Large-Scale Class Size Reduction Doesn't Work: More Moderation, Please

A wise person once told me: Everything in moderation… including moderation. I’ve spent years trying to make complete sense out of that, but the point is some people can go overboard with certain ideas. That’s just as true in the education policy arena as anywhere else.

One of those discussions surrounds the happy talk of smaller class sizes. Sure, all things being equal, a relatively smaller class size offers possible benefits. But at some point, especially if implemented on a larger scale, that approach can yield negative results. Nearly four years ago when I was still 5, I drove home the point that quality instruction matters significantly more than class sizes.

But what does the research actually say? My newest Education Policy Center friend, Ross Izard, makes his published debut today with a backgrounder called “The Truth about Class Size Reduction” and a paragraph that reads:

Throughout the United States, class size reduction (CSR) is heralded as an effective way to improve academic outcomes. However, the research surrounding the effects of CSR is inconclusive at best. It is often difficult to determine the reliability of the studies conducted on the topic, and much of the research wavers between small, temporary academic gains in certain student groups and no gains at all.

Instances of targeted class-size reduction among certain groups of students in the early grades appears to make a positive difference. But Ross dives into two prominent examples of large-scale class size reduction: California and Florida. Both used up huge sums of taxpayer dollars (we’re talking billions with a ‘B’) with very little or no results to show for it all.

In the end, his backgrounder points us to thinking outside the traditional boxes of what a classroom or what school governance looks like. The two alternatives provided are a greater focus on blended learning strategies and giving more autonomy to school-level leadership rather than relying on one-size-fits-all solutions.

Knowing when it comes to education, our taxpaying citizens can’t have it all, the least our policymakers could do is get out of the way and promote innovation and strong local leadership. Though, to be fair, I’m only asking them to do it in moderation.