School & District Management

Research Update

By Catherine Gewertz — April 12, 2000 2 min read

Wisconsin Study Finds Benefits In Classes of 15 or Fewer Students

Children in classes of no more than 15 students do better than those in bigger classes, a study from a Wisconsin program that provided poor students with smaller classes suggests.

Results of the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program showed that between 1996-97 and 1998-99, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders in 30 public schools performed better on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills than did students in bigger classes. The study also concluded that, in most cases, African-American students showed even more improvement than white students, and that teachers were better able to devote time to individual students in SAGE classrooms.

“We have robust results. There is definitely a strong relationship between class size and achievement,” said John A. Zahorik, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one of three authors of the study.

John A. Zahorik

The study compared the scores of 9,876 students on the Terra Nova edition of the CTBS with scores of similar students in 16 nonparticipating schools. It found that students in the SAGE program scored an average of 10 points higher than those in the comparison group, said Philip Smith, another of the study’s authors.

Early Research Supported

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction contracted with the university to evaluate the program, which was financed by the state legislature in 1995 as a five-year pilot in schools with high numbers of poor students. The SAGE program has since expanded, to 78 schools this year. Legislators plan to expand it to 400 and have set aside $59 million in the state budget to do so.

The Wisconsin findings are the latest on the heavily researched and debated issue of whether smaller classes enhance student achievement. The largest and longest-lasting study, Project STAR in Tennessee, which began in 1985, has found that students in classes of 15 to 17 did better than those in bigger classes. A study by Gene V. Glass of Arizona State University in the 1970s concluded that class size had little effect on achievement until it was reduced to about 15.

Mr. Zahorik said those studies contributed to the decision to study a class size of 15 in Wisconsin.

Some critics have cautioned policymakers against devoting large sums to reducing class size, pointing out that other studies show little or no correlation between class size and student learning.

Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., who has examined more than 275 similar studies, argues in his writings than teacher quality has a much more potent effect than class size on student achievement.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Research Update

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