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Class-size reduction policies offer no real return on investment

The Nevada Department of Education is proposing legislation that would allow schools to apply for a literacy block grant that would reallocate money intended for classroom-size reduction.

To receive a grant, schools have to present a site plan that indicates how the money will be used to improve literacy for students in grades K-3. The school board (district or charter) would be responsible for overseeing the program’s implementation.

While the measure was met with some controversy at a meeting of the Legislature’s Committee on Education’s late last month, research finds that classroom size is not one of the most significant variables in improving student achievement.

Still, Nevada is one of 24 states that either mandates or incentivizes lower class sizes. Over the 2015-2017 biennium, the Legislature allocated $306.3 million for class-size reduction, which is 4 percent of the state’s overall budget and 8 percent of the state’s share of the education budget.

The minimal return on investment from these programs is a finding around which there is broad agreement. Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau and the Nevada Research Policy Institute have cautioned previously that class-size reduction efforts in the state have not yielded dramatic increases in student achievement.

In I Got Schooled, a survey of educational research conducted over decades, popular filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, summarized these findings and wrote, “Of the 277 different estimates on the effect of student-teacher ratios, about 40 percent showed a small positive effect size, 40 percent a small negative, and 20 percent neutral. Only about a third of the studies were even statistically significant.”

If class-size reduction funds are not improving outcomes, why are states so fervently attached to the program?

One reason is that class-size reduction is “a convenient policy instrument” that policymakers rally around because it is easier to implement than other more difficult — yet more effective — measures.Also, the members of the public understand the program, which results in consistently high public support.

The Brookings Institution found that increasing the size of classrooms across the country by just one student would save about $12 billion annually. Nevada’s policymakers should support a school’s decision to reallocate funds away from class-size reduction and toward evidence-based strategies that do impact student achievement, especially in low-income, urban communities. These strategies, summarized in Night Shyamalan’s book, are listed below. The good news is that some of Nevada’s new educational programs incorporate aspects of these strategies.

1. Longer hours, whether an increased school day or extended year, give students the opportunity to spend more time on core subjects and participate in enrichment activities. Some Zoom and Victory schools, which serve primarily low-income student and English Language Learners, have longer school days. The longer school days have meant that early elementary school students have as many as 160 minutes of reading instruction per day. Longer school days also keep students in a safe, secure environment for longer, which is important for students in poverty.

2. Data-driven instruction helps teachers and school leaders to better identify gaps in student learning and create plans that address the specific learning needs of their students. Locally, school site teams at a number of higher performing schools review and use data regularly and rigorously to inform targeted interventions with their students.

3. Leaders who spend their time on instruction instead of administration are proven to positively influence student learning by providing innovation and motivation to teachers.

The Clark County School District’s Peer Assistance Review Program pairs new teachers with high-performing experienced teachers who provide support during the new teacher’s probationary period. This program establishes instruction-focused leadership responsibilities and fosters data-driven instruction.

4. The retention of the best teachers leads to stronger student performance. Teachers who remain in their schools have been found to outperform those who leave, especially at schools in low-income areas. Several new programs (e.g., Great Teaching and Leading Fund, etc.) enable school districts to compensate high-performing teachers and to provide professional development to recruit and retain teachers.

Site visits reveal that principals often staff classrooms to best meet the needs of students. One principal at a high-performing elementary school, for example, has higher student-teacher ratios in the early years, and reduces them in fifth grade to ensure that students understand key concepts before moving to middle school.

Nevada’s lawmakers should consider supporting efforts that will allow school leadership teams to direct funds away from class-size reduction and into evidence-based literacy programs and other interventions that align with ongoing efforts to improve academic outcomes for our state’s students.

Nancy E. Brune is the executive director of the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. Megan K. Rauch is the Center’s associate director of research and a former high school teacher.

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