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.