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News

Academic achievement gap between white & black students could be resolved with smaller classes

University Of Chicago : 02 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
Research by Diane Whitmore, an Assistant Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy indicates that smaller classes may offer a solution to a puzzling and disturbing gap in academic achievement between white and black students.
Whitmore said, “There was about a 1.2 standard deviation gap in test scores between black and white students in the early ’70s that was closing until the end of the ’80s, but then stagnated.' Whitmore views “the color line in academic achievement as the most pressing question in education in the next 30 years.”

The most significant finding was that black students tended to advance further up the distribution of test scores than did white students, while they were enrolled in small classes and later when they returned to regular-size classes.

Whitmore and a colleague at Princeton University, professor Alan Krueger, presented their analysis of the impact of small class size in a paper included in the book Bridging the Achievement Gap. Whitmore and Krueger tracked the SAT and ACT scores of a large sample of Tennessee grade school students when they graduated from high school and established that the students enrolled in small classes during their first four years of education had higher average test scores than students enrolled in regular-size classes during those early grades.

“We found that black students in small classes from K to 3 had a dramatically increased probability of subsequently taking the ACT or SAT, which we view as an indicator that a student will go on to college,” Whitmore said. “The black-white gap is reduced by 60 percent, which is a very significant impact.” In addition to reducing the black-white gap, smaller class sizes improve test score and “appear to be a contributing factor in income, health, crime and other outcomes,” she noted.

“Black boys who were in small classes appear to be slightly less likely to be convicted of a crime, and are on average sentenced to fewer days in a correctional facility,” Whitmore said. “When they attend small classes in the early grades, they are also less likely to father a child as a teenager. White girls are less likely to give birth to a child as a teenager if they were in a small class,” she added. Whitmore said she would continue to track the relationships between small classes and important positive outcomes, including the effect of smaller classes on wages and welfare receipt, among others.

In the mid-1980s, the Tennessee legislature and then-governor Lamar Alexander initiated a program to determine the value of small classes with a study of more than 11,000 students in 79 Tennessee public schools during the pupils’ kindergarten- through third-grade years. “Part of the problem with normal studies on class sizes is that there are all sorts of unobservable factors going on. The parents may have demanded it, for example,” Whitmore explained. In the Tennessee experiment, students within a school were randomly assigned to small (15 students) or regular (22 students) class sizes. Once students reached fourth grade, they all returned to regular-size classes.

“Though it seems intuitive that smaller classes are naturally better, the conventional wisdom among economists and educators has been that more resources, including small classes, don’t really matter and don’t help test scores.” Whitmore and Krueger believe their research offers evidence that small classes, though they add cost to school budgets, not only matter, but they specifically address the black-white achievement gap.

Whitmore will continue her research at the Harris School, where she teaches education policy, and is currently focusing on how students’ peers affect student achievement and the black-white gap. “We need to understand why black students are helped more by class size, and more broadly, how different racial, gender and socioeconomic profiles affect students while they are in that class and in the long run,” she said.
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