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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead August 23, 2012

Obama ad says class sizes 'don't matter' to Romney

A new Barack Obama campaign ad titled "Children" attacks Republican Mitt Romney on education by painting him as out of touch with public school students and their families.

In the ad, parents Kevin and Caroline say their children’s best experiences have been in the classroom.

"But Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter," a narrator interjects.

A photo of Romney appears, along with a Washington Times headline declaring "Romney downplays value of small class size."

Many parents have long believed that small class sizes translate into a better education for kids. School districts often boast about having low ratios, which presumably gives teachers more time to focus on each student.

Education Week, a well-respected independent journal, reports that most research supports the idea that small classes have benefits for students but that the smaller classes do not not automatically translate into better learning.

Where does Romney stand on this? We decided to check his record.

What he said

The Washington Times story cited in the ad was about Romney's May visit to a Philadelphia charter school. He joined a roundtable of teachers and talked about his approach to education while governor of Massachusetts.

"I came into office and talked to people, and said ‘What do we do to improve our schools?’ And a number of folks said, ‘Well, we need smaller classroom sizes -- that will make the biggest difference.’ So I gathered information across our state. We had 351 cities and towns. I said let’s compare the average classroom size from each school district with the performance of our students, because we test our kids, and we’ll see if there’s a relationship. And there was not.

"As a matter of fact, the school district with the smallest classrooms, Cambridge, had students in the bottom 10 percent," he continued. "So just getting smaller classrooms didn’t seem to be the key."

A teacher asked Romney for his views on class size.

He mentioned work by the consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute comparing class size and student performance among several countries. Romney said the study found that "in schools that are the highest-performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems." He said factors such as parent involvement, motivated teachers and quality administrators were better drivers of success.

Romney often cites McKinsey's research. His campaign pointed us to similar remarks Romney made in Orlando last September and in Nashua, N.H. in November.

"I plotted the one versus the other, classroom size against student performance. And guess what? There was no relationship at all," he said in Orlando.

The Obama campaign also cited his speech in The Villages, a retirement town in central Florida. Romney said Massachusetts data "showed that classroom size was not relevant in my state to how well the kids were doing."

Finally, on page 216 of his book No Apology, Romney wrote, "in the United States, then, the effort to reduce classroom size may actually hurt education more than it helps."

Romney’s campaign website makes no mention of class size but touts the importance of school choice and expanding access to "high-quality public charter schools." His campaign spokesman, Ryan Williams, pointed out that Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has also expressed skepticism about the emphasis on small classes.

Our ruling

Obama’s ad claims that "Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter."

That's pretty much what he has said, saying that Massachusetts data "showed that classroom size was not relevant in my state to how well the kids were doing."

We rate the claim True.

Our Sources

"Children," Obama campaign ad, Aug. 22, 2012

CNN Youtube video, May 24, 2012

Washington Times, "Romney downplays value of small class size," May 24, 2012

Education Week, "Class size," July 1, 2011

Philadelphia Inquirer, "Romney, in West Philadelphia, dismisses value of small classes," May 25, 2012, via Nexis

Talking Points Memo, "Obama Camp Hits Romney On Class Sizes Despite Similar Comments From White House," Aug. 22, 2012

Obama for America press release, Aug. 22, 2012

Email interview with Ryan Williams, Romney campaign, Aug. 22, 2012, section on Education, accessed Aug. 22, 2012

No Apology, Mitt Romney page 216

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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Obama ad says class sizes 'don't matter' to Romney

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