Because of the dire fiscal situation, it seems some cut-backs to educational spending would be inevitable. The National Plan is pretty vague on education (amongst other things). Discussing the plan in the Irish Times Colm McCarthy remarked “The plan reflects successful lobbying to exempt the education budget from severe cuts. This is being justified in terms of the importance of holding with existing targets for pupil-teacher ratios, notwithstanding the dearth of evidence that reducing these ratios weakens educational outcomes in any measurable way.”
Is this really true? Well no. Few parameters in the economics of education have been so well studied as the effect of class size on educational outcomes. There are dozens and dozens of studies. So what’s the answer then? Well this is where it gets complicated. Firstly, we have no good evidence for Ireland that I am aware of. If this is what Colm McCarthy means then he is correct but then we don’t have any evidence on lots of things for Ireland and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What does the international evidence say then? The first complication is that one should not expect one answer. Primary schools are different from secondary schools, a class of 40 is different from one of 20 and Korea is not Bangladesh so variation in measured effects is to be expected. A further problem, which non academics may not care about but is important, is that methods for estimating these effects vary widely and this partly explains some of the variation.
The most well studied country is the US. The STAR experiment in Tennessee is generally considered a well designed study and points to significant benefits from smaller classes but in that case the reductions were big (around 9 pupils on average). A “natural experiment” in Connecticut came up with a “precisely estimated zero” effect (Hoxby). The famous Maimonides Rule study for Israel (Angrist & Lavy) found positive effects of smaller classes but similar work for the Netherlands found the opposite (papers by Levin, Dobbelstein et al). A cross country study using TIMSS data (Woessman & West) found a mixed bag of results. Some reviews of the evidence point to negligible effects over all (see the work by Eric Hanushek) while other meta-analyses point to clear benefits from reducing classes. So rather than a dearth of evidence there is too much of it or at least there is not enough consensus and you can pick a study to suit your prejudice (or “prior” to give it its scientific name).
What’s striking about this literature is its near obsession with one variable, class size. Other measures of quality are almost entirely ignored. Ask yourself or someone else was their school good and they will quickly you reasons why it was or wasn’t. Class size tends not to be prominent a reason in my experience. This isn’t scientific but it does remind us that lots of things, some hard to measure, go into making a good school. One factor that everyone mentions is their teachers. Curiously, measuring the quality of teachers and the effect it has on outcomes does not feature much in the policy debates.
In the absence of clear evidence it probably makes sense that any damage from increased class effects is minimized by favouring more socially disadvantaged schools and those schools with the biggest class sizes.