With the release of the Class Size Reduction (CSR) audit report which I wrote about here and here, the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA) in its January newsletter wrote a short criticism of CSR efforts in Utah. They highlight that Utah's demographics - lots of kids, with more on the way - coupled with studies showing class sizes need to be at least as small as 15 (Utah is currently at 26), make class size reduction efforts pointless. They estimate that it will cost almost $900 million in additional, ongoing money to hire enough teachers to reach the 15 benchmark, and another $4 billion to buy land and build additional schools. The costs are staggering. Because of this, they posit that the CSR program should be scrapped with the money then being spent on other education programs like higher teacher salaries.
The keystone of this argument is that, according to the UTA, studies show that only by reaching class sizes of 15 is there any noticeable increase in student achievement. So I set out to verify the claim.
The National Education Association's (NEA) website on class size makes it very clear that reaching 15 is the goal. It touts studies and statistics showing the effectiveness of having class sizes at 15, and supports petitioning of legislators to fund this goal. The website of utah's chapter of the NEA, the Utah Education Association, does not specifically address class sizes other than to say it supports funding and lobbying for smaller classrooms.
Google offers some more information. It led me to a US Department of Education publication which contains a compilation and analysis of class size studies. This in turn led me to what seems to be the seminal study of class size reduction efforts: Tennessee's Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio). This study compared student achievement for k-3 graders in class sizes of 13-17 with classrooms of 22-25 and 22-25 with a teaching aide. The smaller classrooms showed significant improvement at all levels (Also of note was that the larger classrooms with a teacher aide did not show much improvement.). It also showed that low income and minority students got a big boost from the smaller class sizes, which tapered out after a couple of years.
Project STAR seems to prove, or at least provide a strong basis for, what seems intuitive - that smaller class sizes are better. But the Taxpayers Association does not directly dispute that. Their criticism is that it would simply cost too much to reduce class sizes, and that the money is more efficiently spent elsewhere.
How the Tennessee study does apply to UTA's argument, though, is that by focusing CSR monies to the first few grades, a lasting effect can be achieved, even after the student returns to the larger classes. This effect diminishes each year, but lasts until at least the 8th grade. Also important is that traditionally poor performing students get a big boost from the early class size reduction. And while 15 seemed to be the goal, anything under 20 netted significant results, especially for students coming from class sizes of 25+, as Utah's are.
Based on this knowledge, my recommendation for Utah's CSR funding program would be to continue it, but to streamline it so that it reaps the most bang for the buck. All initial funding should go towards K-3rd grade classroom reduction, specifically in at-risk and low scoring districts. This way, the students who stand to gain the most are ensured of receiving the CSR money. Districts should apply for the money, with a clear plan demonstrating their need. Funds also should be required to be used for hiring teachers, and not for teacher aides.
The drawback to this strategy is that, depending on the funding requirements for these specific districts, there very well may be districts that receive no CSR funding at all. However, the current program netted two teachers over seven years, and many districts had to use non-CSR money just to keep on the teachers hired in previous years. Clearly, the program as presently constituted is not working, and simply funding it sufficiently for everyone is just not financially feasible. Let's add to our current levels of CSR funding at a reasonable pace, and let's use it efficiently so that children, teachers, and parents actually notice the difference.
And, please, let's keep track of it this time.