School Climate & Safety

Wis. Class-Size Study Yields Advice On Teachers’ Methods

By Linda Jacobson — January 24, 2001 3 min read
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New findings on a state initiative in Wisconsin suggest that to make the most out of smaller class sizes in the early grades, teachers should focus on basic skills when they have one-on-one contact with students, ask children to discuss and demonstrate what they know, and have a firm, but nurturing, approach to classroom management.

For More Information

Read the “1999-2000 Results of the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) Evaluation,” from the Center for Education Research, Analysis and Innovation.

Teachers in higher-achieving 1st grade classrooms also tended to establish routines, set goals, and provide frequent feedback, according to the study released last week by the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

The study, which focuses on Wisconsin’s 4-year-old class-size- reduction effort, called SAGE, concludes that such teaching strategies appear to be more effective than project-oriented activities, problem-solving lessons, and efforts to give students more freedom in the classroom—approaches advocated by large numbers of educators.

The fourth in a series of evaluations of SAGE, the new study confirms the findings of previous reports that students in the program are achieving at higher levels than those who are not in the smaller classes.

But it is the first to offer such guidance on what teachers should be doing with students in the smaller classes.

“Making classes smaller was the first step in improving academic achievement, especially for low-income children,” Wisconsin state Superintendent John T. Benson said about the report. “Helping teachers to improve their teaching is the second step, and this report is providing some preliminary data to set the direction for that activity.”

Thomas Hruz, a resident fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute outside Milwaukee, who takes issue with some of CERAI’s findings, described this as the first class-size-reduction study to quantify those effective instructional practices.

A Popular Strategy

Reducing class sizes in the early grades continues to be a popular strategy among state policymakers. California, for instance, is in the fifth year of a huge push for smaller K-3 classes.

Wisconsin’s SAGE, which stands for Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, started as a pilot project in the fall of 1996. The program aims to increase achievement among low-income children by bringing the pupil-teacher ratio down to 15-to-1.

A major expansion took place this school year, bringing annual funding for the program close to $55 million and the number of children served to roughly 60,000. More than 550 schools are now participating.

For the study, the researchers administered the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills to students in 89 classes in the 2nd grade and 83 classes in the 3rd grade. The results show that African-American students in the SAGE program have higher test scores than their counterparts who do not attend SAGE schools. And while white students still score higher than their black classmates in SAGE schools, the gap between the two groups is larger in comparison schools that do not take part in the program.

In no subject were students in the comparison schools scoring higher than students in SAGE schools. But in a few cases, the SAGE students’ achievement gains were not statistically significant.

Mr. Hruz said he believes the newest findings support the belief of some researchers that the greatest benefits are occurring in 1st grade, but that class-size-reduction efforts are not as effective in 2nd and 3rd grade.

But Alex Molnar, one of the three principal investigators for the SAGE study and CERAI’S executive director, said further research was needed to answer that question (“Wis. Researchers Question Findings on Class Sizes,” Oct. 18, 2000.)

Emphasizing Academics

To learn more about teaching practices, the researchers observed 76 1st grade classrooms and surveyed all SAGE teachers and principals. They concluded that staff-development efforts should train teachers to emphasize basic academic skills when they work individually with students.

But Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and a member of a consortium of research groups following California’s class-size initiative, doesn’t agree that staff development is always necessary. Smaller class sizes, he said, allow teachers to teach more effectively because they have fewer discipline problems and can spot students’ weaknesses sooner.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Wis. Class-Size Study Yields Advice On Teachers’ Methods

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