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Press Packet #1: Press Release
(June 28, 2000) CSR Fact Sheet #1 (CSR in California)
  CSR Fact Sheet #2 (California vs. Tennessee)

Press Release: June 28, 2000

Contact: Michelle Bullwinkle, AIR, (650)843-8177
  Jess Cook, RAND, (310) 451-6913

California's Push for Smaller Classes Continues to Yield Modest Achievement Gains, But Shortage of Qualified Teachers Widens

(Sacramento, CA) - California's push to reduce the size of kindergarten through third grade classes continues to be marked by small positive gains in achievement by students of all backgrounds - but also by a shortage of qualified teachers that extends to the upper as well as the lower primary school grades.

These are the latest findings of an ongoing evaluation of the state's four-year-old, $4 billion class size reduction (CSR) program by a consortium headed by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and RAND and including Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), EdSource, and WestEd.

The study notes that:

  • Third-grade students in classes reduced to 20 or fewer students performed better than their counterparts in larger classes in 1998-99, continuing the small improvement trend reported for 1997-98. Performance was higher regardless of students' backgrounds, and gains achieved in third grade held for students who then returned to larger classes in fourth grade.
  • Teacher qualifications (education, credentials, and experience) continued to decline, though at a less precipitous rate than in the first two years of the reform. In another continuing pattern, schools serving low-income, minority, and English learner students have fewer well-qualified teachers than other schools. The authors observe that the statewide decline in teacher qualifications noted in grades K-3 also occurred in grades 4 and 5 as well in many school districts.
  • More than 92 percent of California's K-3 students were in reduced size classes in 1998-99. However, the districts slow to reach full implementation serve high percentages of low-income, minority (particularly Hispanic) or English learner students.
  • The percentage of students classified as needing special education was not affected by CSR, but in 1998-99 alone, about 1,000 special education and bilingual teachers switched to teaching regular K-3 classes.
  • CSR has not changed the content or method of K-3 instruction. But teachers in reduced size classes report spending more time working with individuals, small groups, and students with reading problems. They also report fewer disruptive behaviors during lessons.

Launched in 1996, the California program allots about $800 for each student enrolled in a class of 20 or fewer in kindergarten through grade 3. The CSR Research Consortium is evaluating the effort for the state legislature.

The researchers find it encouraging to see achievement increases for the second year in a row. But RAND Senior Social Scientist Brian Stecher voiced concern that CSR has exacerbated growing teacher shortages in K-12 schools. "Even though it is slowing," he said, "this continuing decline in teacher qualifications is a critical issue for California education. We have begun to see lower teacher qualifications in middle schools and high schools as well."

Added George Bohrnstedt, Senior Vice President for Research at AIR: "The gains might have been much greater if we had had sufficient numbers of well-qualified teachers. For California to see its low-income and minority students gain extra benefits from smaller classes, as occurred in the Tennessee STAR experiment, will probably require strong incentives so that districts with high percentages of special needs students get their fair share of credentialed teachers."

Michael Kirst, a Stanford University Education Professor and co-director of PACE, urged California legislative and policy leaders to stay the course, but also to move on the study's recommendations: address CSR-worsened teacher preparation problems; help nonparticipating schools--serving heavily Hispanic populations--to join the program; and improve the state education data system so the impact of CSR and other current reforms can be thoroughly examined.

Kirst pointed out that the state's new budget contains a number of large-scale initiatives for improving the supply of teachers in California.

Given the mixed results, the Consortium leaders recommend that state policymakers postpone any consideration of expanding CSR into the higher grades until the problems associated with its implementation have been addressed.

The report cautions against making too strong a judgment too soon about CSR's effects on achievement. The program's scale is unprecedented, the authors observe, and the state has concurrently launched many other education reforms, including changes in curriculum standards, assessments, bilingual education guidelines, teacher certification procedures, and student promotion policies.

Class Size Reduction in California: The 1998-99 Evaluation Findings is available on the Web site of the Class Size Reduction Research Consortium (www.classize.org).