Matters, or Does it?
Amid budget crisis, parents and teachers fight for small
classes. Some studies dissent.
by Sarah Tully, The Orange County Register, March 8, 2003
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For Cindy Hunter, there is no debate over whether smaller
classes are better.
All she has to do is look at her two daughters.
Both had most of the same teachers at O'Neill Elementary School
in Mission Viejo. Both are stronger in English than math.
But Meagan, now an honors student at Mission Viejo High, needed
$3,000 in math tutoring because she didn't receive enough help
in elementary school classes that had more than 30 students.
Her sister, fifth-grader Paige, is up to speed. The reason,
Hunter says, is Paige's classes of 20 meant teachers had more
"Both of my girls are pretty much the same," Hunter said. "But
the difference that I saw, it's like night and day."
Researchers aren't so sure.
California's class-size reduction program – which gives schools
extra money to keep classes no larger than 20 students through
the third grade - has been wildly popular with parents and
teachers. To them, it's simple common sense: Smaller classes
give teachers more time to spend with individual students. They
point to test scores that have risen dramatically since 20-1
began in 1996.
Despite that, 20-1 is also one of the first programs districts
are putting on the chopping block as they look for ways to pare
$5.4 billion from the state budget. In Orange County, at least
eight districts may change their 20-1 program in at least one
"Smaller classes are beneficial, but it's not clear that they
are cost-effective," said Christopher Jepsen, a research fellow
at the Public Policy Institute of California, a non- profit,
Casting doubt on benefits of 20-to-1
Several studies on smaller classes, including four years of
research on California's 20-1 program, have failed to make the
case that improvements are due to smaller class sizes alone.
In California, for instance, researchers say other programs that
started about the same time – statewide testing, a uniform
curriculum, the end of most bilingual education and social
promotion - could be more important. Test scores are also rising
in the upper grades, which have 30 to 40 students in a class -
often more students than normal in order to accommodate 20-1.
"Some people think that small class size in and of itself is a
silver bullet," said George Bohrnstedt, a senior vice president
for research of American Institutes for Research. "I think there
are ways we can use the money in a more focused and potentially
The state study also pointed to problems caused by 20-1:
Districts had only weeks to hire hundreds of extra teachers when
the program began, leaving many districts - especially those
with English learn ers and poor students - to hire new teachers
or those with emergency credentials. The percent of teachers
without full credentials increased from 1.8 percent to 12.5
percent the next year, according to the study. Last year, almost
14 percent lacked full credentials - most concentrated in the
In Los Angeles Unified, low-income students had slightly lower
test scores after class-size reduction, although five other
large districts saw increases
"The research evidence is pretty strong to suggest the quality
of teachers is so much more important than the size of the
class," said Eric Han ushek, senior fellow at the Hoover
Institution at Stanford University.Parents and teachers, though,
say they can see the proof of the program in the kids.
The struggle to save 20-to-1 classes in crisis
The program is so popular in Irvine Unified that residents paid
for it themselves in part of kindergarten and grades 2 and 3
this year - more than $900,000. The Irvine Public Schools
Foundation, a private group, is now trying to raise money to
save it in three grades next year.
In Saddleback, fifth-grade teacher Sally White says she sees the
results when the kids get to her class and show better spelling,
punctuation and grammar - possibly one reason test scores are
rising even in upper grades.
"I can reach every child every day in every subject," said Kris
Parker, a third-grade teacher at O'Neill Elementary in
Saddleback Valley, which is planning to increase class sizes
from 20 to 30.
As districts look for ways to cope with the budget crisis, the
20-1 law's requirements leave them with few options.
Schools must cap enrollment at 20 students or risk losing the
$906 per student in extra funds. So schools usually put only 17
or 18 students in a class, leaving room if students move in - a
tactic that adds cost by requiring more teachers. Schools also
combine classes to save money - for instance, putting second-
and third-graders together.
Researchers recommended the state give schools more flexibility,
such as allowing up to 22 students in a class.
But the Parent Teacher Association and California Teachers
Association are fighting bills that would increase class size,
saying it will lead to even larger classes later. In 2001,
California had the second highest student- teacher ratio in the
country, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.
Many districts, however, say the idea may save 20-1, andhave
criticized the teachers union's stance, saying they are trying
to save jobs but risk losing even more if the bill fails.
"If there are more students in the class, you are going to hurt
those kids who need help," said Katrina Kroeger, who has two
boys at White Elementary.