Class Size Reduction and Urban Students. ERIC
by Schwartz, Wendy
Researchers have long investigated whether smaller classes improve student
achievement. Their conclusions suggest that class size reduction (CSR)
can result in greater in-depth coverage of subject matter by teachers,
enhanced learning and stronger engagement by students, more personalized
relationships between teachers and students, and safer schools with fewer
discipline problems (Cohen, Miller, Stonehill, & Geddes, 2000; Hertling,
Leonard, Lumsden, & Smith, 2000; Thompson & Cunningham, 2001).
Thus, in 1999 Congress began appropriating funds so that schools could
hire additional teachers and invest in other CSR measures. Federal CSR
funds for the 2001-2 school year totaled $1.6 billion, and allocations
are now included in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Class Size Reduction,
About half of the states have begun to reduce the size of their kindergarten
through third grade classes, the grades shown to be most sensitive to the
positive effects of small classes (Hertling et al., 2000). One of the main
goals of CSR is closing the achievement gap between white middle-class
students and poor students of color. Several states have undertaken major
CSR initiatives, and these efforts have been rigorously evaluated to determine
their costs and effects on students, teachers, and the education system
as a whole. This digest briefly reviews recent research findings on the
CSR experience and summarizes researchers recommendations for program improvements.
MAJOR CLASS SIZE REDUCTION INITIATIVES
The CSR initiatives described below were selected because they have
been in operation long enough to provide meaningful results, have been
studied extensively, and represent a cross-section of approaches to reducing
The statewide CSR program of longest duration is Tennessee's Project
STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), which was begun as an experiment
to be carefully researched. STAR was begun in 1985 with the random assignment
of some kindergartners to classes of 13-17 students, and the remaining
kindergartners to one of two control groups: classes of up to 26 students
with only a teacher, and 26-student classes with a teacher and an aide
Study findings demonstrated consistently that STAR participants scored
higher on achievement tests than the students in the control groups and
that the benefits were greater--often significantly so--for minority students
than white students, and for students in inner-city schools. The cost effectiveness
of STAR was less clear-cut, though: CSR was the most cost effective strategy
for improving mathematics achievement, but CSR was the second most expensive
approach to increasing reading achievement (only tutoring by adults was
a more costly way of improving reading) (Cohen et al., 2000; Finn, 1998).
Follow-up studies were conducted in the late 1990s to determine whether
STAR had long-term benefits for early participants. The educational outcomes
for the STAR students who could be followed demonstrated lasting effects:
as compared with non-STAR students, they took more advanced courses and
were more likely to graduate with higher rankings, and they were less likely
to be retained in grade or to drop out. Their lower grade retention rate
saved Tennessee at least several million dollars (Pate-Bain, Fulton, &
Boyd-Zaharias, 1999). It should be noted, however, that most of the studies
indicated that the validity of their findings may be limited by the fact
that they did not consider differences in teacher quality or instructional
strategies, factors which can also affect student performance.
In 1995 Wisconsin legislators passed the five-year pilot Student Achievement
Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program. Eligible participants were school
districts with at least one school serving a high-poverty student population.
SAGE required participating districts to (1) reduce their K-3 classes to
a student-teacher ratio of 15:1, (2) stay open extended hours, (3) develop
rigorous academic curricula, and (4) implement staff development and professional
accountability. An annual evaluation was also mandated (Sage Initiative
The achievement of SAGE students was determined by comparing their scores
on several standardized tests administered in each grade with those of
non-SAGE students in demographically similar comparison schools. On every
test measure SAGE students outperformed the comparison students. The difference
between African American SAGE and comparison students was the greatest.
Overall, the negative effects of poverty were mitigated. When the student-teacher
ratio exceeded 15:1, however, the SAGE student advantage decreased (Sage
Initiative Evaluation, 2002).
The assessment of SAGE classrooms and schools was accomplished through
teacher and principal questionnaires and interviews, and direct observation.
Teachers provided more individualized instruction and attention, and had
greater enthusiasm for their work. They also spent more time on instruction
and less on discipline (Molnar, 2001). As with the California program (described
below), benefits shown may result from factors other than CSR, however,
since SAGE encompasses additional educational improvement elements that
are not related to class size.
A voluntary program to reduce K-3 class size by one-third in California
schools was created by legislation in 1996. One of many reforms designed
to reverse the trend of low student achievement, it was expected to be
as successful as STAR. However, California's student population was far
larger than Tennessee's, required many more educational supports, was much
more ethnically and racially diverse, and spoke more native languages.
Even though parents report high satisfaction with the CSR initiative, the
state is still struggling to find ways to make it more successful. Most
problems have stemmed from the sheer size of California's CSR effort, which
required the immediate hiring of thousands of new teachers and the addition
of 18,000 classrooms. In fact, some schools declined to participate in
the initiative because they were simply unable to meet its hiring and space
requirements (Bohrnstedt & Stecher, 2002; Jepsen & Rivkin, 2002).
Overall conclusions about whether CSR has generated educational improvement
have not yet been possible, although a variety of small studies have yielded
some limited findings suggesting mixed results (Bohrnstedt & Stecher,
2002). For the young students in the smaller classes with high quality
teachers, the advantages are clear. Moreover, the positive effects are
greater in schools serving predominantly poor students. But, for African
American students specifically, the benefits have been few, and California's
goal of closing the achievement gap has yet to be unrealized (Bohrnstedt
& Stecher, 2002; Jepsen & Rivkin, 2002; Stecher, Bohrnstedt, Kirst,
McRobbie, & Williams, 2001).
In fact, racial and ethnic educational inequities among students may
be exacerbated by CSR, as the burdens of implementation fall disproportionately
on urban schools suffering from poverty, overcrowding, and language barriers,
and the need to provide many special services (Jepsen & Rivkin, 2002).
The possible positive effects attributable to smaller classes were often
mitigated in these schools because teacher quality was lower than in other
schools, as more experienced teachers left to fill new CSR openings in
less troubled schools. Urban schools were left to fill not only the vacancies
created by those who transferred out, but also the newly created CSR slots.
They did so by hiring inexperienced and uncertified teachers, with the
result that one-quarter of the black students in high poverty schools had
a first- or second-year teacher, and nearly 30 percent had a teacher who
was not fully certified (Jepsen & Rivkin, 2002).
Finding space for additional classes has also been a problem, as there
has been inadequate funding for increasing the size or number of schools,
and no available urban land on which to build. Thus, schools have had to
convert gymnasiums and libraries to classrooms, resulting in the loss of
important resources of benefit to all students. Even though a decrease
in state revenues may translate into less support for CSR, and participating
districts are facing budget shortfalls, program cutbacks are not anticipated.
Indeed, researchers have generated an array of recommendations to improve
the effects of CSR in California without significantly increasing its costs
(Bohrnstedt & Stecher, 2002; Hertling et al., 2001; Stecher et al.,
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MAXIMIZING THE BENEFITS OF CLASS SIZE REDUCTION
After evaluating the CSR efforts described above, and initiatives undertaken
elsewhere, researchers have crafted recommendations to help assure that
CSR will improve student achievement wherever it is implemented (Bohrnstedt
& Stecher, 2002; Hertling et al., 2000; Jepsen & Rivkin, 2002;
Stecher et al., 2001). Their recommendations include:
* CSR should be integrated with other school reforms, including standards-based
* The accurate projection of direct and indirect costs is essential
for making an informed decision about whether to implement CSR and then
doing so fully, effectively, and without damage to other essential resources.
* The accurate assessment of staff needs--both the required number and
qualifications of teachers--and classroom space needs should guide decisions
about where and when to implement CSR. Strategies for meeting these needs
should be implemented as an integral part of the CSR effort.
* CSR should be first implemented as a trial in selected districts--preferably
in low-income areas and with large minority student populations--before
a large-scale roll-out is attempted.
* Instructional strategies and classroom organization practices that
work best in small classrooms should be identified, and CSR teachers should
receive appropriate professional development to ensure that students receive
the full benefits from CSR.
* Additional funds should be allocated for extra resources for students
of color and with low income, including placement in even smaller classes.
* Strategies for program evaluation, which should include use of a data
management system, should be developed as part of the implementation plan.
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