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. http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_3084628.
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.