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What Works in Schools

What we know and what we need to learn to address inequalities in education 

At a conference in New York City in March 2008, four education journalists were discussing the challenges of reporting research on issues such as charter schools, high stakes testing and class size reduction. An older man stood and identified himself as a retired New York City school teacher.
“You guys give all this space to the so-called academic experts, and none to teachers, who really know what’s going on in schools,” he said. “And the feeling among a lot of us is”—he dropped into the voice of one of the banditos in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”—“‘We don’t need no stinking researchers to tell us that kids learn better in smaller classes.’” 
The panelists looked at one other. Andy Rotherham, creator of the blog “EduWonk,” took the microphone. “Actually, the literature is pretty clear. Class size by itself doesn’t boost student outcomes. Smaller classes aren’t as powerful as teacher effectiveness.”
Not every researcher would agree with Rotherham’s take, and certainly, from a teacher’s point of view, having fewer students creates more opportunities to be effective. But the exchange illustrates a fundamental dynamic in American education: all of us, on a gut level, think we know what works in schools. Yet if research is clear about anything, it’s that answers about schools aren’t simple—particularly when one does, in fact, visit a classroom. Student performance isn’t a self-contained entity, floating along by itself. Pull on it and you find that it’s connected to the training and skill of teachers, the quality of home and community environments, kids’ physical and mental health, and more.
That’s the rationale for Teachers College’s Equity Matters research initiative, launched in 2007 by the College’s Campaign for Educational Equity. Fourteen TC faculty members and their students, as well as researchers at other institutions, are inventorying the successes and failures of strategies across a range of fields that affect the nation’s education achievement gap. The topics include pre-k education, special education, school leadership development, bilingual education, teacher quality, class size, challenging curriculum, after-school programs, parental involvement, families as the focus for school interventions, children’s health, and segregation and the concentration of poverty. 
“Our belief is that because inequities in schools stem from broader inequities in society, we can’t fix them without understanding and addressing all the causes,” says Michael Rebell, the Campaign’s Executive Director.

“In recent times, responsibility for high and low test scores has been laid almost entirely at the schoolhouse door,” says Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College and Director of the Campaign’s research initiative. “Through these multi-disciplinary research reviews, we hope to provide more thorough explanations for school failure and success.”

Ultimately, the power of the Equity Matters reviews is cumulative. Separately, each sheds valuable new light on a distinct issue in education. Together, the reviews turn a set of klieg lights on the much broader problem of inequity in America, showing how all these issues exist in relation to one another. Yet the value of the effort lies not only in the answers it provides, but in the unanswered questions it identifies—particularly in areas where researchers stand to learn from practitioners in the field.

The following special report offers an early peek at the findings of the Campaign’s research initiative. It’s a sobering, sometimes startling look both at past reform efforts and our nation’s future. But we think you’ll agree that it makes one thing abundantly clear: equity does indeed matter.

To view completed Equity Matters reviews, visit

The Value of Aiming High—Together

Integrated schools set higher expectations and achieve better results for those typically left behind 

Alannie Grant never thought she’d be headed to New York University for college. “It will be very different going to that kind of school,” says the 18-year-old high school senior, who is African American and from a low-income family.

Grant says she owes her success to the International Baccalaureate (IB), a two-year college-credit program similar to Advanced Placement (AP). “With the IB, you write essays and have all this opportunity to find something different about yourself,” she says.

Other high schools offer the IB, but at Grant’s school—South Side High, in Rockville Centre on Long Island—70 percent of the students take IB English or Math. Nearly 40 percent of the school’s black and Hispanic students are IB diploma candidates. Fifteen years ago, virtually no students of color at South Side were taking IB or AP courses.

The secret? Where most big, suburban high schools put students in “tracks”—groupings for high-, middle- and low-level achievers, in which students in the top categories typically are college-bound and those in the lower ones are not—South Side is track-free, with nearly everyone taking enriched or advanced courses. The school averages fewer than five dropouts per year. Every student takes accelerated math and nearly all take calculus. Black and Latino students in Rockville Centre have higher rates of earning the New York State regents diploma than do white students statewide.

“De-tracking has done wonders for this school,” says Principal Carol Burris, a Teachers College alumna who has become a nationally recognized expert on the subject. “It’s not just a way to group kids—it’s a strategy for whole-school reform.”

Mixing It Up

South Side’s experience dramatically illustrates an old but seemingly forgotten lesson: “separate” is rarely “equal.” The U.S. student population is growing more diverse—as of 2005, 42 percent of public school students were members of a racial or ethnic minority group, up from 22 percent in 1975—but American schools are becoming more segregated, both by race and social class. About one-sixth of black students and one-ninth of Latino students now attend “apartheid schools” (institutions with at least 99 percent students of color). In urban centers, black and Latino students are twice as likely to attend such schools. Forty percent of African Americans now live in the suburbs—but they remain segregated, in housing and in schools, across all income levels.

The result is much what it was more than half a century ago.

“Within our racially divided society, students of color who are not in close proximity to more affluent and politically powerful white students in school are far more likely to get the short end of the educational stick,” write Amy Stuart Wells, TC Professor of Sociology and Education, and her students, Terrenda White, Annis Brown, Jacquelyn Duran, Mei Lue and Lisa Gordon in their Equity Matters research review, “The Harms of Racial and Socio-Economic Segregation: What We Know About Why School Desegregation Does and Does Not Matter in the 21st Century.”

Apartheid schools are characterized by:

  • Highly concentrated poverty. Seventy-one percent of all black public school students and 73 percent of all Latino public school students attend schools where more than half of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch or come from families with income less than 185 percent of the poverty line. Just 28 percent of white students attend such schools.
  • A lack of quality teachers. Schools serving poor students and students of color attract and retain fewer teachers who are well educated, certified, experienced and credentialed in their subjects. In 2000, 28 percent of teachers in New York City’s highest-poverty schools had two years or less of classroom experience, compared with 15 percent of teachers in the lowest-poverty schools. In 2006, a legal brief filed by former Chancellors of University of California campuses asserted that the odds of a new California public school teacher being appropriately credentialed varied inversely with the proportion of blacks/Latinos in a school—even when salaries were high and students were high achievers and not from low-income families.
  •  Inferior curricula. High school students who take more challenging courses enjoy greater success, academically and on the job market, report TC faculty members Margaret Crocco and Anand Marri and their students Christopher Zublionis and Samantha Schoeller in their Equity Matters research review, “Rigorous and Challenging Curricula for All Students: The Equity Perspective.”

Yet poor and minority students are far less likely to take such courses. In part that’s because many attend racially isolated schools, but it’s also because, even in integrated schools, “second generation” segregation often persists, particularly in the form of tracking. Studies show that since the practice was introduced in the post-Sputnik era, poorer students—particularly those who are black, Hispanic, Native American or English language learners—have since been shunted into lower tracks at a disproportionately high rate. 

NCLB, too, has created barriers to curricular equity. In striving to reach the NCLB-mandated goal of proficiency for all students in reading and math by 2014, districts and schools have dramatically scaled back physical education, the arts, social studies, lunch, recess and other activities. A 2007 study by the Center for Education Policy found that, in elementary schools surveyed, time spent on subjects other than reading and math had dropped by nearly one-third since 2002, the year NCLB went into effect. Schools that serve poor and minority kids were significantly more likely to make such cuts.

Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the nation’s poorest students took an advanced placement or International Baccalaureate-level course in 2004, compared with 51 percent of the wealthiest students. 

  • Poorer academic performance, lower graduation rates and lower college attendance rates. The majority of high schools that are 90 percent non-white have low “promoting power” (less than 60 percent of their students graduate in four years), versus just 6 percent of majority-white high schools. Students in predominantly minority schools also are less likely to graduate from college, even if their test scores and socioeconomic status are high. And whether or not they come from poverty, students in high-minority districts usually have high school graduation rates below 50 percent.

Yet despite all the evidence of the benefits of integrating schools and classrooms—and of the harms of not integrating them—in June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down plans in Seattle and Louisville that specifically sought to maintain racial balance in classrooms. Prior to that decision, federal courts were rapidly terminating their oversight of desegregation decisions. The result, the Wells group finds, has been the rapid re-segregation of districts such Charlotte-Mecklenberg in South Carolina, once among the nation’s most integrated.

Against The Odds 

All of which makes the success of South Side High even more impressive. When the school opened in 1982, race relations in Rockville Centre were so bad that then-principal Robin Calitri (Carol Burris’s predecessor) brought in consultants to help ease the tensions. Calitri himself astutely observed that racial conflict among students was most severe in the lowest-track classes, and he began phasing those classes out.

By 2000, the year Burris became principal, South Side—through the efforts of district Superintendent William Johnson, another TC alum and current adjunct professor—had eliminated its elementary school Gifted and Talented program in favor of inclusive classes and completely de-tracked its middle school, ensuring that students begin high school prepared for accelerated classes. Tracking in grades 9 and 10 had been eliminated, too. 

Making those changes wasn’t expensive, nor did it involve hiring many new teachers—but it did require a wholesale cultural shift.
“You can’t just snap your fingers and do away with tracks,” says Burris, who will publish a book later this year, De-tracking for Excellence and Equity, which she wrote with Delia T. Garrity. “You have to carefully screen the teachers you hire to make sure they’ve got the skills needed to help kids rise to a new challenge. You’ve got to offer support classes for struggling learners, and professional development for your faculty. And it’s a political process, too. You get resistance from teachers of high-track classes, parents of gifted students and parents of special needs students. So you have to collect data on your results, analyze it and communicate it back to all your stake-holders.” 

What money the district did spend, Johnson adds, was mostly on support classes for struggling students. The classes “ended up being so well subscribed to that they just knocked us out of our socks.”

Clearly the effort has paid off. Meeting a group of visiting researchers this past spring, one young South Side student was asked what she thought it would take to create another school along the same lines. 

“Hire teachers who believe in the kids,” she said. 

After (and Before) the Bell

More time on task can boost achievement—but it’s got to be quality time 

Seven-year-old Mark Jackson doesn’t fit the stereotype of an “at risk” African American male. Mark’s father, a bus operator, lives at home, and his mother is a vice president at Citibank. Mark, a public school second grader, maintains an academic average of just below 90.

Still, the Jacksons live on East 125th Street in Harlem—a neighborhood that, while fast gentrifying, remains troubled by gangs, crime, drugs and violence. And Mark—who recently brought home a “D” in conduct—is nearing the age when his interest in academics and success in school could wane. 

“Research says that after third grade, the achievement gap widens for black boys, and they grow less academically during the school year than other groups, especially in mathematics,” says Veronica Holly, a TC doctoral student who serves as Assistant Director of the College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Affairs (IUME).

That’s why Mark is now attending the Steps for Success program created by the Children’s Aid Society in partnership with IUME. (Holly is the program’s Academic Director.) Twice a week after school, Mark and 51 other boys go to Wadleigh Secondary School in central Harlem for tutoring, including a program in math developed by another TC doctoral student, Viveka Borum. On Saturdays, the boys go to Teachers College for a special cultural enrichment session. Each boy also has a male, African American “life coach” who acts as a mentor, a partner in setting and reaching goals, and, in general, a guide to navigating the challenges of growing up black and male in the nation’s biggest city. The life coaches are available 24/7 to the boys and their families. 

“I have to ask myself, ‘Which hat am I going to wear with this boy?’ says Jamil Muhammad, 32, Mark’s life coach. “If I have the uncle and not the dad, if the family doesn’t have money, if there are the resources but the parents don’t have the time. You bob and weave through the different intricacies of those family structures.”

A Popular Strategy

Steps for Success is one of the better programs that increase “time on task,” an increasingly popular strategy for boosting achievement among poor and minority students through after-school programs, early childhood education and longer school days. 

Access to these programs varies tremendously from one community and one household to the next. So does program quality; in fact, many fail to offer what some believe students need most.

“Unfortunately, these efforts too often lack the most vital ingredient: the involvement of parents and communities,” wrote Edmund Gordon, the founding director of IUME and TC’s Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, in an opinion piece in the New York Times in 2005. Gordon, who in the 1950s opened one of the first comprehensive family centers in Harlem, called upon the City’s education leaders to supplement “the formal and informal learning that children receive through their families, in personal relationships and through community groups and religious institutions” and to provide “active engagement with concerned parents, parent surrogates, peers and interested adults.” 

Gordon and his colleague, Beatrice Brigdlall, together with Heather Weiss and Susanne Buford of Harvard, are writing an Equity Matters research review that centers on the critical role of the family in education—its importance in human development, as educator and teacher, as education consumer and as the key focus of what Gordon calls “comprehensive education” interventions. The ultimate goal of the latter, as Gordon sees it, is “to enable families to support the academic and personal development of children.”
Meanwhile, two other research reviews by TC faculty and their students take stock of the two most common forms of supplementary education, after-school and preschool. They describe a mix of enormous potential and disappointing reality. 

“Although after-school programs offer a promising avenue for improving the academic competencies of American students, it would be misguided to expect the average program to substantially improve students’ academic performance,” write Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margo Gardner and Jodie Roth in their Equity Matters research review, “Leveling the Academic Playing Field for Disadvantaged Youth through Participation in After-School Programs.” Brooks-Gunn, Co-Director of the College’s National Center for Children and Families (NCCF), is a pioneering researcher whose own large-scale studies of families and neighborhoods have helped establish the connection between these environmental influences and the academic prospects of children.

Again, that’s the average program. Effects of after-school programs on student performance have ranged from a 27 percent increase in young people with better grades to a decrease (for children from single-parent families) in homework completion and higher rates of involvement in vandalism and substance use. Most programs fall somewhere in the middle, often resulting in better attitudes toward school, but rarely doing much to improve academic performance. 

What are the components of an effective after-school program? Results from an evaluation of The After-School Corporation (TASC) suggest that more years of participation are necessary to change academic outcomes for academically at-risk kids. In the L.A.’s Best after-school programs, a third year of participation reduced likelihood of dropping out.
There’s also evidence that “those who need the most, benefit the most” from after-school programs. In TASC, black, Hispanic and low-income children showed greater gains than other participants. 

Program characteristics may be the most important success factor. The TC authors divide after-school programs into those that promote youth development opportunities not available during the school day, and those that focus on extra time to master academic skills. The programs offering development opportunities are more likely to improve kids’ academic achievement, primarily because they are likelier to offer a flexible, emotionally supportive and empowering environment. For example, when Veronica Holly—a former student research coordinator under Brooks-Gunn—learned that a third grader in Steps for Success was in danger of being held back in school, she made sure he got one-on-one homework assistance and a certified teacher for tutoring on Sundays. Soon, the boy was back on track.

Parsing Pre-k

On the early childhood side, quality pre-k helps to bridge the gaps in vocabulary, math and other cognitive skills that often separate poorer children and children of color from whites by age three. Large-scale studies show that children who attended a high-quality center-based preschool perform better in kindergarten than peers who did not. The effects are larger for lower-income children and persist into first grade. The well-known studies of specific pre-k initiatives—Perry Preschool (for which Edmund Gordon approved funding back in 1965, when he was Director of Research for Head Start), the Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program—have shown enormous life-long benefits for disadvantaged children, including lower rates of incarceration, better health and higher earnings.

Unfortunately, most children are unlikely to end up in such high-caliber programs. 

“The hard reality is that quality in the majority of early childhood programs remains very low,” writes TC faculty member Sharon Lynn Kagan in her Equity Matters research review “American Early Childhood Education: Preventing or Perpetuating Inequity?” Kagan, Co-Director with Brooks-Gunn of NCCF, is an internationally recognized expert on early learning standards.

Indeed, Kagan writes, “inequity pervades early childhood education, seriously restricting who has access to services, the quality of the services themselves, the quality and competency of those who teach young children, the nature and application of regulations, the quality and thoroughness of the expectations and standards that guide pedagogy and instruction, and the amount and distribution of resources.” She confirms “socioeconomic status and race as predictors of inequity” but also finds that “state, regional and programmatic inequities are also serious and ubiquitous.” For example, in Oklahoma, over 90 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-k or Head Start programs, while New Hampshire and Nevada enroll just 13 percent of their four-year-olds. Eleven states have no preschool program for four-year-olds. And while the average Head Start allocation nationally is $7,208, Washington state spends $9,016, while Washington D.C. spends just $728. 

“Unless we reconceptualize American early childhood education research and policy...our strategies, as promising as they appear, will perpetuate, not prevent, inequity and inequality,” Kagan writes.

Still, after-school and preschool programs continue to serve an enormous number of children—and when they work, good things happen.

“I don’t misbehave as much as I used to,” reports Mark Jackson. “When I go to my after-school, I don’t want to take advantage of people that I don’t really know. They keep me in check. And when I stay in check, I have a better time.”


Calling a Rose by Its Other Names

Around the world, the consensus is that bilingualism is a strength. It’s time the U.S. caught on

At Flushing International High School in Queens, Humanities teacher Kevin Hesseltine recently kicked off a class on imperialism by scribbling the following direction on the blackboard: “Free Write: Has your native country experienced Imperialism? By who? Was it economic, political, social or all of the above? Give examples.”

At a table of ninth and tenth graders, one boy, whose family had recently emigrated from China, appealed to his seatmates to clarify the question.

“Was your country ever invaded,” explained a girl from Pakistan.

“Yes,” the boy replied. “Japan.”

He then called out, in Chinese, to several other Chinese boys, who suggested—in English—another possible invader: Mongolia.

And so it goes at Flushing International and its sister schools (eight in New York City and one in Oakland, California). Language is seen both as a tool of communication and as a way to draw on other strengths of the school’s largely immigrant student population.

“Their language is a part of who they are as people, not just as learners,” says Principal Joseph Luft. “You don’t deny students a part of who they are or prevent them from using skills and abilities they have to learn. If someone sent you and me off to China but said, ‘You can’t speak to each other in English’—well, I think you can see the absurdity of it.”

 Rising Tide

The number of U.S. students classified as English language learners (ELLs) has at least doubled over the past 25 years, and now accounts for more than 10 percent of total public school enrollment. Collectively ELLs speak more than 460 languages, with the most common being Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean, Arabic, Haitian Creole and Cantonese. The U.S. has 10,000 young native speakers of Urdu alone. Overall, ELLs are enrolling in American public schools at a rate seven times the national average for all students. 

Yet according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 4 percent of these “English language learners” in the eighth grade are proficient in reading and only 6 percent in math. Seventy-one percent of ELLs scored below “basic” on the eighth grade NAEP reading and math tests. ELLs trail English-proficient students by 39 points in reading and 36 points in math on a 500-point scale nationally. And a survey in 2003 revealed that 50 percent of ELLs fail their graduation tests, compared with 24 percent of English-proficient students.

To TC faculty members Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen and doctoral student Lorraine Falchi, authors of the Equity Matters research review “From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals,” those failures stem from a fundamentally close-minded approach to language—and one that is very much at odds with mainstream thinking in other countries. In fact, while it may seem counter-intuitive, research has shown that using a child’s first language is the most effective way to help her achieve a higher level in an English language school system. “The benefits of such practices are explained by the concept of linguistic interdependence—the notion that two languages bolster each other and the student’s ability to acquire knowledge,” the TC authors write. 

That’s very much the thinking—and practice—at the Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership, a predominantly Hispanic pre-k–8 school located in Washington Heights. Beginning in kindergarten, where Margaret Blachley also uses sign language to help kids remember words, classes are taught in English one day, Spanish the next.

“We have signs to go with all of our routines, so the children become more comfortable with them,” says Blachley who hit upon the sign language idea with a fellow teacher. “I don’t have a scientific article to prove it, but I see them able to produce more language.” 

And where bilingual children at most U.S. schools typically abandon Spanish at the third or fourth grade, “that’s where our kids flourish, because they have the power of Spanish to keep helping them,” says Principal Evelyn Linares. She adds that her students not only go on to take New York State’s Spanish regent exam, “but pass it and pass it with distinction.”

To Ofelia García—a native Spaniard who, despite her multiple degrees and her flawless English, says she still sometimes feels intimidated walking into American schools—this is merely common-sense thinking. 

“Throughout the world, bilingualism is the norm,” says García, who heads TC’s Center for Multiple Languages and Literacies. “But here, bilingualism is the elephant in the room. In viewing non-native speakers simply as people who ‘don’t yet speak English’ we’re focusing only on the elephant’s tail.”

Paradigm Shift 

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, the Bilingual Education Act established a federal goal of assisting limited English speaking students in the quick acquisition of English. In the early 1970s, in Lau v. Nichols, a group of Chinese-American parents brought a judicial case against the San Francisco school board that eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that, by being thrown into English-only classrooms, ELLs were being (in the words of the Court’s majority opinion) “effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” The Court instructed school districts to take “affirmative steps” to address these inequities, but left the mode of instruction up to the educators.
Things began to change in the 1980s, when the focus of the Bilingual Education Act began to shift toward supporting programs that used only English in educating ELLs and that imposed time limits on participation in transitional bilingual education. In the 1990s, the use of children’s native language to support learning came under political siege, perhaps best typified by Proposition 227, a California initiative that prohibits the use of native language instruction and mandates the use of sheltered English immersion programs, where students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms after just one year. And under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2002, the pressure to bring all students to reading and math proficiency by 2014 has led districts in many states to minimize the number of ELLs per grade in order to avoid having to report data on these students and sustain penalties if they haven’t made sufficient average yearly progress. 

García, Kleifgen and Falchi believe that these policy shifts have amounted to a “silencing of bilingualism and bilingual education.” They argue that the very term “English language learner” reflects all the failings in the U.S. approach and call instead for “emergent bilingual” as a preferable term for students in this population. “Calling them ELL is erasing who they are,” García says. “They already contribute to our society with divergent thinking, a facility with languages—skills that we can use in the classroom and beyond.”

At Flushing International High School, Kevin Hesseltine agrees. Earlier in the day, his students, asked to split into groups with different flags and divide up the classroom under their respective banners, spontaneously propose a diplomatic conference. 

Later, Hesseltine, a Peace Corps graduate who speaks Ukrainian, says the benefits of the system are evident. “For me, this is the most interesting place to be teaching,” he says. “American kids would never have gotten it. These guys can pull off what they know about their own countries. It’s much more interesting to me. Every kid is so different.”


Doing the Math

Smaller classes can help students learn and perform better—but it takes more than just numbers to make the approach add up 

Classes look so small these days at I.S. 123—the James M. Kieran School in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx—that visitors sometimes get the wrong idea.

“When we first did it, people would say, ‘You have horrible attendance,’” says Principal Virginia Connelly. Or, she says, “People from Central would mistakenly think we had lots of room to share in the building. I’d say, ‘No, no, no. Go look at my registers. I have 30 to 36 in every homeroom class.’” 

Yet through complex programming, artful use of additional state funding and help from an enthusiastic faculty, I.S. 123 has managed to create what Connelly calls “splits” in every English Language Arts (ELA) and math class, resulting in sections of 15 to 18 kids.

The results have been impressive. In 1999, the year after Connelly arrived, 80 percent of her students were performing in the City’s lowest quartile in math. By 2007, that number had dropped to 10 percent, with the remaining 90 percent distributed across levels 2, 3 and 4. The school remains on the City’s SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) list, but last year, it earned an “A” on the new Department of Education school report card, which primarily measures improvement. 

A Popular Approach

When it comes to improving student achievement, reducing class size is popularly viewed as a no-brainer—a strategy so self-evidently effective that it ought to be the top spending priority in every district and school in the country. For proof, its champions typically cite Tennessee’s landmark Project STAR (for Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), which in 1986 assigned thousands of the state’s kindergarten students to small, medium and large classes for four years. By third grade, the kids in smaller classes were performing at significantly higher levels in math and reading than other children in the study. In high school—long after returning to larger classes —these students were likelier to complete advanced academic courses, take college admissions tests and graduate. Black students who had been assigned to small classes were 25 percent more likely than black students in large classes to take, and score higher, on college admission tests. 

Since Project STAR, hundreds of billions of public and private dollars have been spent nationwide to reduce the size of classrooms and schools, with 32 states now funding either voluntary or mandated class-size reduction programs.

It’s a great story, but there’s just one catch: despite a nearly 40 percent average reduction in U.S. class size since 1970, student achievement in this country has remained relatively flat. Meanwhile, statewide class size reduction efforts have distracted from other reform efforts or even spawned unintended but sometimes harmful consequences. In California, a massive class size reduction effort, initiated with little advance preparation, has spurred a dramatic increase in the number of uncertified teachers, particularly in schools serving poor and minority students. And Florida, anxious to show the fruits of class size reduction, has given districts broad license for meeting the new guidelines—including the freedom to lower graduation requirements. 

“Reduced class size alone isn’t a silver bullet,” writes Douglas Ready, Assistant Professor of Education at Teachers College, in his Equity Matters research review “Class-Size Reduction: Policy, Politics and Implications for Equity.” “Establishing appropriate class size is a balancing act between children’s development needs and contemporary fiscal realities.” The strategy is politically popular, Ready says, because it makes intuitive sense; because elected officials have the power to enact it (unlike other school reforms, which can be initiated only through a more complex set of steps); and because it can be (and thus far has been) applied to students of all income levels. And yes, he says, studies like Project STAR and Milwaukee’s SAGE can legitimately claim to have documented a cause-and-effect relationship between smaller classes (typically k–3) and better student outcomes. But, Ready points out, teachers in Project STAR were of uniformly high quality. Their schools had volunteered to participate in the study, and they themselves were given incentives to work in small classrooms. These are conditions that rarely occur in over-crowded and often under-resourced urban school districts.

A Turnaround Story 

I.S. 123 is a case in point. Ten years ago, the school was beset by trouble. Drug dealers and gang recruiters regularly hung out outside. A gang riot erupted just before Connelly arrived in May 1998, resulting in the arrests of 20 students, and another riot was narrowly averted after the nearby police shooting of Amadou Diallo. Connelly’s top priority coming in was to “make the 123 campus a model for middle schools.”

Today, life at 123 has significantly improved. Two years ago, Connelly declared that any mark lower than a 75 was unacceptable. “Now there’s no such grade,” she says. “It’s an ‘N,’ which means you’re not done. Not done, need improvement.” 

Kids who get an ‘N’ on a test must retake it, with studying help from teachers if necessary, until they get at least a 75. That’s led to a dramatic increase in the school’s list of honor students: two years ago, 110 kids made the list, while 260 were failing. This year there are 180 kids on the honor roll and the number of those failing could dip under 100 for the first time.
Still, as she walks through the hallways, Connelly constantly picks up pieces of paper and pulls hoods and hats off students. 

“We’re not accepting anything less than your best,” Connelly says.

That maxim extends to teachers, who are essential to the success of the school’s smaller classes. To pay for quality teachers, Connelly has drawn in part on new state money designated for class size reduction, but she’s also used savings created by cutting some non-teaching jobs and persuading teachers to volunteer to deal with detention at lunchtime and help with interim and periodic assessments. The incentive she offers: classes of just 18 kids. 

A Citywide Approach

These are precisely the kinds of thoughtful strategies and trade-offs encouraged by the New York City Department of Education (DOE). Under a state law resulting from New York State’s recently concluded school finance case, the City has developed a five-year class size reduction plan and is spending 50 percent of the special funds it has received from the case on reducing classes. Yet even the 72 low-performing schools the City has targeted as part of this effort (I.S. 123 is one) are not absolutely required to make their classes smaller. 

“We didn’t go to any school and say, ‘You must reduce classes,’” says Garth Harries, DOE’s Chief Executive for Portfolio Development, who reports to Chancellor Joel Klein. “We gave schools a broad range of additional resources. Last year, schools opted to use about half of that money for class size reduction and half for other targeted reforms.”

When schools do choose to undertake class size reduction, Harries says, the DOE pushes them to “make smart tradeoffs. Class size reduction happens at the nexus of teachers’ time and the availability of facilities. So you have to make sure you have the best caliber teachers you can have. You have to understand how to use your physical infrastructure and how to do your scheduling. Class size reduction makes intuitive sense, but it’s actually a pretty complex business.” 

Or as Doug Ready puts it: “Meaningful education reforms require much deeper transformations than class size reduction alone can provide.”

When those deeper transformations occur, though, there are few complainers. A few years ago, Barry Price, a math teacher at 123, was so stressed out from teaching larger classes that his doctor recommended anti-hypertensives. Now, the kids in his long, bright classroom work quietly in groups, enabling Price to directly supervise students at the smart board. 

In particular, Price is able to help struggling students like Maxwell Alvarez. “I couldn’t reach him,” he says. “He’s the guy who would be in the back. He doesn’t cause any problems. All his life he’s going to get pushed along because he doesn’t cause any problems. And bad teachers are going to say, you don’t cause any problems, I’ll pass you. But now, he’s not getting lost, because I see it. I can physically see why he’s stuck. And I have the time to say, here—here’s the exact point you’re missing.”

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