The Payson Unified School District’s plan to increase the size of elementary school classes by more than one-third could reduce student test scores, graduation rates and intellectual skills, according to a body of still hotly debated research.
Repeated studies show that smaller classes for elementary school students boost test scores by 14 percent and can even affect lifetime earnings, college attendance rates and the odds students will own their own home.
However, the impact of class size on student learning and behavior remains the topic of intense debate nationally, especially as collapsing state budgets spur rising class sizes.
Many researchers say they don’t have conclusive studies on the impact of class sizes on middle school and high school students. Moreover, some research suggests the effect only kicks in with classes smaller than 18 students, with little evidence that adding a few students to a 24-student class will have much impact.
However, studies suggest class sizes below about 20 in the early elementary school grades result in in significant increases in student achievement that persist throughout school. Students who attend small classes in the early elementary school grades even attend college at a higher rate and earn more money at age 30, than similar children who spent those years in larger classes.
On the other hand, efforts to fund modest decreases in class sizes across the board have yielded decidedly mixed results, demonstrating the complexity of the issue.
The Payson School Board in January will consider the recommendation of a school consolidation committee to close Frontier Elementary School and increase class sizes at the two remaining elementary schools — Payson Elementary and Julia Randall Elementary.
The committee also recommended the district make one of the remaining schools kindergarten through second-grade and the other one third- through fifth-grade.
Currently, class sizes at the elementary schools hover around 20 per class. The consolidation would increase average class size to about 27 in grades K-2 and to about 31 in grades 3-5, according to the committee’s report.
The consolidation and the increase in class sizes would save the district nearly $1 million, erasing a projected deficit in the fiscal year starting in June. That deficit could grow significantly despite the cuts if the Legislature balances its budget with further cuts in K-12 education, which currently accounts for 42 percent of state general fund spending.
If the district tried to keep all three elementary schools open and eliminate the deficit by nearly doubling the planned number of layoffs, class sizes would increase to between 35 and 38, according to the configuration committee’s report.
A study by a Harvard economist found that students who attend early elementary school classes with fewer than 18 students earned $2,000 more per year at the age of 27 and had a significantly higher rate of college attendance. Students in the smaller classes had higher scores in school and were also less likely to become single parents, more likely to own a home and more likely to save for retirement.
“We find that both smaller class sizes and teachers with more experience improve long-term outcomes,” said study author John Friedman, whose research team included experts from Northwestern University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Friedman’s study focused on following the progress of some 12,000 Tennessee students who participated in the best-designed, best-known study of the impact of class size in history.
The four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) in 1986 randomly assigned students in K-3 grades to classes with either 13-17 students or 22-26 students. Some of the teachers in the larger classes also got the help of a classroom aide.
The researchers tracked the students for four years, then did a follow up study several years later.
Students in the smaller classes performed substantially better than students in larger classes. Interestingly enough, having a teacher’s aide made no difference for the students in the larger classes. On average, students in the smaller classes had scores about 14 percent higher in reading and math. They had fewer discipline problems and fewer ended up having to repeat a grade later in school.
The small class sizes had an especially pronounced impact on minority and low-income students and served to dramatically reduce the performance gap between those students and the rest of the student body.
An initial follow-up study showed that the gains in school persisted for at least four years. The research suggested students who started out in smaller classes remained more engaged with teachers later, participated more actively in class and could stick with difficult tasks longer than students who started out in larger classes — even years after phasing into the larger classes themselves.
Friedman’s just-published study checked in with those same students 30 years later and found persistent benefits. The two key factors in those benefits in Friedman’s study remained early, small class sizes and the experience levels of the teachers.
The researchers tallied up the cost of hiring the extra teachers to cut class sizes and concluded that every $1 spent in cutting K-3 class sizes from 22 to 15 produced $2 in benefits.
A host of other studies have reinforced the key findings of the STAR study.
For instance, the Wisconsin Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project came up with similar findings more recently. That study found that elementary school students in classes with 13 to 17 students scored much better and had fewer disciplinary problems, a lower dropout rate, less grade retention and higher college attendance rates.
That study also demonstrated especially dramatic gains for low-income and minority students. The gains persisted for at least four years after students with small classes in their early elementary years returned to larger classes.
Payson already trembles on the edge of the “large” class size used in most of these studies. The staffing cuts proposed by the consolidation committee would push the average class size above the “large” category used in those landmark studies. The proposal would add seven to 10 students to most elementary school classes. However, to reap the documented benefits of small classes the district would actually have to cut existing class sizes in grades K-3 by three or four in most cases.
Researchers have provided much less evidence that small class sizes at the middle school and high school level have a lasting effect. Moreover, a number of students have shown that modest cuts in the number of students in classes larger than about 24 doesn’t have much measurable impact at any grade level.
Some states have moved aggressively to cut class sizes with mixed results.
For instance, in 2002 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that provided $3 billion to $4 billion annually to reduce class sizes statewide. The phased-in reductions by this year aimed to reduce K-3 class sizes to 18, grades 4-8 to 22 and grades 9-12 to 25.
So far, the system has reduced class sizes statewide by an average of about three students per class.
Voters decisively rejected a ballot measure in November that would have abandoned the system due to the state’s budget woes.
However, Harvard researcher Matthew Chingos compared student achievement in schools that lowered class sizes in accord with the new law with schools that already had smaller classes. That allowed him to correct for a variety of other changes that took place at the same time. Chingos found no clear gains linked solely to the reduction in class sizes.
On the other hand, California in 2007 undertook a similar experiment with more encouraging results for the advocates of small class sizes. In that case, students in the smaller classes showed a 14 percent gain in math and a 9 percent gain in reading. The achievement gap between white and minority students shrank by 40 percent.
However, California’s experiment with smaller classes has now crashed into the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit. One estimate suggests that closing the state’s $10 billion deficit could double the existing student-to-teacher ratio.