The University of Chicago News Office
May 1, 2001 Press Contact: William Harms
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Small class sizes in elementary school pay big benefits years later, University of Chicago research shows

Students beginning school in small classes continue to benefit many years later and outscore other students in high school mathematics, according to new research co-authored by scholars at the University of Chicago and Tennessee State University.

“Mathematics achievement is often characterized as a gatekeeper for college admission, a critical filter restricting choice of majors and a significant predictor of overall college success,” said Larry Hedges, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Sociology at the University and one of the authors of the study. He added that mathematics achievement also is an important predictor of how much income people earn throughout their careers.

Other studies have pointed to benefits for students in small classes, but “The Long-Term Effects of Small Classes in the Early Grades: Lasting Benefits in Mathematics Achievement at Grade 9” is the first study to track the impact of early small class size on high school mathematics achievement, which is an important predictor of future success, said Barbara Nye, Executive Director of the Center of Excellence for Research and Policy on Basic Skills at Tennessee State University, the principal investigator for the study.

“Efforts to improve educational achievement in the early grades are often successful, but usually fail to provide lasting benefits for students,” Nye said. Small class sizes in the early grades appear to be one of the few interventions with lasting results, the researchers found. ” Our analyses suggest that class size effects persist for at least six years and remain large enough to be important for educational policy.”

The differences are particularly striking for minority students, the researchers found. The study was based on a statewide experiment in Tennessee in which teachers and students had been randomly assigned to small (13-17 students) and regular-sized (22-26 students) classrooms from kindergarten through third grade.

Minority students who had been in small classes from kindergarten through third grade received scores that were 7.26 points higher in ninth grade than students who were in regular-sized classes. Among whites, the students in small classes from kindergarten through third grade scored 3.91 points higher in ninth grade on standardized mathematics tests than students who had been in a regular-sized class. Among boys overall, the small class advantage was 4.69 points, and among girls it was 6.22 points.

The results are reported in “The Long-Term Effects of Small Classes in the Early Grades: Lasting Benefits in Mathematics Achievement at Grade 9” published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Education.

The scholars also studied students who received less than the full four years of small classes. The study found that these students also benefited from the experience, although the gains were larger for students who had the full four years of small classes.

It was not clear from the data why minority students benefited more from the experience of small class sizes. Teachers were not surveyed on their teaching styles.

Hedges said the researchers think small class sizes are effective because they provide opportunities for more individualized instruction. “For example, with small classes, teachers can identify and remedy incipient problems among students at risk for low achievement,” he said.

Nye added, “Small classes may make existing instruction more effective. For example, small classes may lead to fewer disruptions and more time on academic instruction or more effective whole-class instruction.”

The small class size experiment was initiated in the early 1980s in Tennessee in an effort by state legislators to determine if class size has an impact on learning. The random assignment, which did not group students according to race, social background or ability, provides much more reliable information than do other studies of class size, the researchers said.

All state schools were invited to participate in the program, called Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio). However, to insure the integrity of the random assignment of students and teachers to the experimental and control classrooms and provide for adequate groups of students in small and large classes in each school, the study eventually included 79 elementary schools in 42 school districts. The students were tested annually and the Lasting Benefits study of the longitudinal effects of class size on achievement eventually included some 11,000 students.
Last modified at 08:41 AM CST on Wednesday, May 02, 2001.

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