Friday, October 21, 2011

Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy on Education

Even the Brookings Institution says below that smaller class sizes are a dubious investment

Class size is one of the small number of variables in American K-12 education that are both thought to influence student learning and are subject to legislative action. Legislative mandates on maximum class size have been very popular at the state level. In recent decades, at least 24 states have mandated or incentivized class-size reduction (CSR).

The current fiscal environment has forced states and districts to rethink their CSR policies given the high cost of maintaining small classes. For example, increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in the U.S. by one student would save at least $12 billion per year in teacher salary costs alone, which is roughly equivalent to the outlays of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government’s largest single K-12 education program.

The substantial expenditures required to sustain smaller classes are justified by the belief that smaller classes increase student learning. We examine “what the research says” about whether class-size reduction has a positive impact on student learning and, if it does, by how much, for whom, and under what circumstances. Despite there being a large literature on class-size effects on academic achievement, only a few studies are of high enough quality and sufficiently relevant to be given credence as a basis for legislative action.

The most influential and credible study of CSR is the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, study which was conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s. In this study, students and teachers were randomly assigned to a small class, with an average of 15 students, or a regular class, with an average of 22 students. This large reduction in class size (7 students, or 32 percent) was found to increase student achievement by an amount equivalent to about 3 additional months of schooling four years later.

Studies of class size in Texas and Israel also found benefits of smaller classes, although the gains associated with smaller classes were smaller in magnitude than those in the Tennessee STAR study. Other rigorous studies have found mixed effects in California and in other countries, and no effects in Florida and Connecticut.

Because the pool of credible studies is small and the individual studies differ in the setting, method, grades, and magnitude of class size variation that is studied, conclusions have to be tentative. But it appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have significant long-term effects on student achievement and other meaningful outcomes. These effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds.

When school finances are limited, the cost-benefit test any educational policy must pass is not “Does this policy have any positive effect?” but rather “Is this policy the most productive use of these educational dollars?” Assuming even the largest class-size effects, such as the STAR results, class-size mandates must still be considered in the context of alternative uses of tax dollars for education. There is no research from the U.S. that directly compares CSR to specific alternative investments, but one careful analysis of several educational interventions found CSR to be the least cost effective of those studied.

The popularity of class-size reduction may make it difficult for policymakers to increase class size across the board in order to sustain other investments in education during a period of budget reductions. In that context, state policymakers should consider targeting CSR at students who have been shown to benefit the most: disadvantaged students in the early grades, or providing a certain amount of funding for CSR but leaving it up to local school leaders on how to distribute it.

In settings where state mandates on maximum class size are relaxed, policymakers need to bear in mind that the effect of any increase in class size will depend on how such an increase is implemented. For example, a one-student increase in the pupil/teacher ratio in the U.S. would reduce the teaching workforce by about 7 percent. If the teachers to be laid off were chosen in a way largely unrelated to their effectiveness, such as seniority-based layoffs, then the associated increase in class size might well have a negative effect on student achievement. But if schools choose the least effective teachers to let go, then the effect of increased teacher quality could make up for some or all of the possible negative impact of increasing class size.

State resources for education should always be carefully allocated, but the need to judiciously weigh costs and benefits is particularly salient in times of austere budgets. Class-size reduction has been shown to work for some students in some grades in some states and countries, but its impact has been found to be mixed or not discernable in other settings and circumstances that seem similar. It is very expensive. The costs and benefits of class-size mandates need to be carefully weighed against all of the alternatives when difficult decisions must be made.


British High School passes soar by 23% over 15 years as grade inflation runs rampant

Rampant grade inflation has apparently continued unchecked for yet another year as rising numbers of teenagers were awarded good GCSE grades. Official figures show 23 per cent more youngsters had good GCSE pass rates this summer compared with 1995/96.

This is the equivalent of an additional 150,000 teens reaching the government benchmark of five C grades or higher at GCSE, including English and maths. In the past year alone, the number of pupils who achieved the benchmark (58.3 per cent) represented a year-on-year increase of 4.5 per cent.

The astonishing figures from the Department for Education show the extent to which GCSE pass rates ballooned under the last Labour government.

And in another twist, just one in six pupils – 16.5 per cent – gained at least a C in the traditional disciplines of English, maths, languages and either history or geography, meaning teenagers are shirking rigorous, academic subjects required by leading universities and many employers. It suggests the Labour culture of schools steering teenagers towards 'soft' courses to improve league table rankings has continued apace.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said urgent action was needed to tackle grade inflation, and pupils and schools should expect exam results to drop in the next few years. Exam boards had made exams too easy, he added.

And Schools Minister Nick Gibb launched a scathing attack on schools for failing to ensure pupils sat core subjects. He said: 'It is a scandal that four-fifths of our 16-year-olds did not take the core academic GCSEs that universities and employers demand – when far more are capable of doing so. 'Parents across the country rightly expect that their child will receive a broad and balanced education that includes English, maths, science, a language and history or geography. 'Sadly, all too often it is the pupils from the poorest backgrounds who are denied this opportunity.'

Yesterday's damning data is based on GCSE results awarded this summer, and follows research from Durham University showing a 'U' in maths in 1998 is now equivalent to a B grade.

Meanwhile, research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals that England has tumbled down international league tables in the past nine years, going from seventh to 25th in reading, eighth to 28th in maths and fourth to 16th in science.


Dozens of British universities to cut fees after threat to slash student places

At least 28 universities and colleges plan to cut tuition fees to £7,500 or lower for students starting next year, it emerged last night. They have been granted a two-week window to reduce fees they have already set - amid fears they could lose hundreds of places if they fail to act.

The last-minute changes - which will cause confusion among the tens of thousands of teenagers who have already submitted university applications - have been triggered by a Coalition plan to discourage institutions that attract lower calibre students from levying the highest fees.

Ministers will take away places from institutions that want to charge more than £7,500 but which take on students with A-level grades lower than 'AAB'.

After ministers raised the cap on tuition fees from around £3,000 to £9,000 a year, more than a third of universities set their fees at the upper limit. The Coalition had budgeted on only a minority of the elite universities charging £9,000.

But the larger-than-expected fees horrified ministers as they are funded initially by the Government-backed Student Loans Company – and the bill runs to billions of pounds. As a result, institutions which charge the top price but attract students with grades of less than ‘AAB’ will lose places.

The freed-up places will then be pooled, with only those institutions charging £7,500 a year or less able to bid for a share of them.

Research suggests many lesser universities stood to lose up to 8 per cent of their places. Institutions now have until November 4 to submit revised plans to the Office of Fair Access. Offa said yesterday that 28 universities have expressed an interest in submitting revised plans for 2012, but it refused to reveal names.

It must inform institutions whether applications have been successful by November 30. The deadline is tight as students have only until January 15 to submit university applications.

Toni Pearce, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said last night: ‘The Government’s incoherent and unsustainable changes to higher education funding are continuing to wreak havoc on students and universities as ministers realise that they failed to do their sums properly.’


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