By John Louis Meeks
The first day of school is a rite of passage that teaches young people something more than just their entry into their education; it also plays a significant role in their socialization. They enter a setting where their world has expanded beyond a world in which they were the center of attention. They must now face a world in which they share their needs and wants with others. Educators have been aware of this as they must play a parent figure to the offspring of a community and labor to craft differentiated and individualized instruction for the masses. It is more than just an idealistic dream for public education to support the community’s desire to help students in their formative years by reducing class sizes to allow students to grow in an atmosphere that can afford them the type of instruction that values their unique needs that do not have to be left behind when they enter the schoolhouse doors.
This issue gained unprecedented attention in 2000 when the federal government funded efforts to reduce K-12 class sizes. On a more local stage, Florida’s voters amended their state constitution to mandate school districts to reduce the size of classrooms in both primary and secondary schools. While the debate appears to be resolved, questions still linger about how the desires of the voting public can translate into better results for our students and our economy. Existing research, however, points to the advantages of teaching and learning that is targeted more on quality and less on quantity. The return on investment, of course, is at the heart of these studies as the investments that our society makes in our schools requires accountability to prevent waste and inefficiency.
Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University writes of a study in Tennessee (Project STAR) that raises the issue of justifying the seemingly expensive price of class size reduction. He estimates that reducing a class size from 22 to 15 has a return of six percent. Even with a discount rate of four percent, the benefits of reducing class size would be around twice the cost of implementing it, says Krueger. The success of students also bears out Krueger’s point. During the STAR experiment, primary-school students who were randomly assigned to classes with 15 students outperformed those who were placed randomly in classes with 22 students. This success rate continued to reap dividends for the smaller-class students as they reached the twelfth grade.
New York-based Class Size Matters supports the STAR findings regarding the long-term benefits of smaller class sizes. In Nashville schools, according to Class Size Matters, 16.7 percent of students from smaller classes were retained through their sophomore year of high school, compared to 43.5 percent of those who were in more conventional classes with more students. At a time when social promotion and grade recovery are floated as solutions to retention rates, research on smaller class sizes creates a new way to help students realize their potential and avoid falling below their peers’ grade level.
The federal efforts to leave no child behind are based on tackling the achievement gap. The government’s solutions, while well-intentioned, were more draconian in their scope. More oversight and accountability morphed into unrealistic benchmarks and punitive sanctions that have left this legislation shot full of waivers and exceptions. Congress has yet to address the reauthorization of this controversial legislation. Smaller class sizes, according to Peter Schuler of The University of Chicago Chronicle, have actually reduced the achievement gap that exists between white and minority students.
The same STAR study, “tracked the SAT and ACT scores of the Tennessee students when they graduated from high school and established that the students enrolled in small classes during their first four years of education had higher average test scores than students enrolled in regular-size classes during those early grades,” said Schuler. Black students trended better than whites on tests that were seemingly impossible for minority students to pass.
“We found that black students in small classes from K to 3 had a dramatically increased probability of subsequently taking the ACT or SAT,” Kruger’s research partner Diane Whitmore said. “The black-white gap is reduced by 60 percent, which is huge.”
Education Week, although it questioned the research behind smaller class sizes by comparing American schools to those in other industrialized nations, admitted that “[f]ollow-up studies through the years have found the students who had been in small classes in their early years had better academic and personal outcomes throughout their school years and beyond.”
In high school said Helen Bate-Pain, students who had been in smaller classes had significantly lower drop-out rates, higher grades, and received better results on their college entrance exams…the difference between black and white students taking college entrance exams was cut in half.”
Class Size (July 1, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/
Krueger, Alan B. (Copyright 2002). Economic Considerations and Class Size. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nber.org/papers/
Haimson, Leonie (June 2010). The Benefits of Smaller Classes. Retrieved fromhttp://www.classsizematters.
Schuler, Peter (April 1, 2004). Small class size helps to bridge gap in achievement. The University of Chicago Chronicle. Vol. 23. No. 13. Retrieved from http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/