Time, convinced the Tennessee legislature to provide support for an experimental study on class size (Health & Education Research Operative Services, Inc., 2002).
Project STAR cost approximately $12 million at the time it was conducted. Because it was a relatively small-scale experiment and was carried out for a defined period of time, we cannot project the cost of instituting it statewide and in the long term. It is safe to assume, however, that monetary outlays for additional operating costs and salaries for additional teachers, teacher aides, and support personnel would parallel outlays in other states for reducing class size (Witte, 1999).
Because Tennessee's student-teacher ratio has actually increased by 5 percent since 2000 (National Education Association, 2002), the prospect of further reducing class size seems unlikely. The state also expects to lose approximately 25 percent of its veteran teachers over the next five years. Teacher salaries that measure at least $5,400 below the national average are a significant factor in Tennessee's inability to attract and keep qualified teachers (Tennessee Education Association, 2002). Already, approximately 4 percent of teachers statewide are underqualified and teaching on waivers or permits (Southern Regional Education Board, 2000). To institute statewide class-size reduction, Tennessee must face the considerable challenge of increasing the number of qualified teachers at advanced salary levels.
  • Students in smaller classrooms performed significantly better on all sets of achievement measures.
  • Benefits occurred regardless of school location or student gender.
  • Some of the benefits were greater for minority students or students attending inner-city schools.
  • There were no differences between smaller and larger classes in student scores on motivational scales (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
  • Students from the treatment groups (smaller class size) performed better in all academic areas studied.
  • Students from the treatment groups expended more effort in the classroom, took greater initiative in learning activities, and displayed fewer instances of disruptive or inattentive behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
  • The fact that the participating schools were volunteers may have allowed for selection bias.
  • The narrowness of ethnic and linguistic diversity in the population and the overall attrition rate of more than 50 percent preclude disaggregating the data by specific individuals or groups (Witte, 1999).
  • Teachers' belief that the experiment's success would result in a statewide policy of class-size reduction may have led them to work harder and for more hours to get positive results.
  • Because the study has not been replicated, and the STAR data have never been made available for others to examine, researchers have had to rely on the original researchers' interpretation of the data (Hanushek, 1999).
Prognosis. Currently, Tennessee allows for the reduction of K–3 class size from the typical 20:1 ratio to 15:1 in schools in which at least one-third of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch (Tennessee State Board of Education, 2001). The state board of education's Master Plan for Tennessee Schools continues to support the importance of that initiative in its Basic Education Program, but includes no plans to extend class-size reduction to other schools with varying demographics. And although the Master Plan anticipates a teacher shortage and provides supports to ensure teacher quality, it does not address the issue of funding additional teachers or facilities for the express purpose of reducing class size (Tennessee State Board of Education, 2002).
Yet, despite STAR's flaws, a literal interpretation of the data does support the case for reducing class size, and the experiment's data-driven research findings have encouraged other states—including California—to initiate class-size reduction programs.

California: CSR

Background. California's CSR (Class-Size Reduction) initiative was influenced by several factors. First, education officials were impressed by the reported results of Tennessee's Project STAR. Second, CSR began in 1996, when California had a $12 billion budget surplus and was searching for ways to spend money. Finally, California's then-Governor Pete Wilson strongly advocated the CSR project and led a successful effort to create statewide small class requirements in grades K–3 rather than undertaking a pilot project limited to grade 1, as state legislators had proposed.
CSR is not mandated for local school systems, but an average of 97–99 percent of K–3 students in California are enrolled in reduced-size classes, and it was instantly popular among—and has been vigorously defended by—teachers and parents. Lynn Piccoli, who manages the CSR program, points out that many teachers complain to her if their class sizes reach 21 students, and she receives stacks of protest letters whenever school districts contemplate ceasing or reducing their participation in CSR (L. Piccoli, personal communication, June 1, 2002).
California was suffering from a shortage of teachers before CSR, and CSR has exacerbated the problem. The scope of CSR and the speed of its implementation necessitated hiring uncertified as well as certified teachers to teach the additional classes (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2001). In addition, many certified secondary and special education teachers have opted to leave their positions to teach the smaller K–3 classes. Today, about 15 percent of California teachers in grades 4–12 are not fully certified (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2001).
In addition, CSR contains inflexible requirements that drive up costs and make the program difficult to implement at the local level, contributing to the increasing number of districts reducing their involvement. For example, CSR requires that school districts maintain enrollments under 20 in K–3 classes. As a result, many districts in California limit class size to 18 to allow for growth during the year, which increases the cost of running the program by at least 10 percent (L. Piccoli, personal communication, August 13, 2002).
CSR also requires districts to implement the program in a particular order: 1st grade, 2nd grade, and then 3rd grade or kindergarten. Thus, a school cannot receive funds for reduced 2nd grade class sizes until it has reduced the size of all of its 1st grade classes. If a school has four 1st grade classes and 87 1st graders, the district must hire another teacher for the extra seven students, create combination classes, or just not participate in CSR at any grade level (L. Piccoli, personal communication, August 13, 2002).
Recently introduced legislation that would have allowed a district to have up to 22 students in a class—as long as the average size of all CSR classes at a school was no greater than 20—died in committee. The California Department of Education has tried to correct the rigidity of the program, but teacher unions, the state Parent Teacher Association, and some legislators are adamantly against any changes (L. Piccoli, personal communication, August 13, 2002).
Research findings. CSR hired a consortium of research organizations to study the program's effects. The results of their yearly research reports show that the average SAT-9 score of students in CSR has increased every year and, more important, that the average score of each succeeding cohort was higher than that of the previous level. The researchers found, however, that there were many variables in the study that could not be controlled, and they concluded that the gains could not be directly attributed to CSR (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2001).
Nevertheless, the anecdotal records of teachers who are working under CSR are extremely positive. As Piccoli notes, test scores cannot accurately evaluate every factor of the Class-Size Reduction program (L. Piccoli, personal communication, August 13, 2002).
Prognosis. Although California first implemented CSR during a budget surplus, the state today is experiencing its biggest deficit in history. Meanwhile, during CSR's time, teacher compensation has increased an average of 24 percent, far ahead of this past year's percent increase in total state appropriations for CSR. Continued CSR participation has encroached into school districts' general funds. Facility maintenance and administrative services have taken the biggest budget cuts, along with music and arts programs, computer resources, libraries, and sports programs.
Both the California Teachers Association and the California State Parent Teacher Association are lobbying for increases in CSR funding. Although most education stakeholders in California—including legislators, educators, and parents—favor expanding CSR to grade 4, some school districts are withdrawing from participation. Eventually, many school districts will either have to cut back their participation in the program or drop out altogether.

The Verdict on Smaller Classes

Researchers disagree about the influence of smaller class size on academic achievement. Some research (Tennessee) indicates positive effects even beyond the treatment period; other research (Indiana) does not. Research on California's CSR indicates gains, but they cannot be directly attributed to class-size reduction.
But a growing body of anecdotal and qualitative evidence supports reducing class size. Teachers report experiencing lower levels of stress and job dissatisfaction with smaller classes, primarily because they are better able to attend to each student individually and, as a consequence, student motivation increases and discipline problems decrease. Parents believe that teachers' individualized instruction leads to improvements in their children's academic performance. Teachers of smaller classes also have more time to interact with parents, and their increased knowledge of their students strengthens those interactions. On the basis of anecdotal evidence, parents, teachers, and teacher unions continue to push for even smaller classes.
Given conflicting research findings and the high costs of reducing class size, however, states are gradually increasing class sizes. At least for the three states examined here, the prognosis for increasing the scope of state-mandated smaller classes looks bleak. Even states with adequate funding to support class-size reduction are not applying the initiative equitably across or within districts. (For example, Tennessee limits class-size reduction to low-income areas.)
In some states the economy is the deciding factor in maintaining the status quo or even increasing class size. Even when research supports reducing class size, the cost is often too high for school districts struggling with budget cuts. Further research on how to reduce the economic impact but retain the benefits of class-size reduction is essential. For instance, some data suggest that assigning two teachers to a class of 30 yields positive effects on academic achievement and student motivation similar to those yielded by a class of 15 with one teacher (Witte, 1999). Although the increase in teacher numbers remains high, this approach reduces the additional operating costs associated with expanding current facilities. Because class-size reduction usually means hiring more teachers, states must also increase teacher salaries to attract and retain the most qualified and licensed candidates. After all, the interaction between qualified, dedicated teachers and their students is the most crucial factor in increasing student achievement.
It's true that most class-size reduction initiatives are works in progress, and many programs were poorly planned and hastily implemented. If a state's class-size reduction program fails to realize its goals of high academic achievement, however, then the state must not discard its initiative, but rather determine what works and what does not, and enact necessary change. Unfortunately, within the current climate of the U.S. economy, many of these programs will have to justify their large expenses to continue.
Reducing class size continues to be a priority in many states. Despite conflicting research studies, high costs, and growing opposition, the popularity of class-size reduction is unlikely to fade anytime soon. But we will need much more research and development for the programs to be ultimately worth the money and effort they require. In the meantime, states can look to the many research studies, the experiences of other states, and the testimony of educators to help them use their precious school resources to best serve students.

Farr, B., Quilling, M., Bessel, R., & Johnson, W. (1987). Evaluation of Prime Time 1986–87: Final report. Indianapolis, IN: Advanced Technology.

Hanushek, E. A. (1999). The evidence on class size. In S. E. Mayer & P. Peterson (Eds.), Earning and learning: How schools matter (pp. 131–168). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Health & Education Research Operative Services, Inc. (2002). Class size research [Online].

Jacobson, L. (2001, February 28). Research: Sizing up small classes. Education Week [Online].

Lapsley, D. K., & Daytner, K. M. (2001). Indiana's “Class Size Reduction” initiative: Teacher perspectives on training, implementation, and pedagogy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.

Malloy, L. (1989). The cumulative effects on basic skills achievement of Indiana's Prime Time, a state sponsored program of reduced class size. Contemporary Education, 60, 169–172.

Mueller, D. J., Chase, C. I., & Walden, J. D. (1988). Effects of reduced class size in primary classes. Educational Leadership, 45(5), 48–50.

National Education Association. (2002). Challenges facing Tennessee's public schools [Online].

Nye, B., et al. (1989/1994–1999). The Lasting Benefits Study: A continuing analysis of the effect of small class size in kindergarten through third grade on student achievement test scores in subsequent grade levels. Nashville, TN: Center of Excellence for Research in Basic Skills, Tennessee State University.

Southern Regional Education Board. (2000). The educator supply and demand in Tennessee. Atlanta, GA: Author.

Stecher, B. M., & Bohrnstedt, G. W. (2001). Class-size reduction in California: Summary of findings from 1999–2000 and 2000–2001. CSR Research Consortium, February 2002.

Swan, E., Stone, W., & Gilman, D. (1997). Prime Time at North Gibson School Corporation: A three-year study. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 299 056)

Tennessee Education Association. (2002). Tennessee faces teacher shortage crisis[Online].

Tennessee State Board of Education. (2001). Tennessee basic education program [Online].

Tennessee State Board of Education. (2002, May). Master plan for Tennessee's schools: Preparing for the 21st century [Online].

Tillitski, C. (1991). The longitudinal effect of Prime Time, Indiana's state sponsored reduced class size program. Contemporary Education, 62(1).

U.S. Department of Education. (1998, May). Class size and students at risk: What is known? What is next?[Online].

Varble, M. (1990). Smaller class size = higher achievement scores? Contemporary Education, 62(1).

Witte, J. (1999). Evaluation reports: Cost benefit issues and implications of reducing class size in public schools. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. [Online].

David Alan Gilman has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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