By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
In the national debate over why Johnny can't read, one of the most fundamental questions in American education - are smaller classes better? - will soon face its biggest exam.
In a mammoth education experiment beginning this academic year, the state of California begins limiting the number of pupils per classroom in kindergarten through third grade. It is spending $800 million in the hope that fewer pupils per teacher (20 instead of 32 on average) in those key developmental years will reverse the Golden State's three-decade decline from one of the nation's shining educational beacons to a dim bulb.
But questions abound over whether the state can attract enough teachers, find room to house all the students - and even whether smaller is better.
"The governor, legislature, and educational establishment are all unified in their adamancy that reading scores in this state were a disaster and that this is the way to turn it around," says Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for education and child development. Noting that in class size and in reading scores, California recently ranked 50th among the states, she says: "This is a huge commitment, a huge amount of money, and a huge risk."
In California, the decade of education reform that began in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk" ran headlong into America's first tax revolt. The limits Proposition 13 put on property taxes reduced local governments' ability to fund public schools. Californians then watched the state slip from No. 1 in several education indicators - among them student scores and per-pupil spending - to below 40th.
During that time, the state's population soared to more than 30 million and over half of the school-age population became minority, exacerbating school problems with language and cultural differences.
Now, as 1,000 school districts across the state scramble to translate the new-found dollars into new teachers and classrooms, debate rages over whether the California example will produce real, measurable results.
"States around the country will be watching to see if California gets achievement results from this," says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor and director of Policy Analysis for California Education. "With a gigantic state downsizing all at once, it will be an excellent opportunity to find what variables do and don't make a difference."
Although common sense and logic seem to dictate that fewer pupils per teacher will result in more creative, individualized tutorship, analysts disagree strongly over whether improved teacher-student ratios translate into better learning.
"We feel that all the reputable research of recent years shows that smaller classes are definitely better," says Bernie Bond, a researcher for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers union. Experts point to a large-scale, four-year study of 7,000 children in 79 elementary schools in Tennessee. …