Class Size: No Panacea
by Howard Fienberg
February 24, 2001
Smaller Class Sizes Bring Student Gains, read a Capital Times headline on January 18. Class size reduction is one of the most popular public policy methods for increasing student achievement in the U.S. So few people would be surprised at this story on the latest evaluation of Wisconsins Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program. But a proper examination of the study, performed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, yielded a more interesting perspective.
The SAGE program supports the reduction of class size in over 500 schools in Wisconsin. The study was only the most recent evaluation by the Center for Education Research, Analysis and Innovation (CERAI) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Sentinels headline was significantly different from the Times: Small Class Size is Just a Start, Report Says. The article goes on to note that the CERAI study tackles issues not raised previously... starting with its conclusion that certain SAGE classrooms are consistently higher achieving than others. Why? The CERAI investigators found that high achievement was linked to traditional and simple teaching methods. While a lot of educational fads that de-emphasize basic skills and promote such things as having children choose their own activities are associated with lower results, teachers that emphasized the basics... drills and repetition... firm discipline... and clear goals had classrooms with much better results.
Much of the research investigating class size has found that smaller classes provide no big boost to student performance. Those that have found a correlation between class size reduction and student achievement have not closely examined elements like teaching methods.
The SAGE results point out a little-addressed problem: for better student performance, class size may not be as important a factor as how teachers take advantage of it.
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