Should states spend billions to reduce class size? That’s the question Amelia Thomson DeVeaux of the popular data and statistics web site Five Thirty-Eight asks in an article of the same name. Thomson-DeVeaux tells the story I-1351, a controversial $5 billion ballot initiative approved in Washington State to limit class size.
Thomson-DeVeaux’s analysis is refreshing. She plows past the intuitive appeal of the class size argument to discuss some of the real-world implications and trade-offs that policymaker’s inevitably face when they debate class size. She asks the key question: is it worth it?
But cutting class size isn’t the cure-all some make it out to be. Class-size reductions make sense intuitively – in smaller classes, kids get more attention, distractions are reduced and working conditions are improved. Many economists and education policy experts say, though, this isn’t a case where the common-sense fix is guaranteed to be the best fix. . .
I think class-size reduction is a smart and sound policy in lots of cases,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “But as an economist, I have to think about what would be the best use of the next dollar spent, and for an across the board reduction of this magnitude, the evidence just isn’t there.
Thomson-DeVeaux notes class size reduction policies can have unintended consequences.
Eric Hanushek an economist at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University notes that programs to reduce class size could have the result of reducing teacher quality. “This isn’t about hiring high quality teachers, its’ about hiring more teachers, and that means we’re going to see a lot more inexperienced teachers in the classroom.”. . .
In a recent survey conducted by EducationNext suggests that Washington voters might not have passed I-1351 if they had been given more information about relative costs. In the survey, half of respondents were asked if they favored government spending on class-size reduction, increasing teacher salaries, or buying new books and technologies. A plurality (46 percent) supported class-size reduction. The other half of the sample was asked to make the same decision – but respondents were also told that “reducing average class size by three students would cost roughly the same amount as increasing teacher salaries by 13 percent or buying $10,000 in new books and technologies for each class every years.” Among this group support for class-size reduction dropped by more than 10 percentage points.”
Obviously class size is an important factor when discussing education policy. However context must accompany any discussion. Theoretical discussions can be left behind. It’s important to realize the government only has so much money to spend. Broad across the board policies like class size reduction offer an intuitive appeal. However policymakers must ask: is this the best use of the next available dollars? Regrettably, considering the wide variation among districts, teachers and students the answer to that question is frequently no.