Study: Florida Class-Size Reduction Mandate Does Not Improve Achievement

Published June 10, 2010

New research casts doubt on the success of Florida’s class-size reduction program as voters weigh a November ballot initiative to roll back the mandate’s more stringent provisions.

The study by Harvard education policy research fellow Matt Chingos finds resources assigned to shrink teacher-student ratios are not used effectively. According to the study, Florida school districts that spent money on class-size reduction did not outperform districts that used the equivalent funds for different purposes.

“I find there is no real difference there,” Chingos said.

Florida voters in 2002 approved a statewide ballot measure requiring state officials to increase spending to reduce class sizes in elementary and secondary schools. The law, phased in over eight years at a cost of more than $16 billion, requires classes be reduced to no more than 18 students per teacher in grades K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students in grades 9-12.

Ed Department Agrees

Florida Department of Education officials concur with the study’s findings, released in May.

“We do think it’s an accurate evaluation of the impact of class size,” said Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith. “Our indication is that if it has any impact on academic achievement, it’s marginal at best.”

But a leader of the 2002 campaign to enact the Class Size Amendment says the assessment is premature and unwarranted.

Damien Filer, former spokesman for Florida’s Coalition to Reduce Class Size, said he believes the Harvard study has a “fundamental flaw” because the program has not been fully implemented.

“The analogy would be if you took a car off the assembly line that hadn’t been completed in manufacturing and then did a test drive or crash study on it,” Filer said.

Filer also says lawmakers have shifted resources in past years, so the class-size program hasn’t been fully funded.

‘Expensive and Ineffectual Reform’

Smith points out Florida will spend $4 billion this year alone to comply with the law. “We have a very good accounting of money spent on the class-size effort,” Smith said. “We’ve had a dramatic decrease in average class size as a result.”

But Filer says the Harvard findings don’t stack up to research from California, Tennessee, and other states. “That demonstrates, in my opinion unequivocally, there are significant academic improvements you can tie to reduction in class sizes,” Filer said.

Matt Ladner, vice president for research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, disagrees.

“The empirical research on [this] as a K-12 improvement strategy has long shown that class size reduction is an expensive and ineffectual reform,” said Ladner. “This latest Florida study adds another nail in the coffin.”

Study author Chingos acknowledges some studies suggest there may be some positive effects of targeted class-size reductions in early grades among higher-poverty students, but he says their results cannot be extrapolated to the system as a whole.

“If you think that’s true, it would seem not such a great idea to do the policy across the board,” he said. “I think you want to avoid a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

New Ballot Measure

Florida voters will consider a ballot measure in November, recommended by the state legislature, to modify the class size law’s requirement to impose mandates on a class-by-class level. The commissioner says the change would provide needed flexibility at the school level.

“A fear is that high schools will have AP classes with maximum enrollment, and a new student arrives in the first week of school who needs the course but won’t be allowed to enroll because of class-size requirements,” Smith said.

But Filer says opponents of the class-size law will be thwarted in their efforts to “water down” the 2002 measure.

“When people drop off and pick up their kids at school, they can see for themselves what the conditions are in the classroom,” he said. “I don’t think a Harvard study is going to make a difference for parents.”

Meanwhile, Chingos says he plans to look at the effects of class-size reduction on teacher distribution. “Maybe there are some teachers in disadvantaged schools who might take the jobs at more affluent schools,” he said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado

Internet Info:

Matthew M. Chingos, “The Impact of a Universal Class-Size Reduction Policy: Evidence from Florida’s Statewide Mandate,” Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Paper Series,