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Researchers Explain Class Size Debate To Journalists at Hechinger Institute

"Reduce class size" has been a clarion call for political candidates this election year. But will it actually make a difference? If so, is it worth the expense?

Questions like those frustrate education reporters who are under pressure to meet daily deadlines. So Gene Maeroff, Director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media invited a dozen researchers to participate in a three-day workshop for education reporters and editors on "Making Sense of Conflicting Educational Claims."

The workshop was attended by 31 journalists from news organizations across the nation, including the Honolulu Advertiser, The New York Times, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Panel topics included "How Much Does Class Size Matter," "What Difference Does Money Make" and "What's Behind the Reading Wars."

Sherry Chisenhall of the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina explained: "This is my first year as an education editor. It's great to hear opposing viewpoints. It just makes the issues more three dimensional. That makes all the difference in the world."

The debate over class size could be summed up as some researchers saying it makes a difference and other researchers saying it doesn't. Editors, like Chisenhall, want their reporters to dig deeper, however. The panel discussion provided an example of what reporters could learn about the class size debate if they examined the issue more closely.

Jeremy D. Finn, Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has worked closely with the team conducting Tennessee's class-size experiment-Project Star. (Project Star researchers used the term "small class" for classes with 20 or fewer students.)

Among other things, Project Star researchers found that kindergartners who are in small classes end the year slightly better prepared for first grade than children in regular classes. By the time they reach the third grade, students who have been continually in small classes are academically 3.5 months ahead of other children in their grade level. "The pattern is real clear here," Finn told the Hechinger participants. "The advantage builds."

In contrast, Eric Hanushek, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Rochester, flatly told the reporters that it is doubtful that class size makes a significant different in student performance. Indeed, he went on to argue that the current debate over class size "is actually damaging U.S. education" because the real issue is the quality of the classroom teacher. Reducing class size "is very expensive and it doesn't produce any overall gains," Hanushek continued.

But there is a point on which Hanushek and Finn agree: small class size does make a difference for minority and at-risk students. Finn said that the effect of small class size on inner-city and urban schools is two to three times as great as the effect on the general student population.
Hanushek said that small classes might be the solution for urban school students even though "the impact of small class size on non-disadvantaged youth is negligible."

Researchers have found that in classes with 20 or fewer students, children are more engaged in learning. They are less disruptive. Furthermore, Finn said that when such behavior is established in early grades it tends to persevere in later grades.

Meanwhile, the teacher spends less time on discipline and classroom management and more time on instruction and interacting with students, Finn said.

Such findings prompt even critics like Hanushek to concede: "There's an argument for smaller classes at early grades."

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