April 26, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 15

current issue
archive / search

    Research shows students who begin school in small classes have an edge

    By William Harms
    News Office

    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.

    “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 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.

    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 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 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. Barbara Nye, Executive Director of the Center of Excellence for Research and Policy on Basic Skills at Tennessee State University and Syros Konstantopoulos, a researcher at Chicago, are the additional authors of the study.

    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, Hedges said.

    Nye said the results point to an important lasting effect of early intervention. Efforts to improve educational achievement in the early grades are often successful, but usually fail to provide lasting benefits for students, she pointed out.

    “Unlike other early education interventions, these effects persisted for several years after the children returned to regular-sized classes. Our analyses suggest that class size effects persist for at least six years and remain large enough to be important for educational policy,” she added.

    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). The program enrolled 79 elementary schools in 42 school districts, and students were tested periodically throughout the study and thereafter.