A further evaluation of the SAGE program
A growing centerpiece of current education reform, both nationally and within Wisconsin, is the movement toward smaller class sizes. The idea of reducing class size carries considerable appeal because it relies on presumably strong elements of common sense. It is believed, not unreasonably, that if a teacher has fewer students in a classroom, then each individual student will naturally receive more attention and individualized instruction, and will therefore learn better. Additional benefits are assumed from teachers being able to better maintain discipline, by improving teacher morale, and by increasing student participation — matters not directly related to student achievement, but which can have a derivative impact on the learning process.
Not unexpectedly, these perceived benefits have caused many educators, school administrators, policymakers, and much of the general public to applaud the concept of smaller classes. To a notable extent, members of both the major political parties are endorsing policy changes to this effect, although Democrats are generally the louder proponents. Smaller is better as far as classroom settings and instruction go, and since students deserve the best education, they deserve classes with fewer classmates competing for their teachers’ attention.
Or so the story goes.
Unfortunately, when a public policy idea tends to become incredibly popular, many important details and relevant issues concerning that policy tend to get suppressed or, at a minimum, are obscured. This is the experience with class size reduction efforts in Wisconsin.
The contention set forth in this report is not that smaller classes do not help make teaching easier, nor that small- er classes do not have some degree of academic benefit, for some students, and in some educational contexts. The critique largely comes against the wholesale treatment of smaller class sizes as a simple, clear-cut reform measure that is unassailable. In Wisconsin, an unfortunate result of this uncritical support for smaller classes is that the state’s class size reduction program — SAGE — is being expanded in ways that may prove to have little or no effect on improved student performance.
What can be drawn from the national research and the results of Wisconsin’s own SAGE program is that small- er classes do not always provide identifiable achievement benefits, and when they do raise student achievement, the greatest results tend to occur only in certain grades and for particular populations of students. In addition, achieving these results necessitates an immense and continual cost to taxpayers.