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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss