Class size reduction program continues to unravel

May 31, 2012

In just three years, California’s class size reduction program in kindergarten through the 3rd grade has unraveled at a rapid rate, and continues to do so.

The purpose of the program, which began in 1996 when the state was enjoying a budget surplus, was to reduce class sizes in those early grades to 20 students, in the belief that smaller class sizes improve student academic outcomes.

The program has cost the state some $25 billion in direct funding from Sacramento since its inception, in addition to the additional funds that local school districts have had to spend to cover the full costs of the program.

But an EdSource survey of the state’s 30 largest school districts, based on information supplied by school officials, found that half of the districts now have 30 or more students in one or more K–3 grades during the current school year.

This contrasts with the 2008-09 school year when virtually every district in the state had a ratio of 20 students per teacher in those grades.

Last fall, Stockton Unified was able to restore average class sizes of 20 or fewer to its kindergarten classes — the only district among the largest 30 that has been able to keep class sizes to that number in any one of the K-3 grades. But even in Stockton, those classes are an anomaly. Its 1st through 3rd grade classes average 32 students, among the highest in the state in those grades.

Before the program was introduced, California’s K-12 public schools had larger student-teacher ratios than every state except Utah and Arizona across all 12 grades.

Similar surveys by California Watch in 2009 and 2010 show how quickly class sizes have grown in kindergarten through 3rd grade. In 2009-10, only five districts had class sizes of 30 students in one or more K-3 grades. By 2010-11, that number had jumped to 10 districts, and by this year to 15 districts.

In 2009-10, two-thirds of the 30 largest districts, which serve nearly 2 million students, were able to maintain class sizes with 24 or fewer students in the K-3 grades. This year, only four districts — San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Elk Grove — had class sizes of 24 or fewer in all four K-3 grades.

The unraveling of the program is directly tied to the state’s budget crisis. Until 2009, schools qualified for a generous subsidy of more than $1,000 per student if they maintained a class size of under 21 per class. Even though school districts had to contribute some of their own funds, the subsidy was a powerful incentive for districts to participate.

But beginning in 2009, in a move to give districts more flexibility in how they managed their shrinking revenues, the Legislature gave districts the right to raise class sizes to over 25 students and still get 70 percent of the subsidy they had been receiving.

At the time, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who initiated class size reduction when the state enjoyed a budget surplus in 1996, said the changes “totally defeat the purpose of the program. If you get 70 percent of the funds for doing nothing, where is that money going? It is not accomplishing the purpose for which the program was devised.”

Until then, 99 percent of the state’s 883 districts eligible to participate in the program had an average of 20 students in K-3 grades. If average class sizes reached 22 or more, they lost all their subsidy.

Initially, even when permitted to do so, school administrators were reluctant to let go of a program enormously popular among parents — and teachers. For the first two years, federal stimulus funds helped blunt the impact of the downturn on the schools, and many districts were able to retain relatively small class sizes.

But as the budget crisis has deepened, and federal stimulus dollars dried up, K-3 class sizes have risen across the state. School districts such as Capistrano, Chino Valley, Orange, Fontana, Moreno Valley, San Bernardino City, San Jose, and San Juan now all have average K-3 class sizes of 30 students in all four grades.

The class size reduction program is still protected in the state budget as a “categorical” program. But as part of his budget reform proposal to terminate all but five state categorical programs, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to eliminate protected funding for the class size program as well, which could hasten its demise because schools would be permitted to use the funds for any educational purpose.

The state’s largest districts appear to have been especially hard hit. According to a recent survey of about half of the state’s 950 districts by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, average class sizes in the K-3 grades has risen modestly in recent years to an average of 26 students in 2011-12. It is also the case that some school districts, especially those where voters have approved local “parcel taxes,” such as Berkeley, have been able to to maintain K-3 class sizes with an average of 20 students.

Even though the program has been among the most popular of all education reforms introduced in recent years, there is no definitive research that shows that it has resulted in improved academic outcomes in California.

The program was motivated in part by a highly successful pilot program in Tennessee in the late 1980s where class sizes were reduced from an average of 22 to 15 students per class. Controlled research showed improved academic performance among students who participated in the program, along with increased college attendance.

But unlike in Tennessee, California’s class size reduction program was introduced hastily in the summer of 1996, which did not allow for any controlled studies of its impact. In addition, class sizes were not lowered as much as they were in Tennessee.

A 2002 report by the CSR Research Consortium, of which EdSource was a member, concluded that the relationship between smaller classes and student achievement was “inconclusive.” But the researchers cautioned that its conclusions were of limited utility “because of the rapidity with which class size reduction was implemented (in California), gaps in the state testing program, and other research design considerations.”

Similarly, research on the impact of class sizes on academic outcomes has drawn mixed conclusions, a recent extensive review from the Brookings Institution found:
“Because the pool of credible studies is small and the individual studies differ in the setting, method, grades, and magnitude of class size variation that is studied, conclusions have to be tentative.”
The review did find that reductions of seven to ten fewer students per class can have a positive impact on student achievement, particularly for low-income students.

An Education Week review tended to support the Brookings report on the effectiveness of smaller class sizes.
“Research, for the most part, tends to support the belief in the benefits of small classes. While not all studies on the subject have shown that students learn more in smaller settings—and some are still ongoing—most have linked smaller classes to improvements in achievement.”
But the Education Week review also noted that “shrinking the number of students in a class does not automatically translate into better learning.” To get the most out of smaller classes, “teachers may need to alter their teaching practices, dropping lecture-style approaches and providing more frequent feedback and interaction.”

If it weren’t for the state budget crisis, which makes introducing reforms of any kind difficult to impossible, the dismantling of the class size reduction program could have given state policy makers and educators an opportunity to look at alternative strategies for academic improvement. As the Brookings report, co-authored by Matthew Chingos and Russell Whitehurst, concluded:
“Class-size reduction has been shown to work for some students in some grades in some states and countries, but its impact has been found to be mixed or not discernible in other settings and circumstances that seem similar. It is very expensive. The costs and benefits of class-size mandates need to be carefully weighed against all of the alternatives when difficult decisions must be made.”
When the class size reduction program began unraveling in the 2009-10 school year for the first time, Ramon Cortines, then Los Angeles Unified Superintendent of Schools, said that he didn’t think a 20-to-1 ratio is “sacred.” More important, he said, “is the kind of quality time you spend with your students, and how you divide your time in the classroom.”

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