Small is beautiful

Schools in Tennessee are restricting infant classes to just 20 pupils. Mike Baker reports

There are just 20 six-year-olds in each of the first- grade classes at Hettie Cotton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. Class sizes for children under eight average 20 in all Tennessee schools. The reason: politicians there took note of, and acted on, research showing the benefits of smaller classes in the early years.

Next week researchers from the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (Star) Project at Tennessee State University will explain their findings to a British audience at a conference organised by the Institute of Education in London. Many parents and teachers will be hoping the team can be as persuasive here as with their own legislators.

Not long ago the state of Tennessee had some of the largest class sizes in the United States. Campaigners led by the teachers' union the Tennessee Education Association had fought with little success to get numbers down.

Cavit Cheshier, who has just retired as the union's leader, says: "It was a long, hard battle and the obstacle was that there was no proof that class size had an effect on standards."

So Mr Cheshier and another campaigner, Helen Pate-Bain, a Nashville teacher who is a former president of the National Education Association, the national teachers' union, determined to get that proof. It was their pressure that persuaded Tennessee's political leaders to pay for Star, the most ambitious study of the link between class size and standards ever undertaken.

Star monitored the progress of 7,000 children for four years as they moved from kindergarten through to third grade (ages five to eight). To strip out all other variables, they allocated pupils randomly to either small classes (13 to 17) or regular classes (22 to 25). A third category comprised regular-size classes with a teachers' aide. Every one of the 80 schools involved had to have one of each type of class, to reduce variations due to different school types.

By far the biggest cost in this expensive project was the salaries of the extra teachers required to create smaller classes. The state of Tennessee stumped up the $12m needed. That sort of bill puts extensive, longitudinal research of this kind beyond the means of everybody in Britain, except the Government. Ministers, unfortunately, are too wary of the possible results to fund such research.

What did Star find? A variety of tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test and the Basic Skills Test, were used to monitor the three categories of class year by year. The small classes consistently outperformed the others. Dr Barbara Nye, director of the project, says the difference was "educationally and statistically significant". The difference between the two categories of regular-size classes was not significant.

The small classes scored better in all subjects, at all ages and in all locations (inner-city, urban, suburban and rural). The biggest advantage for the smaller classes came in first grade (for six-year-olds), and the benefits were maintained and enhanced at every subsequent grade level. Ethnic minority children gained particularly.

The initial Star research ended in 1989 but a follow-up project, called the Lasting Benefits Study, has monitored the subsequent progress of the children involved. The children returned to regular-size classes at the age of nine. The follow-up study shows that the group that began in small classes was still showing the benefits at the age of 12.

Ms Pate-Bain found the research proved what she had always suspected: that class size does make a difference, especially in the early years. She says: "I always thought it was there. Now I know I can prove it, even to the most doubting Thomas."

Having done the research, campaigners in Tennessee have achieved their aim. The state recently passed a Basic Education Plan, which gives schools the funds to restrict to 20 all classes for pupils aged five to eight. Mr Cheshier says the Lasting Benefits Study was particularly important as it persuaded the secondary school lobbyists that money spent in the elementary schools would have long-term benefits for high schools too.

Will the Star team persuade British legislators of the value of small classes? I asked the Schools Minister, Eric Forth, whether he accepted the Star findings. He pointed to the cultural and educational differences between the countries and said: "Simply looking at what other countries are doing and following it slavishly is not the answer." Ministers here prefer to stress other factors that also determine standards, such as teaching methods and classroom organisation.

However, American teaching methods are actually quite similar to those used here. Dr Nye observes: "Children learn in similar ways and I think this research is very applicable to other countries." Many teachers and parents are likely to agree.

The author is the BBC's education correspondent.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Market Entry Analyst

£50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A successful Google join...

Opilio Recruitment: International Development Manager

£60k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A successful Google joint vent...

Opilio Recruitment: Apprentice Advisor - IT

£30k - 34k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

h2 Recruit Ltd: New Business Sales Manager - Talent Management - £60,000 OTE

£35000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A true market leader in ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game