Class Size vs. School Vouchers on the Achievement of Minority Students
The continuous achievement gap between African-American students and their white peers is a major problem in American education. The gap in fourth-grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) diminished in the 1970s, but since the early 1980s it has remained unchanged.
Evidence from many studies suggests that African-American students may benefit more than other students from improvement in educational quality. For example, class size effects have been greatest for African-American children.
This paper focuses on the effects of two programs -- voucher program and programs that reduce class size -- on the achievement of African-American children, and relative studies on both minority and non-minority students. Evidence for effects of both programs is presented. In many studies in many locations, both voucher programs class size reduction has been found to significantly increase student performance. The policy implications of these findings are discussed and presented to determine whether class size reduction is a better alternative than voucher programs for increasing student performance.
The impact of class size vs. voucher programs on student achievement has been a greatly debated issue for years. Educational vouchers were proposed by Milton Friedman in the 1950s as a means of improving the quality of elementary and secondary education (Molnar, 1998). In recent years, the use of vouchers has resurfaced, particularly as a method to help minority students. Vouchers provide public money for students to attend private schools.
Several experimental voucher programs have been introduced in the past decade. One of the oldest and largest is a pilot program begun in 1990 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Initial analyses of this data have suggested little or no improvement in the quality of education as the result of a voucher system (Molnar, 1998). These results, however, are quite controversial and are the subject of a good deal of debate. More recent pilot programs in New York City and Cleveland are now providing additional evidence for this debate. Preliminary, and equally controversial, results from the New York Choice Scholarship Program suggest that a voucher system has resulted in modest improvements in test scores for low-income students that transfer to private schools as a result of a scholarship program.
Advocates of smaller classes argue that students learn better in smaller classes where the teacher has more time for each child. However, until recent years, there was little conclusive evidence that smaller classes are more effective, so the idea was pushed to the side in favor of other programs, such as the voucher program. As a result, many public school students, particularly those in inner-city schools, have been crowded into classes of up to 40 students.
Recently, the issue of small class size attracted a great deal of media and political attention, as numerous studies presented clear evidence that smaller class size really does work (Taylor, 2002). In the early grades, all children learn better in classes of 15 to 17 students, and the improvements are even greater for poor children in inner-city schools. According to recent studies, the following evidence shows the need for smaller class size:
Long-lasting effects: According to Harvard economist, Frederick Mosteller, STAR, a Tennessee class-size study is "one of the great experiments in education." STAR researchers analyzed the achievement of K-3 students who were randomly assigned to classes of 13 to 17, demonstrating that students in small classes performed much better than students in regular classes in math and reading, every year and in all grades. The small classes had the greatest impact in the scores of children in inner-city schools. Researchers are still following students who participated in the experiment, and they've discovered that the benefits of small classes in the early years last at least into high school long after students are back in regular-size classes.
Half a year difference in fourth-grade math. Harold Wenglinsky, a researcher who analyzed fourth- and eighth-grade math scores on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, found that "fourth-graders in smaller-than-average classes are about half a year ahead of fourth-graders in larger-than-average classes," with the "largest effects" for low-income students in urban areas. The effects are even better for urban eighth-graders.
However, voucher advocates argue that voucher programs are a better way to improve student performance (Taylor, 2002). Princeton professor Cecilia Rouse (1998) did a thorough study of performance in Milwaukee elementary schools - both public schools and those accepting vouchers. She found that public school students in certain special schools where the pupil-teacher ratio was reduced to 17 to 1 progressed as well as voucher students in math. They made "substantially faster" progress in reading than voucher students. These were low-income, minority kids, just like the students in voucher schools.
It has been noted that good schools -- whether public or private -- have much in common. Successful schools usually have a combination of the following: high academic standards and a challenging curriculum for all children; a safe and orderly environment; qualified teachers; and parent involvement (McGarvey, 2001). Recently, researchers have added another ingredient to this list, small class size, supporting a long-time theory that small class size makes a big difference.
According to Rouse (1998), school leaders and other stakeholders should avoid the empty "public-private" debate and uncover the school-level factors that really explain student achievement. In a recent paper (1998), she explores the effects of class size. Rouse recently compared the achievement of Milwaukee voucher students and students in three types of Milwaukee public schools (MPS): regular schools, magnet schools, and schools participating in the Preschool to Grade 5 Grant Program (P-5 schools). P-5 schools, which enroll about 25% of all MPS elementary students, serve "predominantly minority and extremely disadvantaged" children and receive additional state funds that have enabled them to lower their pupil-teacher ratio, on average, to 17 to 1.
According to Rouses' report:
Students in the P-5 (small class size) public schools demonstrated "substantially faster gains in reading" than those in the regular public schools, the public magnet schools, and the voucher schools.
Students in the P-5 (small class size) public schools made faster math gains than students in the regular public schools and the public magnet schools and the same math gains as the voucher schools.
Even though average class size in the P-5 (small class size) public schools was larger than the voucher schools -- 17:1 vs. 15.3:1 -- P-5 schools outperformed voucher schools in reading and were equal in math.
These findings suggest that small class size has a positive effect on student achievement. And many other researchers back up these findings (McGarvey, 2001). For instance, researchers (Word et al., 1990) revealed that Tennessee K-3 students in small classes substantially outperformed students in larger classes in both math and reading every year, at all grade levels, across all geographic areas. A follow-up study (Nye et al., 1995) demonstrated that these benefits lasted through at least eighth grade, with achievement advantages particularly large for minority students.
The Wisconsin SAGE evaluation (1998) showed that Wisconsin Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) (small class) students "enjoyed significantly greater improvements in test scores in reading, language arts, and math" than their non-SAGE peers, with the greatest gains for African-American boys (McGarvey, 2001). So far, results "are consistent with the Tennessee experience."
In a 1997 study of more than 200 school districts, Harold Wenglinsky revealed that increased teacher-student ratios (smaller class size) significantly raise average math achievement: "Fourth graders in smaller-than-average classes are about a half a year ahead of fourth graders in larger-than-average classes," with the "largest effects" (three-fourths of a year ahead) for low-income students in urban areas.
As researcher Alex Molnar (1998) stated in a recent summary of voucher and class size research: "No strong evidence exists that participation in a voucher program increases student achievement." On the other hand, "There is no longer any argument about whether or not reducing class size in the primary grades increases student achievement. The research evidence is quite clear: It does." In this light, it appears that small class size results in greater academic achievement than vouchers.
Princeton University researcher Cecilia Rouse, whose findings are often used by voucher supporters, conducted a study in 1998 comparing Milwaukee's voucher schools with the city's P-5 schools-public schools with small class sizes and additional targeted funding (Pathak et al., 2004). "The results suggest," Rouse stated, "that students in P-5 schools have math test score gains similar to those in the [voucher] schools, and that students in the P-5 schools outperform students in the [voucher] schools in reading." In addition, said Rouse: "Given that the pupil-teacher ratios in the P-5 and [voucher] schools are significantly smaller than those in the other public schools, one potential explanation for these results is that students perform well in schools with smaller class sizes [emphasis in original]."Basically, these findings show that improved test scores for some voucher students may have been the result of smaller class sizes.
Princeton University researchers Alan Krueger and Diane Whitmore (2001) compared the…
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