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Small Classes Impact Student Learning

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November 23, 2004

In 1985, the state of Tennessee launched Project STAR, a study designed to determine whether small classes positively impact academic achievement. That experiment — considered one of the most important investigations in education — made it abundantly clear that small classes had a positive impact on the academic performance of all students.

What’s more, it found an added benefit for minority students, who showed immediate gains in achievement that were almost double those observed in white students in small classes. Now, using data from a five-year follow-up to STAR, the authors of an article in the November/December issue of the Journal of Educational Research for the first time provide robust evidence that the achievement benefits of small classes for minority students in reading carry over in the next five years of their academic life.

“We found that minority students in the fourth through eighth grades who initially experienced small classes had significantly higher reading achievement (nearly 1/5 of a standard deviation) than their white peers who also experienced four years of small classes,” said Spyros Konstantopoulos, assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.

This finding is certain to resonate in education circles where closing the minority achievement gap is a major national concern and at a time when schools failing to narrow the gap face potential penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It is remarkable that an intervention that reduced class size in the early grades has such important and enduring effects for at least five years after the intervention,” said Konstantopoulos. “It is also noteworthy that this intervention simultaneously raises achievement for all students and reduces the minority gap in reading.”

The lasting results for minority students initially in small classes that were demonstrated in reading achievement did not reach statistical significance in mathematics achievement.

Konstantopoulos and co-authors Barbara Nye (Tennessee State University) and Larry V. Hedges (University of Chicago) came to their conclusions after analyzing follow-up data from STAR. In the STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) Project, teachers and students from disparate communities in 79 schools throughout Tennessee were randomly assigned to three conditions: small classes (13 to17 students), regular classes (22 to 25 students) and regular classes with a fulltime teacher aide. (No significant achievement benefit occurred with the addition of the full-time aide.)

In a separate finding, Konstantopoulos and his fellow researchers found evidence that the lasting benefit from being in small classes for four years was much greater (nearly l/4 of a standard deviation) for boys than for girls in mathematics achievement. In regular classes five years down the line, girls significantly outperformed boys who were initially in regular classes. However, the gender achievement gap between girls and boys who initially were in small classes was nearly non-existent.

Although the researchers found some evidence that there are greater lasting benefits for minority females than white females, this effect was not found to be statistically significant.

Unfortunately, since little data were collected regarding classroom practices and instruction, this study could not identify the reasons small classes increased achievement for all students and for minority students in particular. Future research needs to collect appropriate information that would shed light on the mechanism by which important policy variables such as class size affect student achievement.