Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Class-Size Reduction in California

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Class-Size Reduction in California

Article excerpt

A Story of Hope, Promise, and Unintended Consequences

The overall impact of class-size reduction in California will not be known for a few more years. Nevertheless, much has been learned in the first three years that can inform the national conversation on the topic,the authors point out.

IN JULY 1996, the California legislature passed S.B. 1777, an education reform initiative that committed more than $1 billion a year to a class-size reduction (CSR) program of unprecedented magnitude. The measure - though voluntary - provided a powerful financial incentive for school districts to reduce the number of students in K-3 classes. This financial incentive, coupled with strong public support, catalyzed school districts to implement CSR with astonishing speed. By the time students started school in the fall of 1996 - just six weeks after the measure's passage - the vast majority of California's school districts had already begun to shrink their first-grade classes from a statewide average of nearly 30 students to a new maximum of 20. By the end of the third year, 98.5% of eligible school districts and 92% of eligible K-3 students were participating in CSR.

Shortly after S.B. 1777 was signed into law, representatives from a group of research and policy organizations in California met to discuss the importance of planning for an evaluation of the new law's impact. This group, called the CSR Research Consortium, was headed by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and RAND; it also included Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), WestEd, and EdSource. The authors of this article are the leaders of the CSR Research Consortium, but many other researchers from the five institutions contributed directly to the project.1

The speed and enthusiasm with which California implemented CSR underscored a shared optimism on the part of legislators, educators, and parents that smaller classes would quickly improve the quality of education and lead the state's K-3 students to achieve higher scores on standardized tests. To some extent, this optimism has been rewarded: evaluations after the second and third years of CSR in California confirm that students enrolled in smaller classes do perform slightly better on standardized tests than students in larger classes. Educators hope these gains will increase as the program matures and students have longer exposure to smaller classes.

However, these small gains have had large costs. Indeed, class-size reform in California has had a profound unanticipated consequence: in its first three years, CSR exacerbated existing inequities within the state's education system. The teacher work force increased by 38% in just two years, causing a drop in teacher qualifications that disproportionately affected school districts already struggling with overcrowding, poverty, and language barriers. The overall costs to implement CSR were also considerably higher for these school districts.

To be sure, the program is young, and its full effects - positive and negative - may not be realized for several more years. However, as class-size reduction programs gain momentum across the nation, educators and legislators would be well advised to learn from California's experience and keep equity foremost in their minds when planning their own programs. This article reviews the history and status of CSR in California, reports results from comprehensive evaluations of the program's first three years, and derives a short set of lessons from the state's experience. These lessons are intended to help inform the debate about class size in other states and in the nation as a whole.

Class-Size Reduction in the U.S.

The strong political support for CSR in California was based on the belief that reducing class size would produce significant improvement in student achievement. This belief, in turn, was based on the positive results of a class-size reduction experiment in Tennessee, the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, program. …

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