ANNAPOLIS- Gov. Parris N. Glendening is pushing a class-size reduction plan that would begin next year, but some education experts say reducing class sizes in general and Glendening’s plan in particular may not help students as much as supporters of the proposal think.
The governor’s bill, being debated in the House Ways and Means Committee, calls for a 20-student limit on first- and second-grade reading classes and seventh-grade math classes. If approved by the General Assembly, initial funding would be included in the fiscal year 2001 budget.
Based on the positive response to a similar plan in Montgomery County, Glendening thinks his class-size reduction plan can deepen relationships between teachers and students, a legislative aide said. But some experts say the plan may do more for the governor’s approval rating than for Maryland students.
Classes have been shrinking nationwide for years without any discernible impact on student performance, said Eric Hanushek, an economics professor at the University of Rochester who has studied class-size reduction.
“There’s no evidence to suggest a plan like that will yield very big effects,” Hanushek said of Glendening’s proposal. “Considering it’s one of the most costly programs you can create, it looks like a loser.”
The problem with class-size reduction plans, Hanushek said, is that most do not address the overall quality of teachers. Some classes benefit, he said, but most teachers do not change their methods to complement smaller classes.
Charles Achilles, a professor of education at Eastern Michigan University, said Glendening’s plan sounds like a political solution to an education problem. Achilles helped design Tennessee’s “Project Star,” widely held as one of the most ambitious and successful class-size reduction programs in the country. He criticized the governor’s plan because it does not expose students to smaller classes early enough and because it focuses on only two subjects. The plan may have been unduly influenced by budget concerns, he said.
“One of the purposes of reducing class sizes is to help children learn about school,” Achilles said. “If you slap them into a bunch of different situations and move them around all the time, it’s probably not going to be very effective.”
The governor thinks that by focusing on specific grades and subjects, his plan can help build an educational base for students without straining the state’s budget coffers, said spokesman Don Vandrey.
But instead of instantly reducing class sizes in first and second grade, Achilles said, the state should phase in smaller classes starting with kindergarten. Students suddenly placed in smaller classes in first or second grades are less likely to benefit, he said.
Reducing class sizes can help students in all academic subjects, Achilles said, but switching young children from larger classes to smaller reading classes in the middle of a school day can have a jarring effect.
Achilles’ ideas resemble a bill introduced by Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, which calls for an 18- student limit on all core curriculum classes in kindergarten through the third grade. Zirkin’s bill reached the House Ways and Means Committee the same day as the governor’s, but delegates said it is unlikely to pass because it would cost as much as $140 million a year.
“If you only look at the cost, that’s a short-sighted way of looking at it,” Achilles warned. “You need to look at the benefits. Reducing class sizes is a platform that allows a lot of other things to happen.”
Increased parent participation, reduced discipline problems and reduced numbers of students in special education programs are a few of the benefits Achilles listed for the Tennessee model.
Hanushek is less optimistic about the effects of class- size reduction, even on younger students. Unless the teachers hired for the program are better than average, he said, they have no positive effect and can even hurt the quality of education.
With some districts like Baltimore and Prince George’s County already far short of Glendening’s goal of 98 percent teacher certification and other districts straining to attract teachers, the state might have trouble meeting the demand for teachers created by a class-size reduction plan.
Despite these concerns, many experts still generally support reducing class sizes for younger students, but very few support Glendening’s plan to reduce class sizes for seventh-grade math students.
Seventh grade has never been a fertile ground for such programs, Hanushek said.
Yale economics professor Michael Boozer is the exception. He studied eighth- and 10th-graders and he believes that reducing class sizes, especially in math, can have a positive effect. Based on Boozer’s projections, Glendening’s class-size reduction could improve seventh- graders’ math scores substantially.
“I think everybody, even the detractors, will want to see whether or not it works,” Boozer said.
Regardless of the academic debate, Glendening’s plan is likely to pass in some form because it is so popular with legislators, parents, and the powerful Maryland State Teachers’ Association. -30-