In November, after months of contentious debate, Florida voters endorsed a sweeping plan requiring the state's schools to set a ceiling on the number of students in every classroom from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Ratification of the class-size-reduction amendment is the biggest feather in the cap of those advocating smaller class sizes. They believe smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more individualized attention to students, manage their classrooms more effectively and provide more effective instruction that leads to better student performance.
But many are unconvinced that class-size reduction leads to significant student gains. To them, the Florida effort is a budget-busting blunder that isn't worth the cost of building thousands of additional schools and hiring teachers to fill those new classrooms.
The financial risks of pursuing class-size reduction in Florida and other jurisdictions are especially pronounced right now as nearly every state is struggling to maintain education spending levels, let alone find new revenue for more facilities and personnel.
“The program has been enormously popular with teachers and parents, but it has been expensive, and some have questioned whether it is worth the cost,” says a report by The CSR Research Consortium on class-size reduction in California. “The issue of cost effectiveness looms especially large in light of the huge shortfall in tax revenues being projected.”
The premise that reducing class sizes can lead to improved teaching and learning is one that most teachers and parents would readily endorse. Given a choice between a classroom with 20 students and one with 30 students, who would argue that the 30-student classroom is a better environment for learning?
In a smaller classroom, a teacher has more time to get to know each student's personality and academic strengths and weaknesses; students receive more attention and are less likely to become discipline problems. With less time taken up by classroom management, teachers can spend more time helping students learn.
Advocates of smaller classes focus especially on primary grades, when children are first acclimating themselves to the school environment and learning how to read.
So as school reform gained momentum in the 1990s and a healthy economy made class-size reduction feasible, many programs were created to reduce the numbers of students in a class. The Education Commission of the States identifies 24 states that have established mandates, grant programs or other financial incentives to lower class size.
In addition, the federal class-size reduction effort, begun by the Clinton Administration in fiscal 1999, allocated funds with a goal of helping districts hire 100,000 new teachers. The Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act has incorporated the federal class-size-reduction program into a block grant program to improve teacher quality.