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Field Experiments in Class Size from the Early Twentieth Century

  • Jonah Rockoff
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    A vast majority of adults believe that class size reductions are a good way to improve the quality of public schools. Reviews of the research literature, on the other hand, have provided mixed messages on the degree to which class size matters for student achievement. Here I will discuss a substantial, but overlooked, body of experimental work on class size that developed prior to World War II. These field experiments did not have the benefit of modern econometrics, and only a few were done on a reasonably large scale. However, they often used careful empirical designs, and the collective magnitude of this body of work is considerable. Moreover, this research produced little evidence to suggest that students learn more in smaller classes, which stands in contrast to some, though not all, of the most recent work by economists. In this essay, I provide an overview of the scope and breadth of the field experiments in class size conducted prior to World War II, the motivations behind them, and how their experimental designs were crafted to deal with perceived sources of bias. I discuss how one might interpret the findings of these early experimental results alongside more recent research.

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    File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.23.4.211
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    Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

    Volume (Year): 23 (2009)
    Issue (Month): 4 (Fall)
    Pages: 211-30

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    Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:23:y:2009:i:4:p:211-30
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.23.4.211
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    1. Alan B. Krueger, 2000. "Economic Considerations and class size," Working Papers 975, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing..
    2. Stephen G. Donald & Kevin Lang, 2007. "Inference with Difference-in-Differences and Other Panel Data," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 89(2), pages 221-233, May.
    3. Duflo, Esther & Dupas, Pascaline & Kremer, Michael, 2008. "Peer Effects, Teacher Incentives, and the Impact of Tracking: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Kenya," CEPR Discussion Papers 7043, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    4. Marianne Bertrand & Sendhil Mullainathan, 2004. "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(4), pages 991-1013, September.
    5. Moulton, Brent R., 1986. "Random group effects and the precision of regression estimates," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 32(3), pages 385-397, August.
    6. Neumark, David, 1996. "Sex Discrimination in Restaurant Hiring: An Audit Study," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 111(3), pages 915-41, August.
    7. Woessmann, Ludger & West, Martin R., 2002. "Class-Size Effects in School Systems Around the World: Evidence from Between-Grade Variation in TIMSS," IZA Discussion Papers 485, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    8. Joshua D. Angrist & Victor Lavy, 1999. "Using Maimonides' Rule To Estimate The Effect Of Class Size On Scholastic Achievement," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 114(2), pages 533-575, May.
    9. Steven D. Levitt & John A. List, 2007. "What Do Laboratory Experiments Measuring Social Preferences Reveal About the Real World?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(2), pages 153-174, Spring.
    10. Alan B. Krueger, 1997. "Experimental Estimates of Education Production Functions," NBER Working Papers 6051, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Leuven, Edwin & Oosterbeek, Hessel & Rønning, Marte, 2008. "Quasi-Experimental Estimates of the Effect of Class Size on Achievement in Norway," IZA Discussion Papers 3474, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    12. James J. Heckman & Jeffrey A. Smith, 1995. "Assessing the Case for Social Experiments," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 9(2), pages 85-110, Spring.
    13. Lisa Barrow & Lisa Markman & Cecilia E. Rouse, 2008. "Technology's Edge: The Educational Benefits of Computer-Aided Instruction," NBER Working Papers 14240, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Hanushek, Eric A, 1986. "The Economics of Schooling: Production and Efficiency in Public Schools," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 24(3), pages 1141-77, September.
    15. Edward Miguel & Michael Kremer, 2004. "Worms: Identifying Impacts on Education and Health in the Presence of Treatment Externalities," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 72(1), pages 159-217, 01.
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