BOSTON — The idea seems obvious: Fewer students in the classroom mean more personal attention from the teacher and therefore more learning. Parents like it. Teachers say it's essential to boost test scores. And President Clinton just proposed $12 billion to fund a national effort to lower class size.
The president's plan would help hire 100,000 new teachers and reduce class size in the first, second, and third grades to an average of 18 students per class, down from 22 nationally. Clinton also proposes $19.4 billion in interest-free bonds to help construct or modernize 5,000 new schools to cope with the need for new classrooms.
But is lowering class size really the best way to teach kids to read? By some measures, class size has been dropping in the United States for at least 40 years, without a surge in student performance. Moreover, countries that outscore the US in reading, math, and science do so with class sizes that average 30 to 50 students. Critics say reducing class size drains resources from better programs.
Here's a look at key questions in what is becoming the biggest experiment in US education.
Making the case
Education experts agree that learning to read well in the early grades is a key to future achievement. Students that don't learn to read well by the fourth grade rarely catch up with their classmates.
"For 50 percent of our students, learning to read is a very easy process. If you care about teaching only them, you can pile in as many as you want into a class. Smaller classes mean you can spend more time doing different things," says John Cole, head of the Texas State Federation of Teachers. Texas launched an initiative to lower class size in 1984 that, with other reforms, has raised achievement.
How big are classes?
Pupil-teacher ratios have been falling since the 1950s from 30 to 1 to less than 19 to 1 today, but many city schools still have 24 to 28 students per class. Part of the problem is the way data are collected: Some districts count administrators in calculating ratios. "Data are fairly meaningless," says Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "You'll see figures of 14 to 1 or 17 to 1, but in most urban schools, you'll never find it."
Is there a teacher shortage?
The only significant shortages are in states like California, which have already passed plans to reduce class size. Elsewhere, the teacher shortage is either mixed or nonexistent. That said, there are spot shortages in some fields, such as special education, science, and math. And increased enrollments and an expected teacher retirement boom in the next decade are also likely to produce shortages.
"The problem with the system is that it is extremely inflexible. The way teachers are paid guarantees shortages," says Mike Podgursky, a University of Missouri economist who studies education. The solution, he says, is to raise salaries for positions in short supply, not just pour more money into education schools to get more graduates.
Do kids learn better?
There have been more than 1,100 studies of class size and performance, but they offer mixed and contradictory results. The most convincing evidence for smaller class size comes from a 1990 study for the Tennessee legislature.
Tennessee's Project STAR concluded that small class sizes (13 to 17 students) significantly increased achievement scores, and that greatest gains were made in inner-city classes.
But other studies point in the opposite direction. "Nationally, class sizes have fallen dramatically for decades, while student achievement has not improved," says Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester in New York, in a new study. International comparisons show little relationship between small class size and student performance.
Any bad effects?
California, Texas, New York, Virginia, Indiana, Nevada, Florida, and Wisconsin have already launched reduction plans. Experts worry that wealthier districts will raid the best teachers from poorer districts, who will end up hiring less-qualified teachers.
Some critics argue that the biggest problem is that teachers are not well prepared.
"For $12 billion you could retrain today's teachers so they knew their subject. You could give each of the nation's 2.7 million teachers a $1,000 tuition grant to go learn math or really effective techniques for teaching reading," says Chester Finn of the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
"The question the public needs to ask is, 'What else could the money be used for?' and 'Do you make a national policy change on the basis of a hunch?' "