New look at schools study backs smaller classes

Adding teachers called sure, cheaper method to increase learning

April 30, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Students who attended small classes in their first few years of school perform significantly better through high school than students who began in larger classes, according to fresh data released yesterday from a landmark study of public school students in Tennessee.

Even though they had returned to larger classes after third grade, high school students who attended smaller classes as early as kindergarten were less likely to drop out, more likely to graduate from high school on time, more likely to take advanced-level courses, and more likely to earn superior grades and go to college than students who began their educations in larger classes, researchers said.

Gains were especially great for minority students. Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger found that the difference between the percentage of black and white students taking college entrance exams was cut in half for blacks who started in smaller classes. Those who take the exams are considered more likely to attend college.

"One can't help but be encouraged by the lasting impact of the experiment," said Brian Stecher of the Rand Corp., who is conducting a study of California's experience in reducing class sizes.

Stecher, along with Eric Hanushak, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester who previously questioned the policy implications of the Tennessee study, suggested that other reforms might be equally effective and less disruptive.

"From all evidence I've seen, the effects of teacher quality are just much, much larger than any effects you ever see from differences in class size," Hanushak said. "Couldn't we do even better if we had put the money for smaller class sizes into making sure there were a higher quality teaching force available?"

Researchers in Tennessee's STAR, or Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, experiment, have faced such questions before. They acknowledge that cutting class size is expensive, but they argue that it can produce benefits without additional staff training, new curriculums or other complex changes.

Charles M. Achilles, an education professor at Eastern Michigan University and a lead STAR researcher, said yesterday that, while the quality of teaching is unquestionably important, it is not easy to achieve throughout a school system, whereas cutting class size is clear cut and has proven results.

Students who begin their schooling in small classes "establish a trajectory of success," he said.

Earlier findings from the STAR study helped shape President Clinton's push for federal funds to help schools cut class sizes by hiring 100,000 teachers across the country.

That the STAR findings rest on something close to a scientific experiment gives them unusually high credibility.

For four years, beginning in 1985, more than 6,000 pupils a year were randomly assigned to classes in kindergarten through third grade. Some classes had no more than 15 pupils; others had up to 27 pupils. Teachers for these small and regular-sized classes were chosen at random. Participating schools reflected a cross-section of urban, suburban, rural, poor, middle-class and other student populations.

Then, after third grade, pupils who had been in small classes went back to larger classes. Using standardized test scores and other data, researchers have been tracking their progress.

New analysis of data shows that, by the end of eighth grade, pupils who attended smaller classes from kindergarten through third grade appeared more than a year ahead of those who began in regular-sized classes when tested in reading, math and science.

The gains persisted through high school, researchers said.

Hanushak, among others, said yesterday he was not surprised at the long-term benefits of having been in classes with fewer pupils in the early grades.

The question remains, however, whether "this is an efficient way to use resources," he said.

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