Smaller Classes No Remedy for Poor Teachers

Published May 1, 2002

For the second year running, a reduced class-size intervention program for disadvantaged K-3 children in Wisconsin has yielded significant findings that demonstrate the critical role explicit teaching techniques and structured classroom management play in raising student achievement.

These findings come from the most recent evaluation of the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program, SAGE, a statewide effort to increase the academic achievement of children living in poverty by means of a four-point intervention plan:

  • reducing the student-teacher ratio in grades K-3 to 15:1;
  • implementing a rigorous academic curriculum;
  • providing before- and after-school activities; and
  • implementing professional development and accountability plans.

The experimental program was launched in the 1996-97 school year. Ongoing evaluations are directed by Alex Molnar with a research team from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Their new report, “2000-2001 Evaluation of the SAGE Program,” was issued last December.

The SAGE evaluators, struck earlier by marked differences in achievement levels in different reduced-size classrooms, interviewed and observed teachers in higher- and lower-achieving SAGE classrooms in second and third grade. They found that teaching style is the major feature separating a good teacher from a poor one.

“The primary teaching method of the higher-achieving teachers is explicit instruction,” report the evaluators. “The teachers give clear directions, explain concepts, model procedures, require practice, provide feedback, and scaffold [provide temporary support for] understanding.”

Although the higher-achieving teachers “also engage their students in more experiential learning consisting of authentic tasks, challenging problems, and interesting materials,” they do so only after establishing a learning foundation of newly acquired basic knowledge and skills. The latter process always takes precedence over experiential learning.

University of Illinois education psychologist Barak Rosenshine has likened this approach to a “learning funnel,” where the teacher narrowly focuses student attention with explicit instruction at the start of a new learning area, but then widens that focus as learning progresses. As the learning process establishes an ever-broader and increasingly complex foundation of knowledge and skills, students are prompted to think creatively with more experiential learning techniques. (See this month’s interview.)

The lessons of higher-achieving SAGE teachers consist of “carefully planned activities with clear goals, logical structure, and step-by-step content progression.” The lessons are fast-paced, presented with enthusiasm, and tightly focused so there are few digressions from the teaching goal. Because of this tight control, class time available for learning is maximized, not inadvertently wasted. “Teachers have more time to devote to individual students.”

Not only do higher-achieving teachers give more attention to individual students, they give this added attention in a very specific way: “in the form of direct instruction related to foundational learning.”

In sharp contrast, the management structure used by teachers in lower-achieving classrooms reduces the time available for instruction. These teachers do not organize their classrooms in an efficient and effective manner; they tend to be more permissive in managing students; and their lessons often appear randomly sequenced.

“Rather than create more instructional time, their management actions caused less time to be available for instruction,” the researchers concluded after careful observation of six teachers in five lower-achieving classrooms.

Similar findings were reported from an evaluation of first-grade SAGE classrooms last year. While more effective first-grade teachers focused on the acquisition of important knowledge and skills, using explicit instructional methods, the less-effective teachers stressed more personal goals and used indirect teaching methods. The more effective teachers carefully organized and sequenced lessons in a structured classroom environment; the less-effective teachers had more randomly structured lessons and a more permissive management style. (See “Study: Student-Centered Learning Ineffective,” School Reform News, July 2001.)

However, a major difference noted in this new evaluation is that even though many of the lower-achieving second- and third-grade teachers focused on academic achievement, their ability to sustain that focus was limited by their management skills. In addition, some of the lower-achieving teachers presented lessons that were “slow and dull,” many “lacked enthusiasm and diligence,” and “an expectation that all students will achieve was often not evident.”

The contrast with the higher-achieving classrooms could not be greater. There, “lessons proceed at a brisk pace. Diversions … are exceptions… Further, the lessons are often presented with enthusiasm, energy, and a commitment to accomplishment.”

Class Size Effect

In this latest analysis, evaluators reported that the net effect of placing a child in a SAGE classroom is to increase the child’s test score in first grade, widen that advantage in second grade, and then have the advantage fall to its lowest level in third grade.

It is important to note, however, that the SAGE classroom is not only a classroom with fewer students per teacher, but also with three other intervention advantages: a rigorous curriculum, before- and after-school programs, and a professional staff development program.

When teachers have fewer students in class, they can—in theory—spend more time attending to the needs of each individual student and thus increase student achievement. The amount of increased time is often substantial. In this latest evaluation, SAGE classrooms had an average of 14.27 students per teacher, compared to an average of 22.73 per teacher in control classrooms. Compared to the control classrooms, the SAGE classrooms have 59.3 percent more time available for one-on-one interaction between an individual student and a SAGE teacher.

The evaluators call this focus on individual students “individualization.” All reduced class-size teachers focus on individual students, they report, adding that “The major effect of reduced class size is increased individualization.”

But a different conclusion emerges on reading the evaluation report’s 73 pages of teacher interviews. In the higher-achieving classrooms, most of the teachers clearly are not teaching the smaller classes any differently than they would have taught larger classes. However, the smaller classes allow them to do more of what their teaching style already aims for: an integration of individualized instruction in daily lessons.

In the lower-achieving classrooms, too, most of the teachers clearly are not teaching the smaller classes any differently than they would have taught larger classes. Regardless of class size, these teachers seem to have little interest in focusing attention on individual students, as the following examples show.

“Regardless of student interest, understanding, or energy level, classes proceeded the same, with [Teacher] L3 instructing slowly and methodically and student responding when called upon.. … Observations showed that L3 did not individualize during class time.”

“[Teacher L4’s] preference [was] to spread out a minimum amount of student learning over a long period of time. … When L4 talks about individualization, she means dividing students into groups according to ability.”

“[Before school, Teacher] L5A works with several very low readers. She described them as eager to stay with her to work hard to raise their reading scores. When observed during that period, however, they sat with nothing to do while she posted papers on the walls.”

These latest SAGE results are likely to prompt the same question from policymakers that Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency raised after evaluators first reported on the importance of teaching style: “Why not implement the inexpensive instructional reform first, in the larger classrooms, then observe the effects of class-size reduction on the margins?”

Since teacher certification advocates stress the critical importance of having teachers who have been trained to teach, a recent USA Today editorial is likely to prompt a more fundamental question: Why do “education schools refuse to teach effective instructional techniques”?

For more information …

The 2000-01 SAGE report is available at the Web site of the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: