Archive for January, 2010

Accountability: An Argument for Local School Districts

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

During the past 40 years, the locus of school district control has gradually shifted from a tradition of home rule or local control to state control.  Control over the decisions governing such areas as funding, budgeting, human resources, standards, capital projects, operations, curriculum and assessment that were once the sole province of local boards of education has been superseded largely by the state.  Increased state control has reversed the traditional operating philosophy of school systems that was based on limiting the power of any centralized remote governmental entity could exert over local school districts.  Historically, Americans wanted school decision making to be as close as possible to those citizens who were most affected.  School district residents realized that by being able to control what and how their children were taught as well as how and who administered and governed their schools plus how their taxes were used that they were able to enjoy the maximum of democratic accountability. 


The rising power of the state (Fusarelli and Cooper, 2009) grew from the states’ increasing domination of school finance and, therefore, policy making because of the strings the states attached to funding.  Legal challenges to funding inequities and disparities led to court decisions such as Serrano v. Priest establishing financial neutrality as the basis for school funding.  States remedied the disparities among districts with the infusion of incremental state funds and regulation.  Subsequent rulings focused on adequacy and required state governments to provide resources to disadvantaged districts such that the provision of education adequately met their constitutional requirements.  New Jersey’s state constitution was deemed to go even further because of its provisions guaranteeing a thorough and efficient education or a “T&E” education as it became known and manifested in the Abbott v. Burke court decision. 


The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) accelerated the trend toward adequacy with its national educational standards. Under NCLB, the federal government holds states and school districts accountable for improving performance.  As a result, states are forced to define an adequate level of student and school achievement as well as the level of financial resources that would be constitutionally adequate.  NCLB, therefore, marked a pronounced policy making shift to an accountability model within which the allocation of school district financial and human resources was made largely at the state rather than the local level largely according to federal guidelines. 


But the consequences of centralizing most of the control over the allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources at the state level gave rise to many unintended obstacles to improving accountability. Chief among them was the contradictory challenge of trying to hold local school districts accountable to standards made remotely at the state level that did not reflect and often conflicted with unique local educational requirements and priorities. As a result, when states imposed a one-size-fits-all approach to local school district resource allocation, state funds were not used as efficiently as they could have been.  School systems would be more accountable if decision making over financial and human resources was made at the local district level. 


A local school district can improve student and school performance best when the district is empowered to allocate its financial and human resources according to its educational plan rather than being required to follow one-size-fits-all state directives. The local school district would have all the tools it would need to hold schools and students accountable because it could make real time decisions based on specific measurable performance goals for each school and student.  The local school district is the most qualified to continually calibrate local performance goals because only the local school district can combine a keen understanding of local educational necessities with the timely and specific assessment of individual school and student achievement. State control is too remote which causes not only inappropriate delays but also decisions that tend to be inconsistent with the district’s unique educational plan.  


State control especially over a district’s financial and human resource use creates barriers for achieving accountability. When a local school district is limited by the state’s one-size-fits-all approach, it is prevented from developing more innovative approaches to accountability.  In order for local school districts to innovate, they must be empowered to deploy more effective approaches for increasing accountability that are best suited to local needs. Improving accountability, therefore, requires the adaptation of new models for the control structure of local public schools that are largely free of state control. 


In response to the shortcomings of state dominated local school systems, communities need greater local control over their schools so that they can benefit from increased accountability.  Because a local school district’s control structure affects how all of the school system’s stakeholders combine to produce a quality education, school districts nationwide are searching for the most appropriate local control structure model that will provide the highest level of accountability.  As a result, local school districts are increasingly adapting a local control structure that provides the maximum accountability possible according to their unique characteristics.  What matters most in terms of maximizing accountability is that a school district employs the model that fosters the greatest public support for the maximum public funding of its public schools.  




Fusarelli, B. C., & Cooper, B. S., Editors.  (2009). The Rising State: How State Power is Transforming our Nation’s Schools, first edition, SUNY Press. 


Smaller Class Sizes Work Best to Close the Achievement Gap

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Research concentrating on class size not only has demonstrated that when qualified teachers teach students in smaller class sizes the students in the smaller classes learn more and these students retain this advantage over other students who attend larger classes but also has shown how smaller class sizes help to significantly close the achievement gap among minority and majority students.  Smaller class size not only increases achievement for all students but also seems to benefit most those students (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2000a) who are minorities, eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, or attend urban schools in low income districts.  Krueger and Whitmore (2001) conclude that for these at-risk students, small class sizes narrow the achievement gap, reduce grade retention, decrease behavioral problems, reduce truancy and increase graduation rates.


One leading study is the longitudinal class size reduction initiative conducted over a number of years in Tennessee called the Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project.  Along with Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project, the STAR study is one of the few very large scale class size experiments making its conclusions some of the most credible.  Both standardized and curriculum based tests were employed to determine the performance of approximately 11,600 students in inner city, suburban, urban and rural school districts.  The tests assessed the students’ reading, mathematics and basic study skills. 


The STAR study was conducted in three phases.  The first phase, following a similar study conducted on a much smaller scale in Indiana called Project Prime Time, was performed over four years.  In Project Prime Time, Bain and Achilles (1986) found that students in smaller classes scored higher on standardized tests and had fewer behavioral problems than those in larger classes.  The STAR project showed that after four years, students in smaller class sizes demonstrated significantly improved achievement as compared to those in larger classes.


The STAR project demonstrated that students, who were enrolled in small classes beginning with kindergarten and continuing through third grade, were significantly more likely than their counterparts who attended larger classes, to: 

  • Demonstrate better reading and mathematics skills
  • Complete more advanced mathematics, science and English courses
  • Complete high school 
  • Graduate high school on time 
  • Graduate with honors


Moreover, the STAR study showed (Word, Johnston, Bain & Fulton, 1990) that minority students gained more than other students, demonstrated an improvement rate almost double that of majority students over the first two years and showed improvement comparable to majority students during the second two years. 


STAR’s second phase, called the Lasting Benefits Study, confirmed that the benefits of smaller class sizes continued into the later grades.  The study (Achilles, Nye, Zaharias & Fulton, 1993) found that even after the students returned to larger classes in the fourth through eighth grades those students who had attended smaller class sizes for their first three or four years maintained an advantage over students who had attended the larger classes from kindergarten through third grade.  The students who attended smaller class sizes in Kindergarten through third grade, therefore, continued to outperform those who had attended larger classes.  The Lasting Benefits Study (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2000b; Finn & Achilles, 1999) supported STAR’s earlier findings that minority students benefited the most from having smaller class sizes. 


STAR’s third phase, called Project Challenge, was conducted over three years and placed all of the kindergarten through third grade students of Tennessee’s 17 most economically challenged school districts into small classes.  As a result of having smaller class sizes, (Nye, Achilles, Zaharias & Fulton, 1993) these 17 districts raised their performance levels for reading and mathematics from well below average to above average.  


The findings of the STAR project are echoed by other studies such as Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project, which was a statewide initiative that increased student achievement.  The SAGE project (Molnar, Smith, Zahorik, Palmer, Halbach & Ehrle, 1999) found that students who attended small classes beginning with kindergarten and continuing through third grade significantly improved their academic achievement and that the benefits were greater for students from low income or poverty level families.  In Colorado, Sherry (2005) reported that African American and Latino students in the Denver schools dedicated to small class sizes were closing the achievement gap, “All students, no matter their ethnicity, are learning to read, computing math problems and writing essays at the same level.”


The research demonstrates that having a smaller class size not only increases student achievement but also helps to significantly minimize the achievement gap among different groups of students.  But it should not be surprising that smaller class sizes raise student performance.  Having fewer students in the classroom enables the teacher to dedicate more time to each child.  Consequently, students pay more attention to class work and participate more in academics.  Because the students are more involved with their studies they learn more and behave better.  Is it any wonder then that test scores are significantly higher for students who attend small classes?  Based upon the findings of the STAR project and other studies there is little doubt that students taught in small classes enjoy significant and lasting educational advantages especially minority and low income students. 





Achilles, C. M., Nye, B. A., Zaharias, J. B., & Fulton, B. D. (1993). Paper, The Lasting Benefits Study (LBS) in grades 4 and 5 (1990-1991):  A legacy from Tennessee’s four-year (K-3) class-size study (1985-1989), Project Star.  Paper presented at the North Carolina Association for Research in Education. Greensboro, North Carolina, January 14, 1993.  


Bain, H. P. & Achilles, C. M. (1986). Interesting Developments in Class Size, Phi Delta Kappan, 67:662-65.


Finn, J. D. & Achilles, C. M. (1999). Tennessee’s Class Size Study: findings, implications, misconceptions, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2): 97-109.


Krueger, A. B. & Whitmore, D. M. (2001). Would Smaller Classes Help Close the Black-White Achievement Gap? Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press.


Molnar, A., Smith, P., Zahorik, J., Palmer, A., Halbach, A., & Ehrle, K. (1999). Evaluating the SAGE program: A pilot program in targeted pupil-teacher reduction in Wisconsin, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2): 167-77.


Nye, B. A., Achilles, C. M., Zaharias, J. B., & Fulton, B. D. (1993). Project Challenge third-year summary report: An initial evaluation of the Tennessee Department of Education “At Risk” Student-Teacher Ratio Reduction Project in seventeen counties 1989-90 through 1991-92, Nashville: Center of Excellence for Research in Basic Skills, College of Education, Tennessee State University: Tennessee State University Press.


Nye, B. A., Hedges, L. V., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2000a). Do Minorities and the Disadvantaged Benefit More from Small Classes? Evidence from the Tennessee Class Size Experiment, American Journal of Education, 109: 1-26.


Nye, B. A., Hedges, L. V., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2000b). The Effects of Small Classes on Academic Achievement: The results of the Tennessee Class Size Experiment, The American Educational Research Journal, 37(1): 123-51.


Sherry, A. (2005). Schools that Erase the Gap say Key is Never to Settle, Denver Post, October 4, 2005.   


Word, E. R., Johnston, J., Bain, H. P. & Fulton, B. D. (1990). The State of Tennessee’s Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) Project: Technical Report 1985-90, Nashville, Tennessee State University: Tennessee State University Press.