Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Reducing Class Size May Increase Learning Gap

Ever since the first battle over passing No Child Left Behind, there's been a lot of discussion about closing the achievement gap between children of higher and lower socioeconomic status in schools. It appears quite possible that Congress will not reauthorize the bill. While this won't be the end of frequent testing and accountability as a way to close the achievement gap, people will definitely be throwing out other new ideas as well.

One popular one is the idea of reducing class sizes in the early grades. The oft-cited Tennessee STAR study, which randomly assigned thousands of young children to smaller or larger classes, found that children in general achieved better test scores when they were assigned to smaller classes. Other studies have cast some doubt on this finding, but for purposes of argument, let's say it's true.

Here's the thinking: children of lower socioeconomic status often arrive at school without a lot of the school preparation middle class families take for granted. Kids and parents may not necessarily read together. Kids might not know letters and numbers. Intuitively, it seems like giving the less-prepared kids more time and attention from teachers -- in smaller classes -- might help them catch up.

But this turns out not to be the case. According to a new look at the STAR study by Northwestern professor Spyros Konstantopoulos in March's Elementary School Journal, smaller classes do boost all students' achievement levels, but they also increase the achievement gap. It turns out that smaller class sizes benefit high achievers more than lower achievers. So while all students do better, high achievers do much better, and lower achievers do a little better.

It's not clear why this would be, but it complicates the "small class size" argument. Since we know that reducing class size and tracking by ability increases test scores more than simply reducing class size alone (see the Kenyan study from a few weeks ago) it's possible that ability grouping could help close the achievement gap. But perhaps not -- one would have to test all these variables at the same time.

Personally, I think it's more important that everyone do better than that you close the achievement gap, but not everyone thinks that way. For instance, many politicians and others lament the "growing gap between the rich and poor" at every opportunity, even though almost everyone in the US is better off materially than they were 50 years ago. Sometimes people view relative position as more important than absolute position, and so we will see how the education community interprets these latest results. Anyway, it's food for thought.


Queen of Shake-Shake said...

I'm curious what gaps would be closed if there weren't so many dang tests. How much more material could teachers cover each year? Or instead of that, how much more time would he/she have to devote to her class, regardless of smaller size?

When my son's school has quarter accountability tests, then there are the Dibbles and the two week state accountability test for every 2-5th grader, I wonder what that does to the gap.

Just the three day quarter exams (for all elementary grades, mind you) take up 12 days of instructional time. Add in the two weeks of state testing and we're losing 22 days...an entire month of the school year.

Since the beginning of time, we've heard about this growing gap between the rich and the poor. How long are we going to continue to believe in it?

McSwain said...

I get so tired of hearing about "the gap," because all to often it means holding the achievers back so the low kids can catch them.

Are we EVER going to make people accountable for themselves and their families, or should we expect the government/teachers to do it all for them.

And shake-shake is exactly right about testing. Plus there's the fact that the tests in CA are 6-8 weeks prior to the end of school. Which means we teachers have to try to cram the whole year of curriculum in a full two months before school even lets out. How intelligent is that?

Kevin said...

22 days of testing is clearly excessive. My son's private school dedicates 5 half-days to standardized testing (Terra-Nova, not the state test). That seems to me a reasonable compromise between quality control and time wasting.

I wonder how much of the smaller-classes-are-better is due simply to having a smaller range of abilities in smaller classes. It would certainly be cheaper to do ability grouping into big classes, and may work just as well.

Anonymous said...

I think you are confusing the issue by trying to fit three different "gaps" into one argument. The first gap is the performance difference between higher and lower socioeconomic status. If smaller class size is effective, then you could narrow this gap by reducing the class size in schools where there is a high incidence of poverty while keeping class sizes the same in wealthier areas. Reducing class size uniformly would seem likely to keep the gap the same.

The second gap is between high achieving students and low achieving students. In this case the high achievers received even more benefit than expected from the small classes. The high achievers managed to use the smaller class size and increased teacher attention to push even further ahead. Maybe that's why they were high achievers to begin with.

The third gap, between rich and poor, is really about the distribution of wealth in society and whether it is good to have a small percent of the population control a very large percent of the wealth.

Anonymous said...

"Since the beginning of time, we've heard about this growing gap between the rich and the poor. How long are we going to continue to believe in it?"

I guess we will stop believing it when it stops being true.

"almost everyone in the US is better off materially than they were 50 years ago."

Yes but I would venture a guess that the majority of the poor were not here 50 years ago. Many are from first or second generation immigrant families. Luckily we have them to clean our toilets and fix our cars. If we didn't we would have to do it ourselves.

The problem is that social class reproduces itself. This has been studied since the 70s both inside the US and in other countries as well. As long as the middle class decides what the social norms and educational norms should be the working class and poor will always be seen as creating their own mess. They will be seen as holding our children back. Yet there has been a lot of research in the past 2 decades which says that the achievement gap exists because middle class educators view working class and poor parents as less interested in their own children's education. Their children are seen as less intelligent and less likely to succeed. When educational researchers look a bit more closely at poor and working class parents they find that these assumptions are simply not true. Still, they are treated differently and the gap continues.

I agree that ability grouping would make a difference for highly able children. My son suffers because his math skills are exceptional. The school doesn't do much so I have added distance learning to his education and he continues to move years beyond his peers. I would love grade wide ability grouping. Thank goodness I have the money (or the family assistance) to do this. Many middle class parents have options that working class or poor do not. I am contributing to the achievement gap because I can provide for my son financially and through family and community contacts. I believe in ability grouping but I don't believe in it to the point of pushing others down. How will we solve this? By complaining about it?

We need to stop whining about all those poor people who hold our children back. I agree that NCLB is a mess and we rely on testing far too much in this country, but somehow we need to find a way to make sure that minorities do well. This is important for the country's well being and for the future of our children as well. They live in a world with poor and working class. What effects the poor effects others as far as taxes, crime, welfare reform, the list goes on.

Our children will always tower over the children of the poor regardless of the intelligence of poor children. They will succeed regardless of the lack of ability grouping. I walk through the hallway of my son's elementary school which has an equal number of Hispanic and white students. But if I look through the window of the GATE classrooms the children are almost exclusively white. Something is very wrong here.

I have been reading this blog for awhile now and I find myself disgusted with a lot of the attitude of readers and periodically of the blog itself. It is very easy to sit in our middle class - upper class world and complain about those below us but perhaps we should stop complaining and start looking for solutions.

Amy said...

I believe the solution is called "meritocracy". If we honestly have been complaining about the growing gap between rich and poor on a historical scale, it's been shrinking, not growing, and currently the fraction of the rich is, what, one out of five? I don't exactly see that as a problem. We have an extremely mobile society, and even though test results and later achievement results show statistical differences between birth, anyone with money-making qualities can get rich (and anyone with money-losing qualities can get poor).

America doesn't have an epidemic of people starving on the streets, so what's the problem? I'm not rich, have lived below the poverty line, but I'm still going to college and after that I can live a comfortable life. Even if I didn't go to college, I could work for minimum wage, put in long hours if I had children, but fear obesity more than starvation, have trouble paying the rent on a house with a bedroom for everyone rather than worry about getting evicted from a one-room apartment with unreliable utilities.

I don't think poor people are holding me back--most of my friends are poorer than I am. However, I wish schools and the government would apply more libertarian principles so that improvements could happen naturally and so that students of all socioeconomic levels would feel more involved in their own education.

Lanza said...

An advantage of a smaller class size could be that teachers would be able to manage it better. But it is just one solution, a big factor for me is the family background. Parents could do a lot to help their kids become achievers.

I came across an entreprenurial site I want to share with you, the Young Entrepreneur Society from the www.YoungEntrepreneurSociety.com. A great documentary about successful entrepreneurs.