Reducing class size was a big plank in the platform Deborah Lynch ran on for president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Now though, the issue is on the back burner since funds are scarce, and the union’s first priority is a pay raise.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Lynch. “For every reduction in class size, you’re balancing it against a 1 percent reduction in pay.”

Reducing class size limits by one student across the board would cost about $23.5 million, the same as a 1 percent pay hike, according to the School Board.

However, the cost of additional reductions would accelerate, budget officials say, so that a five-student reduction-creating a ratio of 23-to-1 in most classes-would cost almost six times as much.

Board officials also say that class-size reduction could bring additional costs in classroom construction and maintenance and in the hiring of additional school clerks, who are assigned on the basis of the number of teachers in a school.

Limited to the primary grades, where research shows that small classes have the biggest impact, a reduction of one student would cost $9.6 million in teacher salaries. A reduction of five would cost $54.8 million, according to the School Board.

But the research that makes the strongest case for reducing class size points to still larger reductions.

For example, in the 1980s, Tennessee’s Project Star found that reducing class size to 15 in primary grades produced substantial gains for all students on a range of tests. Follow-up studies found that the benefits persisted at least through the 8th grade.

Reducing class size by one or two—or even five—is “just not worth it,” says Alex Molnar, an Arizona State University professor who has studied class-size reduction efforts in Wisconsin. “While I don’t think reducing class size from 28 to 23 would be a bad thing, you’re just not going to show the kinds of achievement gains that you show when you drop it down to the 15 to 1 range.”

Molnar likes the model he studied in Wisconsin, where a program called SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) has targeted schools with low-income students, reducing class size to 15 to 1 for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

The program was phased in over four years, starting with kindergarten and adding a grade every year. “That way, you give schools an opportunity to prepare, and you don’t put out such a demand for new teachers right away,” he says.

It’s not necessary to build new classrooms, he notes. The results for classrooms with 30 students and two teachers were the same as those for classrooms with 15 students and one teacher. Students in these classes consistently scored higher than students in a comparison group, although after 1st grade, the results were not always statistically significant.

In Chicago, such a program would cost $304 million in teacher salaries alone at the end of the phase-in, CPS budget officials estimate.

“I would love to reduce class size significantly,” says CEO Arne Duncan. “It’s simply finding the funding to do that.”

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