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Clinton's big push: cutting class size

A year after California began drastically reducing classroom size, teachers and parents alike are pleased with the change. Now President Clinton is campaigning for smaller classes everywhere.

Although classrooms across the nation already are far less crowded than they were in California, the administration wants to spend $12 billion over seven years to hire 100,000 new teachers for grades one through three. Officials cite research they say links smaller classes to better learning.But the research is less supportive than public opinion polls, working teachers and common sense in favor of lower class sizes. Researchers have studied and debated the issue for decades, often harshly.

"When you ask teachers, they seem to know instinctively classrooms should be smaller," said Marshall S. Smith, acting deputy secretary of education, when questioned about dueling studies. In the Reagan and Bush years, the Education Department opposed class-size reduction as expensive and ineffective.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, has been pushing since the late 1960s for classes of 15 pupils.

Smith and others quote from a "fairly rigorous" study of a Tennessee experiment during the 1980s with cutting class sizes from 25 pupils to 15 in kindergarten through the third grade. The study found that pupils in smaller classes did better on standardized tests.

Other researchers say the starting and ending numbers in any reduction scheme are more important than the numbers in between. In California, average class size in the early grades went from 30 to the legally prescribed 20. Clinton wants to bring classes down from an average of 22 nationwide to 18.

"Reducing class size from 22 to 18 is unlikely to make a big difference," said Robert Slavin, a researcher at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and head of a successful reading program. "Reducing class size from 30 to 18 is probably going to make a much larger difference."

"It's very expensive and probably has more to do with building morale and a positive environment with the schools than it does with achievement," said Slavin, who believes reducing class size is "a good thing to do."

Under the plan, California would get $124 million; New York, $101 million; Texas, $94 million; Florida, $50 million; Illinois and Pennsylvania, $49 million each; and Ohio, $45 million.

Slavin praised Clinton for wanting to phase in the hiring of teachers and assure that they are qualified, hoping to avoid troubles California had in its crash program, and to stress reading. But he said the money could be more efficiently used on tutoring or other targeted approaches.

The proposal figures on an average teacher cost of $35,000 in salary and benefits. Local districts would pay 10 percent to 50 percent of the cost, with poor districts getting a higher subsidy. About 37,000 teachers would be hired the first year.

Gene V. Glass, at Arizona State University in Tempe, questioned the benefits.

"The difference in achievement between where we are now, which is 22, 23, 24 kids per class, and where the president is talking about, 18, is very small," he said.

"You have to go way, way down to get gains that are appreciable," he said.

Eric A. Hanushek, a University of Rochester economist, said the small studies overlook the big picture: class sizes have been shrinking nationwide, with no gain in achievement on national standardized tests.