Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Spotlight on STAR

Yesterday’s post on class size was a bit like a projective psychological test, in that readers saw what they wanted to see. Pro-class size reduction, anti-class size reduction, it’s all in there.Today I’m spotlighting the Tennessee STAR study, which, along with the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, is one of the two most influential education research studies of the past quarter-century. All studies have their strengths and weaknesses, and no single study constitutes the last word on what is known on a particular topic, especially one as complex as class size. Still, the strengths of the design of the STAR study have made it a star. Funded by the Tennessee General Assembly, the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study was a four-year experiment begun in 1985 in which kindergarten students were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions: a regular class of 22 to 25 students; a regular class of 22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher’s aide; or a smaller class of 13 to 17 students. Students stayed in the same condition through the third grade. Because both students and teachers were randomly assigned to the three conditions, we can be pretty confident that the three groups were equivalent at the start of the study. Therefore, any differences in student outcomes observed among the three groups can be said to be caused by differences in the conditions.

The results were unequivocal. Students in the small class condition scored significantly higher on reading and math tests in the primary grades than students in the other two groups, and the benefits were especially pronounced for African American students and students attending inner-city schools. Follow-up studies show that these effects persist on a range of behavioral and achievement outcomes as students move through secondary school, with students in the small class condition having a lower risk of dropping out of high school, and a higher likelihood of taking college entrance exams. STAR serves as a kind of “proof of concept”: the study demonstrates persuasively that placing students in small classes in the early elementary grades can have lasting beneficial effects on a range of student outcomes.

The challenge is in applying what we’ve learned from STAR to other settings, which is usually what we are interested in doing. STAR is not a license to say that any old class size reduction initiative will have the same effects. The more closely a particular policy initiative resembles STAR, the more likely we are to observe similar findings. If, for example, you believe that teaching and learning in high school are different than teaching and learning in the early elementary grades, you might be reluctant to make any inferences from STAR about what would happen if we reduced class size in high schools, since STAR didn’t do that. And, since STAR involved a contrast between a class of 22 to 25 and a class of 13 to 17, you might not want to speculate about the consequences of reducing class size from 28 to 21, since that wasn’t actually observed in the STAR study. (In fact, there’s evidence from other studies that it’s not so much that small classes are good as it is that large classes are bad.)

But perhaps even more important is how class size reduction is achieved—the mix of what policy wonks refer to as policy instruments that define how a policy is enacted. California tells a cautionary tale. On the heels of the STAR study, California embarked on an ambitious statewide class size reduction initiative. In 1996, school districts received an additional $650 for each student in a K-3 class of 20 or smaller; the figure rose to $800 per student the following year. This was a powerful incentive that few districts could resist. Studies of the initiative show that California districts scrambled to reduce class sizes by hiring teachers with intern or emergency credentials, and many of these teachers wound up teaching in large urban schools serving poor, minority students who were English language learners. (In contrast, all of the teachers in STAR were fully certified.) Moreover, districts had to cannibalize space for small classes that otherwise would have been used for other purposes, including special education, arts and music, and athletics. Perhaps as a consequence of how class size reduction was implemented in California, researchers were unable to conclude that it had positive effects on student achievement.

I’m persuaded by the STAR study that class size reduction can lead to better student outcomes. The key questions for me are: (a) under what conditions might class size reduction work? and (b) what mix of policy instruments can create those conditions? These questions focus attention on class size reduction in particular contexts, which, in the end, is what most of us care about.


dt said...

You should feel good about the "projective" responses. Great literary criticism, like great literature, should inspire a diversity of subjective responses. Shouldn't the same apply to educational research?

You are on solid ground in setting a priority for class reduction in the early years and in high poverty schools. And we need to think hard about ways of reducing classes enough to produce lasting benefits.

You are also correct that high school is different than elementary. But the John Hopkins studies in dropout prevention show that the challenges faced by poor children change throughout their life cycle, and we need continued interventions. That's why my class sizes are always 1/3 smaller in June than September.

Coming from alternative certification, I support that option in recruiting the additional teachers. But like I implied, my graduate degrees were less beneficial to my effectiveness than my life experiences. Responding to defeats is the best single preparation for teaching our most challenged kids.

Regardless of where the additional teachers come from, if we want to retain talent in inner city secondary schools we need to address chronic disruptions. Like most of my colleagues, I'd like to expand alternative schools for kids with disciplinary and truancy problems. But institutional resistance is always fierce, and what if we are wrong? What if we expand alternative classes and the lower sizes aren't enough to counter-balance the potential stigma?

So, I'd like to expand alternative schools with very intimate class sizes for kids with attendance problems. What could be the down side of that? They surely couldn't be better off on the streets. If we reduce secondary class size as much as we can afford, and reduce the problems associated with students whose attendance problems keep them from succeeding, then we should be able to create a school culture that attracts talented adults, as well as helps teens.

Even this year, with our much improved culture resulting from smaller classes, we are still losing about the same percentage of our most troubled kids. If we could afford to permanently lower size enough, we could make much more progress. But in the real world, I suspect we need to invest in more alternative settings with very small class sizes.

Like I said, I'm looking for feedback, because the implications of what I'm saying even scare me. But if my ideas offend, then blame the Eduwonkette.

John Thompson

skoolboy said...

"Great criticism"? Flattery will get you everywhere. There's no question that a single student can disrupt an entire class. It's important to understand the sources of the disruption, some of which may lie in a student's family and community experiences, and others of which may be a response to how the school treats the child. The main challenge in removing disruptive students from "mainstream" settings is that we have a long track record in education documenting that separate is almost always unequal. As you note, alternative settings are frequently stigmatized, and, especially when it comes to disruptive students, can devolve into warehouses. Small classes may be an element of effective alternative settings, but there's no substitute for a program design that's rooted in a deep understanding of why youth are behaving in the way that they do.

ed notes online said...

DT: "I'd like to expand alternative schools for kids with disciplinary and truancy problems. But institutional resistance is always fierce, and what if we are wrong? What if we expand alternative classes and the lower sizes aren't enough to counter-balance the potential stigma?"

One of the problems of alternative settings is the impact kids have on each other - why mainstreaming in many ways makes some sense. But that has to be done with great care and why smaller class sizes can make such a difference. I would add the factor of having another adult in the room - this was the setting for the kids who were considered emotionally disturbed - 12 kids and 2 adults - teacher and para. For the LD (learning diaabled) the numbers were 15 kids and 1 teacher alone. The DOE began to squeeze these numbers to save money and do more mainstreaming along those lines - a disaster in many cases.