Two Roads to Reform: Comparing the Research on Vouchers And Class-Size Reduction

Class Size Reduction: What We Know

In stark contrast to vouchers, the research supporting the benefits of class-size reduction is both ample and compelling. Indeed, a considerable body of research demonstrates that significantly reducing class sizes in the early elementary grades has a major impact in helping to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. This finding is supported by one of the most large-scale, comprehensive studies ever conducted in education: the Tennessee project called Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio or STAR. The highly respected Harvard statistician Frederick Mosteller has called STAR "one of the most important educational investigations ever carried out."31

In an evaluation involving more than 11,000 students, STAR researchers compared the progress of students who were in smaller K-3 classes in 1985-89 (pupil-teacher ratios of 14-16 to 1) to students who attended regular-sized classes. Researchers found that smaller-class students outperformed their peers in regular-sized classes during those years.32 More significantly, however, the smaller-class students continued to outpace their peers in math, reading and science for many years to come-even long after returning to regular-sized classes in later years. In fact, the gap in test scores between students in the smaller classes and the regular classes increased over time.

STAR researchers also found that the black-white gap in taking college-preparatory exams was cut in half for those minorities who had been in smaller classes.33 Smaller-class students were not only more likely to take college-prep exams, but they also scored higher on these exams.34 Jeremy Finn, a professor at the State University of New York, has observed that the STAR research "leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes" in raising student achievement.35

The benefits of significant class-size reduction have also been demonstrated in other states. Started in 1996, Wisconsin's Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) is a statewide class-size reduction program that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support and is targeted to low-income students in grades K-3. SAGE provides participating schools with $2,000 per student to reduce classes to pupil-teacher ratios of 15-1. The program requires participating schools to hold extended hours and provide community services to district residents. SAGE guidelines also require the development of rigorous curriculum and staff development. In the 2001-02 school year, more than 81,000 students statewide are participating in SAGE.36

There is extensive research-based evidence supporting SAGE's success in helping to improve student performance. In an evaluation of SAGE and comparison schools, 29 of the top 30 classrooms as measured by student achievement in language arts, reading and math were SAGE classrooms. The achievement gap in language arts and math between African-American and white first-grade students was reduced in SAGE classrooms while it increased in comparison schools. Black second- and third-grade students in SAGE schools scored higher on every test than their black peers in the comparison schools.37 Results from the recently released 5th-year evaluation of SAGE reinforce these findings.38 The intensive and ongoing evaluations of SAGE by Wisconsin officials stand in stark contrast to the Milwaukee voucher program, which was the subject of only one state evaluation-now seven years old.

Moreover, the SAGE findings are consistent with research obtained on the impact of class-size reduction in other states. For example, smaller classes were identified in a RAND study as one of the "major contributions" to Texas' significant achievement gains during the 1990s.39

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