What does research say about smaller classes, fewer TAs?

Posted July 23, 2015 12:33 p.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2015 12:44 p.m. EDT

— In Raleigh, Senate lawmakers are proposing a controversial tradeoff.

They want to cut funding for teacher assistants to hire more teachers and reduce classroom sizes in the early grades. Republicans argue that smaller classes will lead to better student outcomes, even if it’s at the cost of fewer teacher assistants.

“About all research shows if you get that class number down to somewhere between somewhere to 15, 16, 17, you’re getting down to an ideal number to work with,” says Republican Senator Jerry Tillman.

That seems logical: fewer students means the teachers have more time for each one. But the research actually shows a much more complicated picture.

What research says

Class size is a topic that has been debated and analyzed for a very long time – and experts are still split on it.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, argues that implementing an across-the-board class size reduction doesn’t make much sense.

“They’re the most expensive policy that you can think of running to try to improve schools,” he says.

Under the senate’s plan, it would cost more than $250 million to reduce each class in kindergarten through third grade.

The proposal would reduce class sizes in kindergarten to a 1:17 teacher-student ratio and to a 1:15 ratio in grades 1-3. Currently, classes are funded with 19 and 17 students in mind, respectively.

The money to fund that idea would come from cutting teacher assistants, which Hanushek says would be much better spent somewhere else.

“Teacher quality just swamps any impact of slightly smaller classes,” he says.

He says a highly-effective teacher can handle more students. He poses a hypothetical situation: say you have an effective teacher and you reduce her class size from 23 to 12.

“It means you have to hire another teacher, who’s probably is not as good as that teacher and thus on average the kids will be worse-off,” he says.

Better student achievement

Jeremy Finn, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has also spent a lot of time thinking about class size and teacher quality.

“I mean it’s not one or the other – why on earth would you trade one off against the other?”

He argues that smaller classes make a big difference. He analyzed the data for arguably the most influential study out there relating to class sizes in the early grades.

Called Project STAR, the four-year Tennessee study randomly assigned almost 12,000 elementary school teachers and students to a small class, a regular class or a regular class with a teacher assistant. The experiment, conducted in the late 1980s, has led different researchers to vastly different conclusions. For Finn, it helped show that smaller class sizes lead to better test scores and change the way students behave.

“They can’t hide in the back corners and form their little friendship groups that distract from teaching,” he says. “A student in a class of 15 or 17 knows that he or she can be called on for the next question”

And the impacts, he says, are long-lasting, especially for minority and low-income students. He says children who were in small classes for three or four years are more likely to graduate or take college entrance exams.

There isn’t a magical number in terms of how small a class should be, according to Finn, but many studies point to a threshold of 20 students.

How About Teacher Assistants?

While Finn and Hanushek don’t agree on the importance of class size, they are on the same page about one thing, which is quite unfortunate for teacher assistants.

“On average, or in general, teacher aides have no academic impact on kids whatsoever, we just find nothing,” Finn says.

Finn says that’s based largely on the Tennessee study. Not many people have since looked into the impact of teacher assistants. He and other researchers say, while there are exceptions, it’s shown that most TAs don’t make a difference academically because they don’t have the credentials to do so.

“It’s not true, it’s not true,” says Ashlyn Montgomery, a teacher assistant from Davie County. “I can tell you that we’re effective, they need to come into a classroom with a teacher assistant and come into a classroom without one.”

She says her job involves responding to emergencies, giving kids the extra attention they need and just making sure the class runs smoothly.

While some districts require certain credentials and training, teacher assistants in North Carolina are not required to have a professional educator’s license. The state requires a minimum of a high school diploma or GED.

“I don’t have a college degree, but I can tell you that in some cases…I have some training that some teachers don’t have. I’m actually Read-To-Achieve certified, and some teachers are not,” Montgomery says.

Under the Senate plan, lawmakers would cut the equivalent of 8,500 teacher assistant positions to reduce class sizes. The House doesn’t cut teacher assistants or reduce class sizes. That difference is one of the reasons why lawmakers are still in Raleigh past their June 30 budget deadline.

This report first appeared on WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio as part of their
education coverage.

Reema Khrais is the 2014 Fletcher Fellow focused on Education Policy Reporting. The Fletcher Fellowship is a partnership between WUNC and UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication funded in part by the Fletcher Foundation.