Wisconsin Experiments with Smaller Classes

Pilot Project Shows Promise in Early Grades

By Leon Lynn

Students and teacher at Longfellow Elementary School.

A Wisconsin program that reduces class size in some elementary schools seems to be helping students learn more, and Marina Korducki isn’t a bit surprised.

Korducki, who teaches a bilingual second-grade class at Milwaukee’s Longfellow Elementary School, is one of hundreds of teachers taking part in the state’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program, or SAGE. The program gives schools money so they can cut the student-teacher ratio in early elementary grades, usually to 15-1.

“I feel that now I can teach more,” Korducki says. “Before I just didn’t have the time. There were things I wanted to do with the students, like more small group work, more one-on-one activities. I tried sometimes, and I saw better results, but it was impossible to sustain.” Korducki smiles. “Now it’s not impossible any more,” she says.

A study released recently by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shows that after a year in the smaller SAGE classrooms, first-graders posted better scores on tests in reading, language arts, and math than students in larger classes. This was true even though SAGE targets lower-income students, who typically lag behind their more affluent classmates. Further, while whites outscored African-Americans, in both SAGE and regular first-grade classrooms, the racial gap between students stayed about the same in SAGE classrooms, while it widened in larger classes.


It’s too soon to declare SAGE a success; these positive results were reported after only a year of the plan’s five-year pilot period. And a state study of SAGE schools also turned up some causes for concern, such as a lack of new staffdevelopment activities for teachers. What’s more, some schools have achieved smaller teacher/student ratios by putting two teachers in a classroom of 30 students. This in turn has lead to difficulties in some classrooms because the teachers had not received training on how to team teach.

The SAGE study adds to a growing body of evidence that students, particularly in the early elementary grades, benefit from smaller classes.

In Tennessee, for example, the state funded a class-size reduction project called Project Star from 1985 to 1989. Researchers — who used Project Star as the basis for one of the most comprehensive studies of class-size effects ever conducted — found that Tennessee students placed in the smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade outperformed their peers on state and national tests, and have continued to do so even after returning to larger classes. Students from the smaller classes also have posted lower rates of grade retention and special education referrals. These academic gains were particularly impressive in inner-city schools and among minority students.

This kind of evidence — and the common-sense notion that teachers and students can form deeper relationships in smaller classes — have helped make class-size initiatives increasingly popular among parents, educators, and lawmakers. The National Council of Teachers of English recently passed a resolution calling for classes no larger than 20, and a total workload no larger than 80 students,

for English-language arts teachers. Likewise, the National Association for Elementary School Principals recommends a student-teacher ratio of no more than 15-1 in the early elementary grades. California recently earmarked almost $1 billion to reduce classes to an average of 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade. Similar plans are under consideration in Florida, Georgia, and Utah. And earlier this year President Clinton proposed a national effort to hire 100,000 new teachers and reduce early-elementary classes to an average of 18 students per teacher.

The major obstacle to reducing class size is, of course, money. Lower student-teacher ratios mean that schools need more teachers, not to mention classroom space. At a time when the estimated cost of simply fixing leaky roofs, faulty electrical wiring, and other serious defects in U.S. public schools is more than $110 billion, and conservatives continually push for tax cuts and the defunding of public education, many observers remain skeptical that the political will exists to fund a serious national class-size reduction.

SAGE, in fact, is a scaled-down version of a plan by John Benson, Wisconsin’s Superintendent for Public Instruction, to spend $170 million over eight years reducing class size in kindergarten through eighth grade in most urban schools. When political support for that plan didn’t develop, Benson instead pro-posed a smaller, five-year pilot program to reduce early-elementary class size in schools serving low-income students. The Legislature approved that plan’s $34 million price tag in 1995.


SAGE schools receive grants of about $2,000 per affected student to help pay program costs. In return, the schools agree:

  • To reduce student-teacher ratios to 15-1. (Due to lack of space, 42 classrooms out of the project’s 190 classrooms instead had two teachers for 30 students.)
  • To take part in the “Lighted Schoolhouse” program, in which schools stay open early in the morning and late at night and work with community groups to offer educational, recreational, and community activities and social services.
  • To provide “a rigorous academic curriculum,” as measured against standards set by such professional organizations as the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • To establish staff development and accountability mechanisms.

During the 1996-97 school year, 30 schools in 21 Wisconsin districts took part in SAGE. In all, 1,715 kindergartners and 1,899 first-graders were placed in the smaller classes. Second grade was added to the program during 1997-98, and third grade is supposed to be added next year.

A study of SAGE’s first year conducted by the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that first-graders who had taken part in the program consistently outscored other first-graders on a set of reading, math, and language-arts tests called the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). The study also found that:

  • Teachers in SAGE classrooms didn’t need to spend much time managing the class or dealing with discipline problems. Instead, they spent much of their time actively teaching.
  • Teachers spent a large portion of instruction time delivering individualized instruction, diagnosing student needs, providing students with help, and monitoring student progress.
  • Overall, SAGE students spent more time on task and more time engaged in active learning.
  • More and more SAGE students took part in “Lighted Schoolhouse” programs as the year went on. Most schools reported that they used SAGE money to expand programs they already had underway, as opposed to starting new projects.
  • SAGE schools reported little new activity on staff development, even though that was one of the program’s mandates.

The UW-Milwaukee study didn’t try to analyze the academic benefits SAGE might have for Latino students, because many of the Latinos in the SAGE schools are classified as Limited in English Proficiency (LEP) and Spanish-language testing materials weren’t available.

Longfellow, on Milwaukee’s south side, serves about 650 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. About two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, 18 percent are African-American, 10% are white, 3% are Asian, and 3% are Native American. About 85% of the children receive free or reduced-price meals. A third of all students are classified as LEP. Longfellow received about $320,000 to fund SAGE activities during 1996-97. The school has used some of the money to fund additional programs before and after school, and provides staff development opportunities for teachers, says principal LaBelle Calaway. But SAGE money hasn’t really sparked wholesale change in school operations or her philosophy of how to serve the school community, she says. “You have some additional help doing the things you wanted to do anyway.”


Longfellow simply didn’t have enough classrooms to put SAGE teachers alone with 15 students, Calaway explains. Instead, the school achieved the 15-1 ratio by putting two teachers in a classroom together with 30 students. Thus Korducki is joined in her second-grade bilingual classroom this year by Lisette Reed, now in her first year as a teacher. “It’s helped me a lot,” says Reed of her pairing with Korducki, who has more than 15 years of teaching experience. “We always have two heads instead of one.”

Some teachers at Longfellow say they haven’t really been taught how to work in teams with other teachers. Korducki has taken classes on team teaching at a nearby college, but says she wishes she had more information on the best ways to work with other teachers. “But we’re getting along, we talk about what we’re doing, we use a lot of common sense,” she says. “Some of the teacher teams have had conflicts, but I feel very lucky. This is working great for us.”

Thisfall semester, Korducki and Reed’s class actually has 34 students, making the ratio slightly higher than 15-1. But both teachers say that even with a few more students, SAGE makes the classroom a better place for students and teachers alike. “We have a chance to actually see what’s going on with the kids,” Reed says. “We can do a lot more. One of us can take charge of the whole class while the other floats around and works with small groups or individual children.”

Leon Lynn is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.