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Thursday, June 27, 2002

Nancy Coleman or Stephaan Harris
(202) 775-8810


Tough choices ahead in 21 states


Smaller classes boost student achievement and earnings potential but smaller budgets threaten this vital reform

Washington, D.C. – States across the nation, facing shrinking budgets, are struggling to find a way to invest billions into reducing class size. A new book by the Economic Policy Institute explains why this effort is an effective step in improving student achievement, especially in the face of new, tougher standards imposed by President Bush and Congress.

In The Class Size Debate, an updated edition, economist Alan Krueger of Princeton University argues that smaller classes improve academic performance and future job earnings for millions of students. Krueger presents research that shows, for example, how smaller class size often produces fewer disruptions and invites closer teacher monitoring, allowing students to learn better. He also critiques research done to dispute the effectiveness of smaller class size, revealing the flaws in those findings.

“The research on class size confirms what common sense tells us,” said Lawrence Mishel, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, which published the report. “Smaller classes means more quality time and more quality learning for students – and that translates to better educational outcomes and earning potential.”

The book also features an opposing viewpoint by Stanford University Professor Eric Hanushek, who argues that measures such as accountability and teacher quality, not small class size or even increased spending in general, do more to improve student performance.

“Class size reductions are beneficial in specific circumstances – for specific groups of students, subject matters, and teachers,” writes Hanushek. “Reductions necessarily involve hiring more teachers, and teacher quality is much more important than class size in affecting student outcomes.”

The class size issue once again promises to be at center stage as 21 states that currently have adopted widespread school class reduction measures are facing budget shortfalls, according to a 2002 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Such reforms, however, could be put in jeopardy due to the budget crises that may make education improvements a struggle in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Other states such as Arizona are contemplating class size reduction, while also fighting budget crunches.

States are spending more than $2.3 billion on class size reduction efforts, according to a 1999-2000 survey by ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. In addition, the federal Class Size Reduction Program, established in 1998, is providing nearly $1.2 billion a year to help states hire and train new teachers as part of a goal to lower early grade class size to 18 students nationwide.

And Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan, which will grade schools on the test scores of the lowest-performing children, are causing some school leaders to pay more attention to smaller class size as a way to boost student performance. School districts in Indiana, for example, have reported improved student behavior, higher test scores and more efficient classrooms, while districts in Nevada have reported less teacher absenteeism.

Krueger analyzes the class size research done by Hanushek, who has disputed the value of class size reduction based on his own class-size reviews in several states, including California, New York, Maryland and Alabama. Krueger finds, however, that Hanushek’s research assigns more weight to some research estimates than to others, giving an inaccurate picture that underestimates the value of class size. After correcting the weighting problem in Hanushek’s studies, Krueger finds that class size is very much related to student performance.

The Class Size Debate uses detailed research and analysis on many aspects of the debate, including student performance, test scores, education policies and teacher-student ratios. It also offers a fresh look at Tennessee’s Project STAR, a pioneering class size study that demonstrated the lasting positive impact on learning for students taught in smaller classes. It also features a third-person perspective from University of Maryland Professor Jennifer King Rice, who explores both arguments and the policies involved.


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The Economic Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan economic thank tank founded in 1986. The Institute can found on the web at

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