Small Classes in American Schools: Research, Practice, and Politics

By Finn, Jeremy D. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Small Classes in American Schools: Research, Practice, and Politics


Finn, Jeremy D., Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Finn provides a brief overview of the current status of class-size reduction programs in the U.S., summarizes the research base that has moved districts and states to seek class-size reduction, and calls attention to the misapplication of the research in some contexts. He also discusses questions about smaller classes that remain unanswered and describes current research into the long-term consequences of small classes and efforts to explain why they are effective.

IN RECENT YEARS, more than half of the states, countless districts, and the federal government have sponsored class-size reduction (CSR) programs. In California alone 28,000 new teachers were hired in the first three years of the statewide CSR initiative. Meanwhile, as part of its effort to reduce class sizes, the U.S. Department of Education has paid the salaries of 29,000 new teachers, mainly in poor urban school districts. Nationwide, it is impossible to count the number of new teachers hired and the number of classes that have been reduced in size. But these numbers are certainly large.

Why is it that, after years of research and debate but little action, class sizes are finally being reduced in the elementary grades across the U.S.? There are a number of reasons, including the following:

* Everybody likes the idea of small classes -- teachers, parents, policy makers, legislators, and even the courts1 understand the importance of small classes for teaching and learning;

* High-quality research has demonstrated the benefits of small classes in the early grades -- especially for students at risk;

* Until very recently education had risen to the top of state and national agendas; and

* The economy was healthy, so we had ample resources to direct toward school improvement.

But much has changed in recent months, making the future of smaller classes in the elementary grades less clear. The White House education plan, "No Child Left Behind," earmarked the federal reduced-class-size initiative as one of two programs to be eliminated. The recent instability in the economy may have left states and districts less able to hire additional teachers. And the events of September 11 refocused our national attention in a way that may well give lower priority to education issues. It remains to be seen if small class sizes have become sufficiently important and sufficiently institutionalized that they will continue to be part of our basic educational plans.

In this article I provide a brief overview of the current status of class-size reduction programs in the U.S.; the overview is brief because the situation is changing even as I write. I also summarize the research base that has moved districts and states to seek class-size reduction and call attention to the misapplication of the research in some contexts. Finally, I discuss questions about smaller classes that remain unanswered and describe current research into the long-term consequences of small classes and efforts to explain why small classes are effective.

My basic premise is that small classes in the elementary grades are not the solution to the problems of American schools; they are not the "silver bullet." Instead, small classes provide an essential opportunity for instruction to be more effective and for students to become optimally involved in the learning process. The most important question yet to be answered is "How can educators take best advantage of small class sizes to maximize learning outcomes?"

The Research Base

Prior to the 1980s, dozens of studies were conducted on the relationship between class size and pupil performance. Many of these suffered from methodological flaws, including small samples, poor research designs, and inadequate treatment of the data. Not one was a large-scale randomized experiment. However, reviews of this research found consistencies and supported some tentative conclusions:

* Reduced class size (below 20 pupils) can be expected to produce a modest increase in academic achievement. …

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