October 01, 1997 4 min read

Small Classes Matter: When Harold Wenglinsky set out to study school spending for the Educational Testing Service, he thought his work would contribute to the ongoing debate over possible links between spending and student achievement. Instead, his research put him squarely in the middle of another perennial controversy: whether smaller class sizes mean better learning. The answer is yes, says Wenglinsky, a researcher at the ETS Policy Information Center in Princeton, New Jersey. “It is the clear indicator for high achievement,” he says. He drew that conclusion in a roundabout way: School districts that put more money into instruction and central administration end up with smaller classes. Smaller classes, in turn, are linked to higher achievement in mathematics. Therefore, the ETS report says, school spending that results in smaller classes is good for achievement. “The research looked at which investments work and why they work, and which don’t,” says Wenglinsky, whose report, When Money Matters, was released last spring. Other kinds of spending--on building maintenance, school-level administration, and salaries for teachers with advanced degrees--were found to have little influence on math achievement. For his study, Wenglinsky examined math scores of 4th and 8th graders from the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress and other information on teachers, students, schools, and districts. His analysis revealed that 4th graders in smaller-than-average classes are about six months ahead of their counterparts in larger-than-average classes. The study refutes the notion that conventional spending does not significantly affect achievement, he says. “There are some conventional ways that money is spent that do some good, and these ways shouldn’t be abandoned.” But spending targeted directly to reducing class size, he argues, could be the best investment of all.

Generation Gap: Some recent studies have shown that although immigrant students may not score high on standardized tests, they get better grades in school than peers whose families have been in this country a generation or two longer. Now a new study points to one possible reason: First- and second-generation immigrant families and their children place a stronger emphasis on education than students from third-generation families. Andrew Fuligni, a psychology professor at New York University, came to that conclusion after surveying 1,100 teenagers from Latino, East Asian, Filipino, and European families in two California schools. Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, the schools’ students from first- and second-generation families earned higher grades in English and in mathematics than students from native-born families. This was true, Fuligni found, even though the immigrant students were more likely to come from homes where English was not the main language spoken. Some of the immigrant parents--particularly those from East Asian and Filipino families--were more highly educated or wealthier than parents in the native-born families. But when Fuligni made statistical adjustments for those kinds of variations in his sample, he found that the intergenerational achievement differences still held. The bigger influences instead were the attitudes and behaviors of the students. “Generally speaking, adolescents from immigrant families approached their schooling with a strong motivation that was supported by both their parents and peers whether their families emigrated from Asia, Latin America, or Europe,” he writes in the April issue of the journal Child Development.

Get Involved Or Get Out: Many of the nation’s new charter schools ask parents to sign contracts pledging that they will be active participants in school life. Yet three researchers who studied these parent-involvement contracts at charter elementary and middle schools in California suggest that the practice may be excluding some families from the schools. The researchers--Henry Becker of the University of California at Irvine, Kathryn Nakagawa of Arizona State University, and Ronald Corwin, formerly of WestEd, a research firm in Los Alamitos, California--found that parents were asked to sign such contracts in 27 of the 34 schools that responded to a survey. The agreements stipulated that parents spend a median of 30 hours a year working in the schools, and a few specified the kind of work that parents should do there and at home. But some of the schools did not stop there. Thirteen threatened to expel students whose parents did not comply with the service requirements. (Most school administrators, however, said such expulsions were rare.) The schools with the strictest contracts tended to have higher percentages of children with limited English-speaking skills, lower achievement, and fewer professional parents than the other charter schools in the study. The contracts were among a number of ways that the schools were asking parents to help out. And for the most part, parents were more involved in the daily life of those charter schools than they were at neighboring public schools. But this difference may have resulted from the fact that contracts and other parent-involvement requirements screen out families unable to play a big role in their children’s schooling. “I suspect it’s more self-selection than explicit exclusion,” says Becker, the study’s lead author. “But there’s a difference between saying, ‘We think parent involvement is important and therefore we’re going to work very strongly with parents in a respectful way and mandating it.” The study, he says, should serve as a reminder to schools that “your goal should not be tailoring the clientele you work with.” The report was published in the spring issue of Teachers College Record.

--Bess Keller and Debra Viadero