NEWS RELEASE, 05/27/98
Teachers raided, libraries lost: UC Berkeley students
examine effects of class-size reduction in Bay Area
By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
BERKELEY -- Bay Area elementary schools risk substituting small class size for quality teaching, libraries, computer rooms and science facilities, according to a group of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. They released a report this week on the effects of class size reduction in California K-3 classrooms over the last two years.
"In the 1996-97 school year, the governor gave state schools $971 million to implement class-size reduction," said Brian Edwards, one of five UC Berkeley 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 Berkeley analysis was completed as a case study for the California Budget Project, a non-profit 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 Berkeley research team took away a mixed picture on the effects of class-size reduction. They found teachers and parents appreciated the improved classroom atmosphere brought about by fewer children, but these gains were made 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, another member of the research team. "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, the students found poorer school districts often were raided for experienced teachers.
"Part of what happened," said Edwards, "is class-size reduction opened up opportunities for teachers in tougher areas to move to schools serving higher income students. 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," which means they do not hold a standard state teaching credential and would not be allowed to teach except for the teacher shortage, as compared to only six percent in Fremont and San Ramon Valley.
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 UC 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 the sacrifice of a library, which was converted to a classroom, and brought numerous portables 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 with a dozen portable classrooms.
"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 team. "Libraries are necessary to develop life-long reading habits in children."
Even well-off schools failed to dodge the facilities bullet, the UC Berkeley group 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, and all these have been 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.
"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. "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."
According to the students, most education research shows academic achievement is not significantly affected until class size falls to fewer than 15 students, or well below the California 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 tradeoff 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."
The five students eagerly await the next round of statewide elementary school test scores to be released in June.
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