The Impact of a Universal Class-Size Reduction Policy: Evidence from Florida's Statewide Mandate

Matthew Chingos
Harvard University, Program on Education Policy and Governance
May 2010 

This working paper by Harvard research fellow Matthew Chingos is a crystal ball for Ohio. Chingos examines Florida’s 2002 class-size reduction (CSR) policy – a universal mandate similar to Ohio’s mid-2009 policy enacted via the governor’s evidence-based model of school funding—and finds that it had no impact on student achievement.

The report outlines previous class size research and puts the infamous Tennessee STAR experiment (frequently cited by CSR defenders) in context. Other research has since contradicted STAR’s findings, and minority children benefited more than non-minorities in that study – a finding that should caution against universal CSRs and encourage more targeted reductions, if anything.

Using student-level data from the Florida Department of Education, Chingos examines deviations from prior trends in student achievement at districts and schools required to reduce class size, as well as deviations among those districts and schools that weren’t require to do so. Simply put, the comparison group included districts and schools which had already reduced class size and so didn’t have to comply with the 2002 mandate. The treatment group focused on those that did have to reduce classes by at least two students per year. (Chingos explains clearly why looking at achievement before and after the policy isn’t appropriate since Florida also had all sorts of other policy changes at that time that may have contributed to rising achievement.)

To add insult to injury to CSR defenders, Chingo also found no positive outcomes on other indicators like absenteeism, suspension, or crime and violence. In exposing Florida’s class size disappointment, the report points out the poor assumptions underlying Ohio’s policy: it presupposes “that resources provided to reduce class size will have a larger impact on student outcomes than resources that districts can spend as they see fit.” Rather than requiring all Ohio schools to reduce class sizes dramatically, the state would be better off targeting CSRs to the students it would help the most – especially considering the exorbitant costs the mandate imposes on ailing school budgets.

Read the study here.

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