Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Smaller classes no panacea, Washington report finds

by January 13th, 2013

In a new report for Washington state lawmakers pressed to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to better fund K-12 public education, the state’s own policy analysis unit has found that 10 percent class size reductions provide only a very modest gain in key student performance measures in early grades and nearly none in middle- and high-school. This comes not long after similar news from the same source that 10 percent bumps in K-12 spending also have limited bang-for-buck. A broader, related state study will report later this year on whether pinpointing new K-12 money to teacher effectiveness training gets better results.

Reviewing 53 mostly U.S.-based studies that passed muster methodologically, researchers from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that on average a 10 percent decrease in class size improved outcomes such as standardized test scores, graduation rates and drop-out rates by about 1 percent annually in 1st grade and progressively less in each year thereafter until flattening out at a few tenths of percentage point above zero, from 9th grade through 12th.

The state researchers also found that the lower the grade level, the better the chances that the costs of adding teaching personnel would be exceeded by the economic benefits to students and society later in life, such as increased earnings, greater economic growth, reduced probability of criminality and reduced health care costs. Yet by 5th grade that probability of a net-positive outcome drops to 58 percent and overall, drops slightly lower from there, according to the WSIPP analysis of the 53 studies.

Washington Institute for Public Policy, Jan. 2013

In an October 2012 report for policymakers, WSIPP found that a general increase of 10 percent in K-12 public education spending also had very modest benefits in measurable outcomes in the early grades, that similarly dwindled in impact in higher grades.

In the McClearly ruling the court found that the “state has not complied with its (constitutional) duty to make make provision for the education of all children in Washington.” As a result, legislative staffers have told WSIPP, state K-12 spending may need to grow 20 percent by 2018. That would take $4.4 billion more per two-year state budget period than at present. In a June 2012 report the Washington State Auditors Office noted the state currently spends $12 billion per year on K-12 public education.

Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, WSIPP is examining the research literature on a series of education spending strategies so that lawmakers can know how to best utilize a major cash infusion for K-12 schooling in Washington ordered by the state high court last year in its McCleary v. the State of Washington ruling. How to find the money and how to spend it will be Topic One in the state legislative session opening this week in Olympia, as The Seattle Times reports.

A final report due this coming October will include a look at the benefits in student outcomes from other strategies including “enhancing teacher effectiveness,” which WSIPP says “can have large impacts on student achievement.”

The report says there isn’t reliable long-term data on how average class size has changed in Washington K-12 public education over past decades, but that pupil-teacher ratios are a rough guide to that. Washington’s average pupil-teacher ratios declined from about 30 students per teacher in 1940 to 19 students per teacher before 1985 and haven’t dropped very much since then, the report says.

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