Ask Dr. Blank: How do you feel larger class sizes are affecting students?

This issue has been triggered largely by the findings on international tests which generally indicate that U.S. children, particularly in the upper grades, do not fare well in comparison to other developed nations.  Reduction of class size is one of the many demands for reform that have followed.  As a result, more than 20 states and the federal government have adopted various policies designed to decrease class size. But implementation varies greatly across the country. For example, in some states, a small class is 15, in others, 17 and in still others 20. Often states reduce class size in the early grades or confine the smaller classes to specific subjects such as literacy. Some states put all children in reduced size classes; others have targeted the policy to at-risk students. Because of the great variability, it is not possible to arrive at a definitive conclusion about the value of smaller classes.

What we do know presents a mixed picture. Between 1969 and 1997, the average pupil/teacher ratio nationally in American public and private elementary and secondary schools declined from 22.7 to 16.6, a decline of over 26 percent. The comparable changes in elementary and secondary schools’ average pupil/teacher ratios were respectively, 25.1 to 18.3 and 19.7 to 14.0 (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). With such a large decline in pupil/teacher ratios, we might have expected to see substantial increases in test scores over the period. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For example, for students at age 17, the average science test score declined between 1969 and 1984 and then increased slightly thereafter. However, by 1999 it was still lower than its 1969 level. The mathematics average score for 17 year olds declined between 1973 and 1982 then increased through 1992 and has remained roughly constant since. Finally, the reading scores of the 17 year olds rose only slightly during the period. In other words, we do not see a significant increase in student test scores despite the reduction in the average pupil/teacher ratio nationwide.

However, achievement is not the only measure to consider. For example, dropout rate is an important variable. During the time period considered above, the percentage of students who graduated from high school and enrolled in college rose from 51.8 to 67.0. Some of the change in college enrollment rates may have been attributable to smaller pupil/teacher ratios.

A quite different study shows how complex the issues are. Two investigators, David Card and Alan Kruger, used income data for white men born between 1920 and 1949 and matched these data up with various school quality measures that these men encountered when they were enrolled in school. They found that for men between the ages of 31 and 60 in 1980, smaller average pupil/teacher ratios during the years they were educated were associated with higher subsequent earnings. So pupil/teacher ratios did matter.

As the comments above indicate, the issue is complex, offering no clear, easy answers.  At the same time, it is an important topic deserving of much further study.

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