I recently had the opportunity to visit with several high school classes on a visit to Iowa City High School. Let me first say I was extremely impressed with the school, the teacher who invited me (Jeanine Redlinger), and the students. The campus would put most private schools to shame, Redlinger is clearly a dedicated and talented professional, and the students were incredibly bright, prepared, and interested. This is the kind of high school you want kids to experience.

While our conversation bounced around significantly from topic to topic, one recurring theme was a debate on class size. Mostly, with the students arguing that class size matters and me pushing back against that notion. After reflecting for a few days, I have come to realize that (as with most things) the truth is somewhere in the middle.

There is certainly evidence that class size matters. The Tennessee STAR experiment showed that class size mattered when it comes to improving student achievement in early grades. The STAR experiment still stands, some 25 years later, as the best evidence that class size has an impact on student achievement. Any student or working teacher can tell you that kids get more individualized attention when class sizes are lower. A skilled educator can turn this increased attention and time into results.

In opposition to this we have evidence both from the U.S. and from the highest performing countries that class size doesn’t seem to matter. In the United States, we have increased spending to public education dramatically over the past few decades and at a rate nearly double that of inflation. We used these increased revenues to 1) lower class sizes and 2) pour funds into step and lane pay systems. Yet, achievement results in the United States remain relatively flat. The highest performing education countries in the world frequently have (generally) higher class sizes than the United States. Putting a greater emphasis on educator effectiveness, these higher performing countries are willing to trade class size for freeing up resources that can lead to improved educator effectiveness.

Is the relentless pursuit of lower class size the United States has been on for decades paying off for us? The evidence says “no.”

We should be concerned with some states who are considering cutting funding to public education that will lead to class sizes in the 40s or even higher. But we should also be concerned with the status quo argument that we need more and more money to relentlessly pursue lowering class size.

Given where class sizes currently are in most schools in the United States, I am willing to trade holding the line or even slightly increasing class size in exchange for improving educator effectiveness.

Secretary Duncan asks us to consider this simple choice: Would you rather have your child in a class with a mediocre teacher and 23 students, or an exceptional teacher and 27 students? The relationship certainly isn’t that linear in reality, but I can tell you where I’d want my kid…

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA