It is well established that small class size in the early elementary grades boosts student achievement in those grades and allows students to be more engaged in learning than they are in larger classes. But there has been little research on the long-term effects of small class size.
A new study involving a large sample of students followed for 13 years shows that four or more years in small classes in elementary school significantly increases the likelihood of graduating from high school, especially for students from low-income homes. The study is reported on in the May issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Study authors Jeremy D. Finn, Ph.D., and Susan B. Gerber, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York and Jayne Boyd-Zaharias, Ed.D., of HEROS, Inc., tracked nearly 5,000 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade in 165 schools in connection with Tennessee's class-size experiment of the 1980's. The experiment, known as Project STAR, involved randomly assigning students entering kindergarten to a small class (13-17 students), to a full-size class (22-26 students), or to a full-size class with a full-time teacher aide within each participating school. The class size was maintained throughout the day and all year long. Students were kept in the same class arrangement for up to four years, with a new teacher assigned at random to the class each year.
Results show that for all students combined, four years in a small class in K-3 were associated with an 11.5 percent increase in high school graduation rates. This effect was even greater for low socio-economic students (students who were receiving free lunches). In fact, after four years in a small class, the graduation rate for free-lunch students was as great as or greater than that for non-free lunch students (more than doubling the odds of graduating). The study also revealed a strong relationship between mathematics and reading achievement in K-3 and graduation from high school.
"Our results contradict arguments that just one year in a small class is enough to reap long-term academic benefits," says Dr. Finn. "Three or four years of small classes are needed to affect graduation rates, and three or four years have been found necessary to sustain long-term achievement gains."
Future research is needed, according to the authors, to more fully understand the processes that connect early school experiences with long-term benefits. "The long-term effects of small classes on dropout rates were not explained entirely by improvements in academic performance, even if the improvements carried through later grades. Other dynamics must have been occurring as well, for example, effects on students' attitudes and motivation, students' pro- or antisocial behavior, or students' learning behavior," add the researchers.