Does Class Size Make a Difference?

Peter W. Schramm

March 13, 1998

Nothing has been the same since 1983. That was the watershed year. That was the year that we began to learn the truth about the kind of education our children receive. Until then we had only suspected that the quality of education had declined. In 1983 our suspicions were confirmed.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education made public its report. The Commission said that we had “lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling.” The report accused the country of committing “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” It concluded that we were “a nation at risk.”

It was then that we realized that there was something fundamentally flawed about our system of education. Since then our public deliberations about education have focused on the necessity of reforming our schools. Since then we have only disagreed on how to reform education, on how to make it better.

And because we are Americans, which is to say eternal optimists, we have come up with reform plan after reform plan.

The many proposals made to remedy the problem have included: minimum competency standards for teachers (then Governor Clinton of Arkansas was one of the first to implement this); certification tests for teachers; merit pay for teachers; business and university partnerships; school restructuring and site based management; state takeover of poorly performing districts; district takeover of poorly performing schools; a computer in every classroom; changing the method of funding.

Other examples of reform may be cited, but there is no need to be encyclopedic here. What all these attempts have in common is spending more money and working within the existing system.

Despite all these attempts at reform the public school system has not become better. On the contrary its decline continues to be well documented.

The Paris based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently stated that the performance of U.S. elementary and secondary schools is “mediocre to poor.”

Just last week the U.S. Department of Education released data based on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. This is the most comprehensive and rigorous international comparison of schooling ever undertaken. The study shows unambiguously that American high school seniors are among the world’s least prepared in mathematics and science.

After looking at the report, President Clinton said that “there is no excuse” for this devastating news. He said “there is something wrong with the system and it is our generation’s responsibility to fix it.”

And now we have yet another costly proposal for reform within the system. The latest proposal to be taken up enthusiastically by the educational establishment (and President Clinton in the State of the Union address) is to lower class sizes in elementary schools.

This new magic bullet is proposed by the partisans of the educational bureaucracy despite the fact that researcher Ina Mullin of Boston College, the co-deputy director of the Third International Study, has said that the explanation for the poor performance by the American students “is not class size or homework or social life or television.”

The cause of poor performance is that the students are not challenged enough. American students start out ahead of their foreign peers in elementary school but as they move through middle and high school they are challenged less and less in their curriculum. The curriculum tends to be repetitive. Not only do students learn less, but they become bored. The passion for learning they once had as children leaves them.

More money for smaller classes is not the solution. Indeed, what we should have learned above all else from the attempted reforms during the last fifteen years is that throwing more money into an ossified government system of education doesn’t help.

In Ohio we spend 20% more in inflation adjusted dollars on education than we did ten years ago. But we haven’t gotten better students from that. During that time high school graduation rates fell by 6% statewide and by 30% in Cleveland, a city that is spending up to $7,000 per child.

Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University has shown that some of the poorest districts educate their students better than the richest districts. He has also shown that spending to reduce class size is an expensive and ineffective means of improving student performance.

These latest reforms proposed by the partisans of the educational bureaucracy should be discarded on first sight. This faction has had chance after chance to change the system from within, and they have failed. They no longer speak with authority. They are trusted by no one, save those with a vested interest in perpetuating the educational behemoth known as public education.

It is certainly the case that the parents, and the students themselves, have long ago lost confidence in the public school system. This includes the public school teachers themselves, the majority of whom in Cleveland send their children to private schools.

If the system is to be changed that change will have to come from outside the system by the means of vouchers, charter schools, and private schools. A major shift in authority will have to take place. Instead of school boards and bureaucrats, “experts” and special interest groups, the parents and consumers of education must take charge.

If parents are given the right to choose the schools their children will attend, the monopoly currently existing will be broken, and diversity and change will follow. This will mean change will come from outside the system, and perhaps the best of the current system can be saved.

There is little or no hope in any other alternative—even for us die-hard optimists.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.