Sizing Up Smaller Classes


Perhaps education reform is reforming. The education establishment's old fixation with reducing teacher-student ratios to "improve learning" is facing a tough challenge—from studies that simply don't bear it out.

Teachers may find smaller classes more comfortable to work with. But critics charge that the educational benefits gained from shrinking class size are too small to justify its exorbitant cost.

First the history lesson. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor and local school board member, points out that there were more than 29 students per teacher in 1940. Today there are fewer than 18. Yet during this significant drop in the ratio, test scores and other academic measurements have plummeted.

Now turn to economics. A recent Education Department study found that reducing classes to 15 students—the National Education Association's "optimal size"—would cost over $69 billion and require a million new teachers. And even then, the study shows, there would be at best only marginal learning gains.

At least some school officials, at all levels of government, are now doing their homework, putting education dollars to more productive use. And trade-conscious policymakers may yet again look to Japan for guidance. There, students sit 40 to a class, twice the U.S. average, but outperform Americans in almost every subject.