Research Oozes into Practice: The Case of Class Size

Article excerpt

For the past two years National Public Radio reporter Ira Glass has been observing in, reporting on, and generally rummaging through Chicago public schools. First, he spent one year in a high school, and then he spent 1994-95 in an elementary school. His reports are wonderful for their clarity and humanity. Glass neither overplays the triumphs he saw nor obscures the problems and failures he found.

When he called recently seeking sources of data on in-grade retention, I took the occasion to ask him for a summary statement on what he'd seen in two years of close-up school watching. "Is there any hope?" I asked. After a pause, he responded with an answer that focused on the difficulty of reaching many of the children of poverty. He said that he didn't see any hope for the inner-city system without some major effort at reducing class size. Although they are physically present, "about 30% of the kids just aren't there," he said. He thought a much smaller class size would make it possible for teachers to find some way of engaging these psychologically absent children.

Glass' conclusion, based on his own surveillance, is in line with the largest and most systematic study of class size in the country. It is a study that Donald Orlich of Washington State University referred to in the pages of the April 1991 Kappan as the "most significant educational research done in the U.S. during the past 25 years." I'm referring, of course, to the Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, conducted in Tennessee.

One wonders, then, why so little has been heard about class size in the reform discussions of recent years. Could it be that it is because it requires no fancy new equipment or teacher retraining (although the latter might help)? Could it be because it lacks the panache of "new standards" or "restructuring"? Could it be because it costs money? Could it be because the results arrived when the President at that time and his secretary of education (a former Tennessee governor) were both pushing school choice and privatization?

Could it be that certain individuals simply cannot assimilate these data? For instance, in the Brookings Review for fall 1994, Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester claimed that, while class-size reduction is a "perennial cornerstone of educational reform ... econometric and experimental evidence shows vividly that across-the-board reductions in class size are unlikely to yield discernible gains in overall student achievement." At best, Hanushek is turning a blind eye to the evidence.

Educators' initial interest in smaller class size came about as a result of a 1978 meta-analysis of research on the topic, conducted by Gene V Glass and Mary Lee Smith. They found small improvements as class size decreased to about 15; they found accelerating achievement as class size fell below this point. This makes certain intuitive sense when one thinks about the ultimate reduction in class size: to a one-on-one tutoring situation. Tutoring can improve achievement by two standard deviations.

While the Glass and Smith meta-analysis has received strong criticism, other analyses have also turned up at least conditional support for the notion that small class size improves achievement in reading and math, especially in the early grades and especially for lower-ability students. Robert Slavin's 1989 analysis also found improved achievement for younger students, along with evidence that the effect might not be cumulative. In connection with class size, Hanushek says, "For every study that finds that increases in basic school resources promote higher achievement, another study shows just the opposite." This seems disingenuous.

Actually, in Project STAR, the effects of reductions in class size were not only "discernible" but also important. Project STAR showed reducing class size to be effective, especially for children in the inner city. Although the research was conducted over a five-year period from 1985 to 1990 and although the research has been reported in professional journals, it remains largely ignored by policy makers and reformers - at least at the national level. …