Classroom Sizes Revisited

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For a long time, liberal school reform proposals have centered on, among other things, smaller class sizes for schools, something widely supported by parents. (Indeed, one of the complaints about No Child Left Behind is that the law doesn’t put enough emphasis on this factor.) The issue is still somewhat debated on the merits, especially after a RAND report in 2000 found that reducing class size had little effect on student achievement. But now the debate can carry on, as a new study in the Journal of Educational Psychology finds that “four or more years in small classes in elementary school significantly increases the likelihood of graduating from high school, especially for students from low-income homes.”

The problem, of course, is that often class-size reduction initiatives are carried out in precisely the wrong way. Here in California, former Gov. Pete Wilson decided back in 1996 to spend some $1 billion on reducing the size of classrooms, but didn’t allocate a whole lot of extra money for hiring and training additional teachers. As a result, more and more uncredentialed teachers were hired, and many qualified teachers from low-income districts simply moved and found jobs in well-to-do districts. It’s a savage cycle that only worsened a lot of existing inequities.

Now on some level, this wasn’t just a result of Wilson’s stinginess: class-size reduction is awfully costly—you have to build new classrooms after all—and many reformers think that the money would be better spent attracting new teachers via higher salaries, or training existing teachers. Indeed, the details contain one very big devil here. Still, if the benefits to class-size reduction are indeed as sweeping as this new study shows, it may be time to revisit this debate.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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