Earlier this year, President Bush signed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) or what he called the No Child Left Behind Act. Interestingly, one term appears more than 100 times in ESEA-"scientifically based research."12 The goal of ESEA's bipartisan supporters, explained recently in Education Week, is to "base school improvement efforts less on intuition and experience and more on research-based evidence."13 But a Wisconsin Assembly proposal to permit "flexibility" in the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program would allow politics to trump the extensive research that proves the success of SAGE.
Started in 1996, SAGE is a statewide 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 15 pupils per teacher. 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, as well as systems to assess student progress. This school year, more than 81,000 students statewide are participating in SAGE.14
There is extensive research-based evidence about the success of SAGE. 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. African American second- and third-grade students in SAGE schools scored higher on every test than did African American students in the comparison schools.15 Results from the recently released 5th-year evaluation of SAGE reinforce these findings.16 It's worth noting that-unlike SAGE-the Milwaukee voucher program has not been evaluated since 1995, when the Legislature eliminated the academic evaluation requirement for the program.
These conclusions are consistent with research obtained on the impact of class-size reduction program in other states. For example, smaller classes were identified as one of the "major contributions" to significant achievement gains in Texas during the 1990s.17 Researchers in Tennessee compared the progress of students who were in smaller K-3 classes in 1985-1989 to students who attended regular-sized classes. The project, called the Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio or STAR, found that those who were in the smaller classes in K-3 outperformed their peers in larger classes during those years. More significantly, however, the smaller-class students continued to outpace their peers in math, reading and science for many years to come. In fact, the gap in test scores between students in the smaller classes and the regular classes increased over time.18 As with SAGE, the benefits of Tennessee's class-size reduction were especially pronounced for minority and disadvantaged students. For example, the black-white gap in the probability of taking college-preparatory exams was cut in half for those minorities who had been in smaller classes.19
Unfortunately, the positive effects of SAGE could be significantly undercut. Last month, Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Assembly successfully pushed for a budget provision that calls for "flexibility" in the SAGE program. Specifically, the proposal would permit a school district to "alter a contract or renewal of a contract to reduce class size to 15-to-one, by notifying [the Department of Public Instruction] by July 1.20 While this language is ambiguous, its impact could be very detrimental to low-income children.
The "flexibility" provision would permit districts to ignore one of SAGE's core components by reducing class size in only one or two grade levels rather than for all grades from kindergarten through third grade. For example, a school could potentially receive SAGE funds for reducing pupil-teacher ratios to 15:1 in kindergarten and grade 1 classes, but forgo the creation of smaller classes for grades 2 and 3. Diluting SAGE in this way would also dilute the benefits of the program.
At first thought, any reduction in class size-even for a few grades-might seem beneficial. But the four-year period of SAGE was developed on the basis of research showing that learning in smaller classes over a sustained number of years has a positive effect on academic success. Bear in mind that the students who received the long-lasting academic benefits of smaller classes in Tennessee's STAR program had attended those smaller classes for four consecutive years (grades K-3).21 Therefore, giving schools or school districts such "flexibility" would seriously compromise a core component of SAGE. Moreover, it is highly questionable whether students who are in smaller classes for only a one- or two-year period would secure the same benefits that SAGE has provided for tens of thousands of children.
This so-called flexibility could also open the door to future efforts to waive or weaken other key parts of SAGE, such as the staff development for teachers, a rigorous curriculum, or community outreach to parents and other residents of a school district. While Governor McCallum has voiced support for full funding of SAGE, this commitment means little if one of the program's major components is jettisoned. State legislators who are pushing this "flexiblity" provision would do well to remember the adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Legislature and the governor should uphold their commitment to low-income students by opposing the Assembly's misguided plan for SAGE "flexibility."