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Press Packet #1: Press Release
(June 23, 1999) CSR Fact Sheet #1 (CSR in California)
  CSR Fact Sheet #2 (California vs. Tennessee)

Press Release: June 23, 1999

Contact: Michelle Bullwinkle, AIR, (650)843-8177
  Jess Cook, RAND, (310) 393-0411, ext 6228

Early Results from Study of Class Size Reduction in California:
Researchers Find Achievement Gains But Effects on Teacher Quality, District Finances May Worsen Inequities

Early findings from an ongoing evaluation of California's massive, K-3 class size reduction (CSR) initiative indicate that students of all backgrounds have made small achievement gains, but teacher quality has suffered and many districts, particularly in urban areas, face difficulties in finding staff, space, and funds for the new classrooms required.

A newly-released report, Class Size Reduction in California: Early Evaluation Findings, 1996-l998, provides the following snapshot of CSR’s impact so far:

  • There is a small positive gain in achievement associated with being in a reduced size class, and this gain is realized by all groups of students.
  • Almost all 1st and 2nd grade students and almost two-thirds of all kindergarten and 3rd grade students are in reduced size classes.
  • Districts serving low-income and minority students and English language learners (ELL students) have been slower to implement and have received disproportionately less CSR revenue as a result.
  • To implement CSR this rapidly, many schools have taken space from other programs to use for classrooms. Facility shortages in schools serving low-income, minority, and ELL students mean that these schools have reduced class size more slowly and faced greater demands on existing space.
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  • The costs of CSR have exceeded the revenues in many districts, and many have taken resources from other programs to make up the deficit. Districts serving low-income, minority and ELL students have higher costs and are more likely to have taken resources from other activities to support the implementation of CSR.
  • The K-3 teacher workforce in California has increased by 38%, but the overall preparation level of K-3 teachers has declined. Schools serving low-income, minority, and ELL students have suffered a far greater decline in the qualifications of teachers than other schools.
  • Teaching practices are very similar in large and small classes, but teachers in small classes spend somewhat less time on discipline and spend somewhat more time working one-on-one with problem readers and attending to individual students’ personal concerns.
  • Parents of students in reduced classes have more contact with teachers and are more satisfied with their child’s education.

The four-year evaluation, mandated by the state legislature, is being conducted by a consortium of research agencies led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and RAND and including Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), WestEd, and EdSource. The first-year findings represent "a finger on the pulse rather than a full diagnostic report," said George Bohrnstedt, senior vice president for research at AIR. Even at this early stage, however, the research verifies that CSR is having powerful effects on the state’s school system, not all of them positive. "Our findings imply that some mid-course adjustments might increase the program’s benefits," said Brian Stecher, senior social scientist at RAND.

Key among such adjustments suggested in the report are strengthening statewide efforts to bolster teaching-from recruitment to preparation, support, and development-and finding ways to promote school construction. The researchers also propose equity-related actions, such as creating incentives for good teachers to take and keep jobs at schools most in need of their expertise, adjusting the funding formula, and allowing schools flexibility in using CSR funds.

Under legislation passed in July 1996, California invested $1 billion (since followed by another $1.5 billion annually) to boost early learning by reducing its kindergarten through 3rd grade class sizes. The state offered $650 (later raised to $800) for every student in a class of 20 or fewer students. Schools jumped at the opportunity. Many implemented at least at one grade level in the six weeks before the start of school, despite daunting problems of space and personnel. By the program’s second year, almost all 1st and 2nd grade classes had been reduced, along with two-thirds of 3rd grades and kindergartens (see Fact Sheet). But despite strong enthusiasm among educators, parents, and the public, worries have surfaced about the trade-offs being made to find enough space and teachers and about whether all students would benefit equitably.

As the following details from key findings show, the new research can be seen as validating both the enthusiasm and the concerns:

Achievement gain. The researchers compared 1997 scores of 3rd graders in reduced classes to those of 3rd graders in non-reduced classes on California’s then newly-adopted statewide test, the SAT-9. On average, they found, the "effect size" for the smaller-class students was nearly 0.1, or one-tenth of a standard deviation. "That roughly translates to moving a student who was at the 50th national percentile to the 53rd," explained Stecher. Though an influential Tennessee study (see Fact Sheet) showed poor and minority students benefiting almost twice as much as other groups from smaller classes, that difference is not evident in California. All students show similar gains, regardless of ethnicity, poverty level, or English fluency.

Decline in level of teacher preparation and experience. Between 1995 and 1997 the number of K-3 teachers increased by 23,500, or 38 percent. Of those, more than half had less than three years’ experience. Prior to CSR, almost all K-3 teachers were fully credentialed; by 1997, over 12% were not.

Worsening of inequities. The more adverse the school's conditions and the higher its percentage of poor, minority, and ELL students, the slower it was to fully implement CSR. Moreover, the already weaker qualifications of teachers serving poor and minority students are now dramatically worse. In 1995, the bottom quartile of schools (in terms of percent students from low-income families) had a slightly higher percentage of teachers lacking full credentials than other schools. By 1997 that gap had increased almost tenfold. The same is true for schools serving higher percentages of minority and ELL students. Such schools lost some teachers to other places, but the main problem was that better-qualified teachers chose to take newly-available jobs in "more desirable" schools. A similar distribution shift occurred with specialist teachers certified to teach ELL students. "The fact that schools with the greatest percentage of at-risk students were not only the slowest to implement CSR, but also were least able to hire credentialed teachers, should be viewed as a matter of great concern for the state," Bohrnstedt said.

In discussing implications, the researchers caution that CSR is mixing and meshing with an unprecedented number of other school reform initiatives that schools are trying to implement simultaneously, making it difficult to isolate the effects of any single one. They also point out that it would be incorrect at this point to assume cause-effect relationships among the features studied or to make too strong a judgment about CSR’s effects on achievement. Still, they interpret the achievement gains as promising, "especially since those gains occurred despite the rapid implementation and the many barriers schools faced," said Stecher. Also, he notes, teachers surveyed in reduced-size classes spent more time attending to students’ personal problems and giving sustained attention to the needs of problem readers.

The problems, however - most notably regarding facilities and teaching (supply and quality)-will require more than individual schools’ best efforts. Schools need additional facility funds to reduce the severe space shortage, the report says, noting that students with the greatest academic needs tend to attend the most overcrowded schools, i.e., schools least able to implement CSR. Similarly, a greater investment may be needed to help train, coach and develop the many underprepared teachers and to attract good teachers to schools that serve large numbers of poor, minority, and ELL students, most notably in the urban districts.

"One way to address the equity issues is to inject some flexibility into the current one-size-fits-all approach," said Stanford University’s Mike Kirst, co-director of PACE. As an example, the report points to the Legislative Analyst’s earlier proposal that schools strapped for space and teachers be allowed a cap of 22 students per class, as long as the district maintained an average of 20. The report also suggests that the allocation formula might be changed to better align CSR incentives with local costs. For example, Kirst said, "the state could consider shifting to a formula that puts a disproportionate share of the funds into the hands of districts with a disproportionate share of at-risk students."

Such shifts may be especially important in light of the state’s new, higher standards for students and array of high-stakes consequences for performance. Attention to CSR’s unintended consequences may help ensure that the persistent achievement gap for many of the state’s poor and minority students will, as hoped, be narrowed by this reform.