Investigation of the Benefits of Small Class Sizes

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Before attempting to offer a remedy for any situation, it is logical to first look at what has been done when that problem has arose in the past. Therefore, in light of the problem I hope to examine, a wide range of research on the topic has been gathered, reviewed, and analyzed. It is my hope that this review of the literature will bring to light some of the past methodologies concerning class size reduction. While reviewing this literature and other studies that have been done, one must keep in mind that for the proposed CCSS program, there is are limited funds available for extra teachers or staff. Therefore, we must look to draw from these other studies, but creatively design a program that will work within our current budget limitations. The following literature review will consist of three parts: 1. Information regarding the importance of smaller class sizes, 2. Class-size reduction experiments in Wisconsin and California, 3. Project STAR in Tennessee, 4. Conclusions and discussions of the literature.

Part 1: The Importance of Smaller Class Sizes

Current, as well as past, research indicates that class size in an important indicator of student academic achievement. In recent years, a great deal of research has been done with particular focus on the relationship between class size and student academic success. Jeremy Finn and Gina Pannozzo note that "top quality research has demonstrated that academic performance is enhanced significantly in smaller classes" (Finn & Pannozzo, 2004, p.80). Class size reduction has become a cornerstone of educational reform, primarily based, as James Miller explains, on "strong elements of common sense" (Miller, 2000, p.6). Miller continues to describe how "it is believed, not unreasonably, that if a teacher has fewer students in a classroom, then each individual student will naturally receive more attention and individualized instruction, and will therefore learn better" (Miller, 2000, p.6). Additional benefits of a small class size include increased student motivation, improved teacher morale, and facilitated classroom discipline (Miller, 2000).

Miller notes that there is much "political weight" in the support of class size reduction initiatives. He describes how "not only is the issue fought for vigorously by national, state, and local teacher unions, it is also well-promoted by government agencies, such as the US Department of Education and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction" (Miller, 2000, p.14). The issue is a notable one at the national level as well. In a report by the US Department of Education in 1998 entitled Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know, "the department concludes that overall the pattern of research points more and more clearly toward the beneficial effects of reducing class size" (Miller, 2000, p.14).

In his article, "Diagnosing School Decline", Daniel Duke identifies increasing class size as a potential indicator of school decline. Duke acknowledges the impact class size can have on teacher moral and overall classroom climate as he notes that "even highly qualified teachers may have difficulty when class sizes are allowed to increase", particularly when it reaches the point where it is "difficult to maintain order and provide targeted assistance" (Duke, 2008, p.670). Duke emphasizes how critical this issue becomes when it involves critical academic subjects, such as those assessed on standardized tests, such as the MCAS (Duke, 2008).

In continuing to provide support for smaller class sizes, Miller elaborates on four specific benefits that smaller class sizes provide. He begins by explaining how smaller class sizes create more opportunities for teachers to focus on each student's individual needs. Particularly in relation to struggling students, individualized attention can lead to increased learning as teaching is catered to individual styles and needs. A second advantage of smaller classes that Miller mentions is that there are "increased opportunities for students to actively participate" (Miller, 2000, p.15). Miller attributes this quality of smaller classes to students being less intimidated to participate when they are surrounded by fewer of their peers. Thirdly, Miller notes that the occurrence of fewer classroom management issues and problems. Miller elaborates how "smaller classes allow teacher to oversee and eliminate misbehavior more effectively" (Miller, 2000, p.15). Lastly, Miller states that a small class size allows teachers to "use innovative practices that they would be less likely to use in larger classes" (Miller, 2000, p.15). Since the stresses of classroom management are lessened, teachers have "fewer risks facing them if they were to attempt teaching styles that deviate from traditional lecture styles" (Miller, 2000, p.15). All of the aforementioned benefits lead to a more positive classroom environment and a situation more conducive to learning.

With all of the information indicating that small class sizes lead to increased learning, it is easy to see why this topic has become such a prominent one. Even though one estimate states that between 1955 and 1990, the average class size has declined from 30 to 20 students (Tomlinson, 1990, p.17), recently, many districts have experienced a push in the opposite direction, experiencing an increase in class sizes. The main cause for these increases is, as Duke discusses, a major challenge that is associated with school decline: "serious budget cuts" (Duke, 2008, p.668). In response to the research results concerning class size and other challenges that districts are facing, "some states and school systems have mandated maximum class sizes for early elementary grades", which is, as Duke notes, "a step in the right direction" (Duke, 2008, p.668).

Part 2: Class-size Reduction Experiments in Wisconsin and California

It is clear that action must be taken to keep class sizes low. However, with limited excess funds available to most districts, hiring additional teachers isn't often an option. Still, districts in Wisconsin, California, and Tennessee, have headlined the movement with their class size reduction programs. Finn and Pannozzo describe that the achievement results expected from smaller classes have "been demonstrated and confirmed in several large-scale studies, for example, Tennessee's Project STAR, Wisconsin's Project SAGE, California's statewide class-size reduction initiative, and in a number of district- and school-level evaluations. In his peer reviewed study on Wisconsin's class size reduction program, SAGE, James Miller describes how "based on the perceived merit of class size reductions, states and localities across the country have increasingly implemented both experimental and more comprehensive programs aimed at class size reductions" (Miller, 2000, p.7). He continues to explain that the STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) program in Tennessee is considered the "benchmark of class size reduction efforts" (Miller, 2000, p.7). Studies on project STAR, which will be discussed in greater detail later in this review, have reported that students in "smaller classes scored better on standardized tests than their counterparts in larger classes" (Miller, 2000, p.16).

The SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) program in Wisconsin was created from recommendations from the 1994 Urban Initiative Task Force. The group met to discuss issues related to increasing student achievement in low-income schools and to develop strategies to improve educational outcomes. Miller describes "the centerpiece of the program" as "the reduction of class sizes to a minimum of 15 students per teacher in grades Kindergarten through three" (Miller, 2000, p.7)

Miller's study continues on to evaluate the effectiveness of the SAGE program. He begins this process by describing the methodology behind the program itself. The program began as a pilot program and was originally only implemented in about 30 schools in the 1996-97 school year. The program grew over the next four years, totaling 500-525 total participating schools in the 2000-01 school year (Miller, 2000, p.8). Miller describes how "SAGE schools are given option on how to achieve the class size reduction mandate", but the primary method of achieving the 15:1 ratio" is "a regular classroom with one teacher and 15 students" (Miller, 2000, p.8). However, 69 classrooms, or 19% of the 356 SAGE participating rooms in 1998-99 were "conducted with a two-teacher team teaching up to 30 students". Also, Miller notes that 23 classrooms or 6% of the SAGE rooms "employed various other strategies for achieving the 15-to-1 ratio, including the use of a floating teacher during instruction of specific subjects" (Miller, 2000, p.8).

Yet, the SAGE program came at quite the expense to the state of Wisconsin. Miller states that by the time all grades K-3 had reduced class sizes in the original 30 participating schools, "the annual cost of the program to these schools stood at approximately $8.6 million" (Miller, 2000, p.8). The accommodation of more grade-levels in these original 30 schools, as well as the addition of more schools, caused the funding of the program to increase greatly. Miller notes that "state funding for the SAGE program more than tripled during its first three years of existence, from $4.2 million in 1996-97 to slightly under $15 million in 1998-99.". Miller continues, "Approximately $8.6 million of that amount went to funding the original 30 SAGE schools, with the remainder going to the second round of SAGE schools". Finally, by 1999-2000, estimated funding totaled approximately $17.4 million, with $7.7 million allocated to the original 30 SAGE schools (Miller, 2000, p.8).

In his evaluation of the SAGE program, Miller generally mirrored the earlier evaluations done on the STAR program in Tennessee. There exists a control group which does not participate in the SAGE program, and therefore has "larger, regular-sized classes" (Miller, 2000, p.22). There is also a treatment group that did participate in the SAGE program and therefore has smaller class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Miller notes that the "primary benefit of this design is that any differential outcomes between the two groups can be interpreted as solely due to expose to the intervention, which in this case is the SAGE program, generally, and smaller classes more specifically" (Miller, 2000, p.22). The quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of the treatment was the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (STBS) Complete Battery, Terra Nova edition. These tests were used to "evaluate student achievement between SAGE and comparison students" (Miller, 2000, p.22). According to Miller, the CTBS is a standardized test used for achievement measurement in the primary grades. He continues to note that the primary "benefit to using this test series is in its longitudinal nature, which allows for comparisons over time" (Miller, 2000, p.22). Ultimately, to evaluate the effectiveness of the SAGE program, Miller compared the results of the SAGE participating students in the treatment group on the CTBS to the results of the non-SAGE participating students in the control group.

In his conclusive discussion on the results of his study, Miller actually reaches the conclusion that there is very little academic research showing significant gains for children in smaller classes (Miller, 2000). He continues to question if the amount of money spent on reducing class sizes would actually be better spent on a program to improve teacher quality. While the validity of Miller's study is not in question, one must critically assess his conclusions. The SAGE participants did consistently perform at a higher level and experience larger gains in test scores from year to year. While the majority of this data was not found to be statistically significant, the bottom line is that the SAGE group did consistently perform better. While Miller argues that the benefits of the SAGE program are unclear, the obvious benefits of smaller classes cannot be ignored. The lesson to be taken from this study is not one of the improbable benefits of class size reduction, but perhaps of finding a less-costly way to arrive at smaller student teacher ratios. When taking Miller's skepticism into consideration, finding a more cost-effective way to reduce class sizes seems more intelligent.

Another headliner in the class size reduction initiative has been the state of California. In their study on the efforts in The Golden State, Brian Stecher, George Bohrnstedt, Michael Kirst, Joan McRobbie, and Trish Williams note that in "July 1996, the California legislature passed S.B. 1777, an education reform initiative that committed more than $1 billion a year to a class-size reduction (CSR) program of unprecedented magnitude" (Stecher, 2004, p.670). The program provided a large financial incentive for districts to reduce the number of students in classes in the lower elementary grades, K-3. The CSR program was implemented based on the belief that "reducing class size would produce significant improvement in student achievement" (Stecher, 2004, p.671). This belief was rooted in the positive results experienced by the aforementioned STAR program in Tennessee. Similar to Miller's study, the quantitative evaluation by Stecher of the CSR used the results from the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9) to compare the performance of students in the control, or non-CSR, group and students in the treatment, or CSR participating, group. The study notes that "data from the first three years of CSR do provide some cause for optimism" (Stecher, 2004, p.672). The data shows that third-grade students enrolled in reduced-size classes performed better on the SAT-9 than students in regular classes. Despite this optimism, the researchers note that their findings of test-score improvement are only "a fraction of those achieved by students in Tennessee's STAR program" (Stecher, 2004, p.672). However, they do note that "teachers of reduced-size classes were optimistic about the effects of CSR in their classrooms", as they "reported devoting more time to instructing small groups and to working with individual students on mathematics and language art lessons than did teachers whose classes were not reduced in size" (Stecher, 2004, p.672). It seems that reduced class sizes are most effective when a subject-focused approach is taken. When a district sets out to improve test scores via reduced class sizes, they should focus on reducing numbers during the instruction of particular subject areas, namely the ones most emphasized on state standardized tests. Overall, this study notes that "smaller classes do seem to have positive effects on student achievement, and they definitely increase the amount of individual contact between students and teachers", and in this way, "CSR has the potential to improve education" (Stecher, 2004, p.674).

In a peer reviewed article written by Jeremy Finn and Gina Pannozzo, 15 studies are identified in which the relationship between class size and students' learning or social behavior was examined. They note that "although the studies were extremely diverse in size and quality, they produced consistent results" (Finn & Pannozzo, 2004, p.81). They note that "altogether, results favored small classes on at least 38 of the 42 measures employed…no measure in any study was statistically significant in favor of larger classes" (Finn & Pannozzo, 2004, p.81).

Part 3: Project STAR in Tennessee

As it has already been discussed, the STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) program in Tennessee has been regarded as the benchmark for class size reduction efforts nationwide. Other states who have attempted class size reduction programs hope to replicate the positive results experienced by Tennessee. It is safe to say that the Tennessee STAR experiment is and has remained the cannon of research on the topic of class size reduction. According to Mosteller, Light, and Sach, "Project STAR, a study of the educational effects of class size in the state of Tennessee, is one of the great experiments in education in U.S. history" (Mosteller, Light, &Sach, 1996, p.814). In his widely renowned book Let's Put Kids First, Finally, Charles M. Achilles examines Project Star firsthand. He notes that Project STAR was a "longitudinal, statewide, randomized experiment" (Achilles, 1999, p.24). By 1998, there were about 11,600 students in grades K-3 who had been tracked on the STAR database, if "they had been assigned at random to one of STAR's three conditions", which Achilles lists as "a small class (S) of approximately 15 students… with one teacher", "a regular class (R) averaging 25 students", and "a regular class with a full-time instructional aide (RA)" (Achilles, 1999, p.25). The schools participating in the STAR program were part of the experimental group. To provide comparison, a the control group was gathered as researchers "identified comparison schools in STAR districts that matched closely with the STAR schools on key variables" (Achilles, 1999, p.25). Then, achievement-test data was collected from these comparison schools each year when the STAR school students were tested as well. As with other class size reduction efforts, the STAR project was not cheap. "STAR cost over $12 million in its first four years", and also generated many other similar studies (Achilles, 1999, p.26). In addition to improved rankings on the achievement tests, researchers found that "students in S classes had quantitatively more and qualitatively more positive participation than did students in R and RA classes" (Achilles, 1999, p.26). This information is vital, as a student's participation in school is important for school success and for remaining in school (Finn, 1998).

Achilles, Nye, Zaharias, Fulton, & Cain provide a lengthy list of "not-surprising findings of STAR":

"Pupils in S outperform pupils in R and RA on all cognitive measures and the early treatment lasts at least into Grade 8 after the K-3 start."

"Pupils in S have relatively fewer examples poor discipline."

"The S classes seem to reduce the known deleterious effects of big schools."

"Teachers have more 'on-task' time in S and this stays constant all year, but in R the behaviors decline over the year."

"Students in S are more engaged and participative in school than are students in R and RA. This may influence staying in school to graduation."

"There are relatively fewer retentions in grade in S. This is not only better education practice, but it could save money. Grade retention is closely associated with dropouts. If so, reducing retention in grade could be very efficient."

"The traditional test-score gap between white and nonwhite pupils does not open as much in S as in R and RA classes on criterion-referenced tests. The merits of this will require serious analysis especially in the total structure of the U.S. education."

"Early identification of special needs in S seems to reduce later special education placements."

"Student scores in S are up in all tested areas, not just in targeted areas characteristic of special projects (reading and math, usually)."

"Random assignment pupils (STAR R pupils) outperform non-random assigned pupils K-3 (STAR comparison-school pupils)." (Achilles, Nye, Zaharias, Fulton, & Cain, 1996, p. 5 & 6).

As Achilles summarizes, much has been learned from the available research on class size. He notes that "of greatest importance, we are able to show definitively what many parents and teachers have long known: Small is better, especially in the early years of schooling" (Achilles, 1999, p.27). In this context, he defines "better" as not only increased student engagement combined with the lengthy list of aforementioned benefits, but also as "better test-score results" (Achilles, 1999, p.27).

Part 4: Conclusions and Discussion

In conclusion, the benefits of smaller classes are evident and something must be done to combat rising class sizes due to budget cuts, such as the Bourne district has experienced. However, it is most effective when a strong focus is kept on smaller classes during the instruction of subject areas targeted by standardized-tests. Also, since the increasing class sizes that Bourne is experiencing are due to budget cuts, a cost-effective way to decrease class sizes during MCAS subject area lessons must be found. Hiring additional staff is not an option. Rather, the CCSS program would manipulate and make the most out of the resources and staff currently available to the school.