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Graduate Students Report on Effects of Class-Size Reduction in Bay Area Schools

by Kathy Scalise, Public Affairs
posted July 15, 1998

Bay Area elementary schools risk substituting small class size for quality teaching, libraries, computer rooms and science facilities, according to a group of Berkeley graduate students. Their report on the effects of class-size reduction in California K-3 classrooms over the last two years was released in May.

"In the 1996-97 school year, the governor gave state schools $971 million to reduce class size," said Brian Edwards, one of five graduate students in the Goldman School of Public Policy who worked on the study. "In the 1997-98 school year, it amounted to about $1.5 billion. The program cost a lot of money, and we wanted to know how it was playing out."

In addition to an extensive literature review and interviews with state officials and education researchers, the students conducted field visits and telephone interviews with teachers, principals and district officials at three Bay Area schools: Alamo School in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Brookvale School in the Fremont Unified School District and Lockwood Year-Round School in the Oakland Unified School District.

The analysis was completed as a case study for the California Budget Project, a nonprofit think-tank in Sacramento, under the guidance of Public Policy Professor Eugene Bardach. He teaches Public Policy 200A, a required policy analysis workshop for graduate students in public policy.

The research team discovered a mixed picture of the effects of class-size reduction. They found that teachers and parents appreciated the improved classroom atmosphere brought about by fewer children, but these gains came at the cost of losing qualified teachers in poorer school districts and across-the-board sacrificing of science and computer facilities, libraries and other critical resources.

"We heard all kinds of anecdotes of recruiting new teachers from all walks of life, including many uncredentialed teachers," said Arquimides Caldera, a research team member. "We found there is something to be said for experience and for having a teaching credential. Otherwise we're basically replacing good teaching with small class size."

Most troubling, researchers found that poorer school districts were often raided for experienced teachers.

"Schools had to decide if a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio was more important than a science lab or a library, and we think for most schools those libraries and labs aren't coming back."

"Class-size reduction opened up opportunities for teachers in tougher areas to move to schools serving higher income students," said Edwards. "We ended up with all these unfilled teaching positions in our most challenged schools."

In Oakland, the students found, 14 percent of all teachers hold only "emergency credentials," instead of the standard state teaching credential and would not be allowed to teach except for the teacher shortage. In Fremont and San Ramon Valley, only six percent of the teachers hold emergency credentials.

The three schools studied most intensively represent a socio-economic cross section of California's school-age population, with Alamo at the upper end, Brookvale in the middle and Lockwood tailing in student economic status. For instance, many Lockwood children live in two public housing projects near the school, and more than 80 percent are eligible for free-lunch programs.

Besides having trouble retaining and recruiting teachers, "Lockwood has major facilities problems," said Thi Le-Nguyen, who taught at Lockwood before enrolling in graduate school at Berkeley. "It's a challenging environment to teach in. There are many bilingual kids, and there's lots of crime and violence in the community. Last year I had broken windows and there was no heat in my room."

At Lockwood, scheduled renovation and the demands of class-size reduction caused loss of a library, which was converted to a classroom, and brought numerous portable classrooms to the site. Now, Le-Nguyen says, 900 children not only find books harder to come by, but must play sports and take recess breaks on a much smaller lot, crowded by portables.

"Here's a program that is supposed to be doing things like improving reading scores, yet it leads to shutting down school libraries," said Cheryl Waldrip, another member of the research team. "Libraries are necessary to develop life-long reading habits in children."

Even well-off schools failed to dodge the facilities bullet, the report found.

"Alamo has no gangs or graffiti, no students in free-lunch programs, and it's very easy for them to recruit credentialed teachers," said Edwards. "But they had a science room, a computer room and a library, all converted into classrooms. Science is now a cart of test tubes that moves from room to room."

Solving the facilities problem statewide would cost more than $3 billion, said Edwards, and it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

"Basically, schools had to decide if a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio was more important than a science lab or a library, and we think for most schools those libraries and labs aren't coming back," said Caldera.

Worse, the researchers project that if the California state budget takes a downturn in the future, class size might climb again, leaving schools with both crowded classrooms and permanent cuts in science facilities, computer rooms and libraries.

"Our major prediction is that, for all this money spent, if you're really looking for an improvement in education measured by test scores, you aren't going to see it," said Caldera.

According to the research team, most education research shows that academic achievement is not significantly affected until class size falls below 15 students, far fewer than California's target of 20 students per teacher.

"Maybe the biggest finding of the student work was that the weight of the evidence in the research literature tells you not to adopt this policy if what you really care about is improving academic achievement," said Professor Bardach.

However, "all around we saw support for class-size reduction -- teachers were happy, principals were happy, parents were happy," said Rachel Aberbach, also on the graduate student team. "But we found the quality of teaching was going down, and we think this trade-off may not be worth it. There may be increasing happiness in teachers, but we don't think there will be an increase in test scores."

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