BOSTON — A new report says that Massachusetts could boost statewide school achievement by reducing class sizes to 15 students in kindergarten through third grade, particularly in low-income schools, at an estimated cost of $161 million statewide.
The report, released last week by left-leaning research organization Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), studied the outcomes of class reduction efforts throughout the nation and their costs. When implemented correctly, MassBudget finds, reduced class sizes can help raise students’ academic performance and give teachers additional time to focus on class materials.
“What we see in looking at states that have reduced class sizes is that if you do it right — that is if you can get class sizes in the early grades down to about 15 students with well qualified teachers — it can have very significant effect in improving student learning,” Noah Berger, president of MassBudget, said.
Class reductions efforts are most effective, the report finds, when they target students in early grades, students of color and low-income students.
Target The Early Grades And High-Need Students
Research and case studies of effective programs show classes reduced to roughly 15 students show positive academic improvements.
“That’s where we’ve seen results,” Berger said. “When projects have been attempted that don’t get down to that size, the results are not nearly as significant.”
In their examination of class size reductions, small classes for students in kindergarten through third grades have had the most impact, especially for children in kindergarten and first grade.
“It appears that in those very low grades the ability of teachers to be able to provide more one-on-one and small group attention to students is particularly important,” Berger said.
More individualized attention in the earliest grades can be most beneficial as students’ basic academic concepts, social skills and school behaviors are formed, according to the report.
A $12 million state-backed class reduction program in Tennessee found that students in smaller classes gained, on average, roughly two to three more months of learning in reading and math compared with a control group in larger classes.
And the Tennessee program found that students of color and low-income students particularly benefit. For students of color, the academic gains were twice the overall average — roughly equal to five months of academic growth.
“Kids who face the largest obstacles from low-income communities are the ones who appear to be benefiting the most,” Berger said. “When we have smaller class sizes, they are able to get more individual attention from their teachers.”
The benefits of smaller classes were the greatest for low-income, African-American and inner-city students across the studied samples.
Where Does Massachusetts Stand?
The current average class size for all grades in Massachusetts is 18.1 students.
According to the report, Massachusetts schools that serve high proportions of low-income students could benefit most from reducing their class sizes to 15 students.
In 2013-2014, there were 461 elementary schools statewide that served 40 percent or more low-income students. Of these schools, 90 percent (414 schools) have class sizes larger than 15, with an average class size just under 20 students, according to the report.
However, the report warns, the 20 students-per-class average could understate actual class sizes. That number includes mainstream classes, as well as smaller classes for special education students and English-language learners. The small class sizes for non-mainstream classes could bring down the average.
In order to reduce class sizes at the schools serving low-income students, between four and five new teachers would need to be added at the 414 schools. Statewide, that adds up to approximately 1,840 new educators. Overall, the report suggests, hiring teachers in the affected districts would cost $161 million annually.
The cost cited above does not include funding for new teacher training, facilities upgrades for new classrooms or professional development that would be needed for the reductions to occur.
Reduction Efforts Don’t Always Work
Building on the success of the Tennessee class reduction effort, California attempted a similar effort in the late 1990s. The state-backed plan allocated $1.5 billion annually from 1996 to 2002 to reduce class sizes.
However, the California program failed to deliver results.
The class size reductions resulted in lower-quality teachers and facilities, according to the MassBudget report. As class sizes decreased, the need for teachers grew. Over four years, the state needed to hire 29,000 teachers, so they turned to teachers who were not fully credentialed.
One in five teachers in schools with large populations of low-income students were under-qualified and achievement results reflected this. There were no better results from smaller classes for students who were academically behind, English language learners or low-income students, according to the MassBudget report.
Despite the failures in some states, other states have recently taken up initiative to reduce class sizes. Washington voters recently passed an initiative calling for a 17-to-1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-3.
MassBudget’s Berger remains positive that class size reductions in Massachusetts could be implemented correctly and yield positive results. It’s a move he sees as crucial to the future of the state economy.
“States that have a well-educated workforce are the states that have strong high wage economies,” Berger said. “We know that in the long term what shapes a state’s economic strength is the skills and education of its people.”