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Letter to the Lawrence, Kan. School Board

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On Monday night, the Lawrence school board is going to vote on consolidating elementary schools, which is expected to lead to increases in class size. Many school boards and states throughout the country are wrestling with the same decision, because of budget pressures. At the request of a parent in Lawrence, I wrote the following letter to the school board:

I urge you not to increase class sizes in your elementary schools. Reducing class size, particularly in the early grades, is one of the very few educational strategies proven to increase learning and narrow the achievement gap. Yet your committee report includes the following statement:

Class size alone is not as important to student achievement as other factors such as quality teaching and effective teacher/student relationships. Research results on the relationship of class size to student achievement are inconsistent and do not lead to a universal or absolute number of students per classroom.

To the contrary, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, concludes that class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based education reforms that have been shown to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments -- the "gold standard" of research.

Another statement from your subcommittee report is also incorrect: "Reducing class sizes from, for example, 25 students to 15 students, has minimal effects on student achievement."

Few, if any, class size researchers would agree with this statement. Indeed, the STAR experiment from Tennessee, widely regarded as one of the best studies in the history of public education, found significantly different outcomes for students depending on what class size they were randomly assigned within this range. Those who were placed in smaller classes of 13-17 students scored significantly higher on tests, received better grades and exhibited improved attendance and behavior than those assigned to classes of 22-26 students.

The benefits of reduced class size lasted throughout a student's educational career. In fourth, sixth and eighth grade, students who were in a smaller class in the early grades were ahead of their peers academically. In high school, they had lower drop-out rates, higher grades and received better results on their college entrance exams.

For those who had attended a smaller class, the difference between black and white students taking college entrance exams was cut in half. Free-lunch students who had been in a small class for four years in the early grades had double the graduation rate of their peers.

A recent re-analysis of the STAR data reveals that students who were randomly assigned to smaller classes had higher incomes as young adults, and were more likely to have a 401K3 and to own their own home.

Public health experts have also concluded that class size reduction is likely to have large benefits in terms of health outcomes -- even rivaling investments in vaccines -- with nearly two more years of life projected for children who were placed in smaller classes in the early grades.

Students who benefit the most are those who need the most help: those from poor and minority backgrounds. Alan Krueger of Princeton, the former chief economist of the U.S. Treasury and Labor Departments, has estimated that reducing class size in the early grades shrinks the achievement gap by about 38 percent, and that the economic benefits outweigh the costs two to one.

Your committee has also proposed the following important goals:

• Attracting, developing, and retaining high quality teachers
• Improving teacher quality and clarity in the classroom
• Strengthening teacher-student relationships

Clearly, one of the best ways to strengthen teacher-student relationships is to reduce class size. Even the best teachers cannot provide all their students with the individualized support they need in large classes. In national surveys, educators overwhelmingly respond that the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching would be to lower class size. In a 2008 survey, 76 percent of teachers said that reducing class size would be "a very effective" way of improving teacher quality, and 21 percent responded that it would be an "effective" method -- for a total of 97 percent -- far outstripping every other reform cited.

Moreover, in several studies, class size reduction has been found to result in significantly lower teacher attrition and migration rates -- which would be expected to result in a more experienced and effective teaching force overall.

Another critical goal proposed by your committee is "Creating environments that encourage and promote meaningful parent involvement in each school, particularly at the K-3 level."

Studies have shown that parental involvement increases when class sizes are smaller, as teachers have more time to reach out to individual parents, not just when their children are struggling but also when they are doing well, strengthening their communication and relationships.

With smaller classes, there is also more time for individual teacher meetings with parents, either on parent/teacher night or on other occasions. In schools where class size has been reduced, parents are also more likely to be involved and to volunteer in the classroom.

A definitive analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education looked at achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools across the nation, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP assessments. The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas.

After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student success as measured by test scores was class size -- not school size, not teacher qualifications, nor any other variable that could be identified.

In short, if you care about student achievement and improving health and economic outcomes, as well as narrowing the achievement gap, lowering teacher attrition rates and strengthening parental involvement, you will invest in smaller classes and provide the children of Lawrence, Kan. with the quality education they deserve.

Yours,

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters