Wisconsin is one of 16 states trying to improve learning outcomes by reducing class sizes in early elementary grades. In Wisconsin, the program is called Student Achievement Guarantee in Education or SAGE.
This summer, I have been co-chairing a Joint Legislative Council Study Committee to look at Wisconsin’s program. The committee is directed to “study the SAGE program; whether there are alternatives to current class size limitations that would allow schools to achieve the aims of SAGE; and whether the Department of Public Instruction should be authorized to waive the class size limitations in a school that implements alternative interventions, or to otherwise provide funds and assistance for alternatives to class size limitations.”
SAGE began in 1995 by awarding five-year grants to school districts that had at least one school with at least 50 percent low income students. Since then, the program has been changed in a few ways. Now, to join the program, a school district’s student population must be at least 30 percent low income, the school must not be participating in another class size reduction program, and it must be new to the program.
Over the years, a number of studies have looked at the impact of class size reduction on student achievement. A 1999 study found that students in classes with 13-17 students outperformed students in classes with 22-25 students. The effects of smaller class sizes in the early elementary years can be felt as students continue their education, although the impact diminishes with time.
Schools that participate in SAGE are required to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade so that each class has no more than 18 students, or 30 students if there are two classroom teachers. Initially, schools were required to meet this standard in all four grades, but now school districts have the flexibility to participate in the program even if class sizes in second and third grades exceed 18 pupils.
The program also requires schools to provide before and after school opportunities and work with community organizations to provide educational and recreational options for the whole community.
SAGE schools are required to provide staff development and accountability programs as well as a rigorous curriculum and designs to improve student achievement.
The study committee has held two meetings and is scheduled to meet again at the end of September. Committee members are discussing the following options:
• Authorize another round of SAGE contracts. Schools cannot join the SAGE program unless the legislature authorizes another round of contracts.
• Include 4K classrooms in the SAGE program.
• Change the poverty level threshold to target high concentrations of low income students.
• Expand SAGE funding to encourage year-round schools or to cover summer programming.
• Allow districts that experience very small fluctuations in their student population that put them out of compliance with their SAGE contracts to remain in the program.
• Create a SAGE equivalency model that would allow districts to have flexibility in the classroom ratio to provide additional literacy support.
As you can see, after two meetings there are many suggestions for how this program can be altered to better meet the needs of students. As the committee work continues, additional analysis and discussion of each idea will be necessary before the committee can make recommendations to the full legislature.