Smaller Is Definitely Better
Caruso says her students did particularly well that year. Achievement scores from her students--and more than 6,500 others involved in the study--show conclusively that reducing class size to an average of 15 students has a consistent, substantial impact on reading and mathematics performance among K-3 students.
Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), as the study is called, represents a four-year effort to monitor the performance of students from 75 schools across Tennessee as they advanced from kindergarten through the 3rd grade. It was mandated by the Tennessee Legislature in 1985. In the first year of the study, participating students were randomly assigned to a small class (13-17 students), a regular class (22-25 students), or a regular class with a full-time teacher's aide. Students remained in the same type of class through 3rd grade.
The study was conducted by the state department of education with the assistance of a consortium of four universities: Memphis State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
In kindergarten, students in small classes scored six points higher in reading and eight points higher in math on standardized achievement tests than those in the regular-sized classes; they had a slightly higher pass rate on basic-skills tests. By the end of 1st grade, the small-class achievement gap widened to 11 points in reading and 12 points in math on the Stanford Achievement Test--a difference that experts say is "large and educationally important, not just statistically significant.'' According to the report on the first two years of the study released by the Tennessee Department of Education, the gain is roughly equivalent to about a two-month difference in achievement. By the end of 1st grade, the regular classes with a teacher's aide were only slightly ahead of the regular classes without an aide.
These academic leaps by reducedsize classes held true in urban, suburban, rural, and inner-city districts; for all races; for both poor and affluent students; and for both girls and boys. But the effects of small classes were especially strong in inner-city schools with large minority enrollments. There, for example, the pass rate for minority children on curriculum-based mathematics and reading tests came close to that for white children.
Results on 2nd graders' performance, which were released in November, show that students in small classes have maintained their academic gains. Data from the last year of the study, when the children were in 3rd grade, are being analyzed and are expected to be released in early 1990.
One truly remarkable aspect of the project is that the initial findings have been quickly translated into policy. Soon after the release of the results from the first two years of the study, Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter announced that $2.8 million of state money and $1.3 million in federal Chapter 1 funds would be pumped into 44 elementary schools to reduce class sizes. Allocation of the state funds closely mirrors the research results: The money pays for 15student kindergarten-through-3rd grade classes in schools where at least 60 percent of the enrollment comes from families whose economic status makes pupils eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
The class-size findings may have surprised policymakers, but not teachers. What surprised teachers, according to Project Director Elizabeth Word, was that the benefits of smaller classes were ever in question. Says Word: "When I went across the state, teachers asked me: 'Why in the world is the state of Tennessee spending $12 million to study something that we already know the answer to?' I had to tell them, 'You are a teacher, and you know, but the legislators aren't educators--they just want to get their own answers.''
Even though lowering class size makes intuitive sense, the issue has long been a source of controversy. Project STAR's initial conclusions come less than two years after a U.S. Education Department report asserted that reducing class size is "the most costly and most primitive'' method of enhancing student achievement. The 44-page paper, based on analysis of a number of previous studies, pointed out that from 1961 to 1986, the median class size in elementary schools dropped from 30 to 24 students. But over the same two decades, the document said, student achievement--as measured by standardized-test scores-- also showed a steady decline.
Still, the Tennessee study and the U.S. Education Department analysis are not totally contradictory. Although the federal report raised serious second thoughts about the economic and academic effectiveness of smaller classes, it did acknowledge that class sizes would have to drop sharply below their current levels--to no more that 15 pupils each--before researchers would see significant improvement in student achievement.
Project STAR researchers had set out to find out more about the 15student threshold, and they made sure they designed the study so that the findings would be unquestionable.
Jeremy Finn, a State University of New York researcher, was called in to consult on research and statistical matters and to review the design of the study. Although he found the design to be "exemplary,'' he doubted the project would turn up much evidence supporting smaller classes. "I started as a skeptic,'' he says. "But each year it got better. I kept saying 'This can't be. This can't be.''
Because every school involved in the project had at least one of each kind of class--one small class, one regularsized class, and one regular class with a teacher's aide--the results weren't skewed by differences between schools. He says that the "in-school'' design, as well as the sheer size of the study and the random assignment of both students and teachers, made Project STAR "far and away the best true experiment'' that has ever been done on the class-size issue.
"They did everything right,'' he says. "Anything that anybody ever said you should do in an education experiment was done correctly here.''
Although the study is officially over--Project STAR is out of the classroom now, and only results from the 3rd grade are yet to be released-- some people are still watching the 4th graders with interest. Driven by curiosity, Finn is involved in a follow-up study with the state department of education, monitoring the students to find out if the gains from small classes will be maintained as they grow older and return to regular-sized classes.
A major question still to be answered is what specific aspects of the small classes make a difference. Project STAR teachers who were interviewed say that in small classes they can make sure all students master the curriculum; they say they know their students better, and feel confident that "no one is falling through the cracks.'' They also claim to have more time to provide immediate remedial help when students seem to be having problems.
Helen Bain, who was instrumental in getting Project STAR funded, says the impetus to reduce class size in the elementary grades was a long time coming. Bain, past president of National Education Association and a researcher at Tennessee State, remembers teaching English to high school students who could not read. "I was constantly fighting their lack of selfconfidence, and what failing over and over had done to them,'' she recounts. "I pushed for Project STAR because it is just like building a house--if you don't have a firm foundation, something like [hurricane] Hugo is going to blow it all way.''
She says she and her fellow teachers knew that reducing class size would help children build that strong academic foundation. "For years, people have said to us, 'You can't prove it,'' Bain says. "Every time they don't want to put money into reducing class size, they say, 'You can't prove it.' But now, we have proven it. At last, we have results that no school board or legislature can put down.''