The California program to reduce class size began in 1996 when California’s state legislature passed SB 1777, a reform measure aimed at cutting class size in the early school grades from what had been an average of 28 students to a maximum of 20. To our knowledge, the CSR initiative was and still is the largest state educational reform in history: This voluntary program currently costs over $1.5 billion per year and affects over 1.8 million students. In 1998–99, the year covered by this report and the third year of the program, California school districts that chose to participate received just over $800 for each K–3 student enrolled in a class of 20 or fewer students.
The high expectations educators and policymakers hold for the program are based in large part on the results of a class size reduction experiment conducted in Tennessee from 1985 to 1990. Known as the Tennessee STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) project, this educational improvement effort produced relatively large achievement gains for all students, as measured by their scores on the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9).Moreover, the gains for low-income and minority students were almost twice as large as those for other students.
However, there are substantial differences between Tennessee’s and California’s situations, and one cannot assume that the CSR program will automatically produce the same or better results for California’s students. The Tennessee program was a carefully controlled experiment involving about 10,000 students, whereas the California program is implemented statewide and serves 1.8 million students. Another difference is that California’s program reduces its maximum class size of 33 students down to 20, whereas Tennessee took its class size of 22–26 students down to 13–17. California also serves a student population that is decidedly more ethnically and linguistically diverse. Finally, California schools lack two important ingredients that Tennessee schools did not—adequate space and enough qualified teachers for program implementation. These differences between the two programs are large. When considered together, they clearly indicate that California’s CSR program must be judged on its own terms rather than as a replication of the Tennessee experiment.
It is also important to understand that the CSR program is not being implemented within a static system. California’s schools are undergoing numerous other major educational reforms that involve changes in curriculum standards, state assessments, bilingual education guidelines, teacher certification procedures, and student promotion policies. These interventions and others interact in intricate and complex ways, making it difficult to attribute changes to any single effort, including the CSR program.
CSR is Nearing Full Implementation
By the end of the third year of CSR (the 1998–99 school year), 98.5 percent of all eligible districts were participating in the program, and 92 percent of California’s K–3 students were in reduced size classes (see Figure 1). In other words, CSR had been implemented in about 94,000 classes serving nearly 1.8 million students. This represents an increase over the second year of implementation, when 84 percent of California’s K–3 students received instruction in reduced classes. And because the law required that districts first reduce class size in grades 1 and 2, the growth in 1998–99, as might be expected, occurred primarily in kindergarten and grade 3.
Figure 1 — CSR Implementation Over First Three Years of Program
Source: California Department of Education. Retrieved February 24, 1999, from the World Wide Web: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ftpbranch/sfpdiv/classize/facts.htm.
Moreover, 1998–99 saw the elimination of the gap in the extent to which CSR had been implemented in schools serving high versus low percentages of low-income students. And there was a considerable narrowing of the gap between schools serving high and low percentages of minority or EL students.
Even so, there were still some non-reduced classes (primarily in kindergarten and grade 3), and they were concentrated in schools serving high percentages of Hispanic students. For example, schools whose student body was less than 15 percent Hispanic had 95 percent of their third graders in reduced classes, whereas schools with 45 percent or more Hispanic students had 80 percent of their third graders in the smaller classes. That’s a difference of 15 percentage points. The comparable gap at the kindergarten level was
11 percentage points.
Teacher Qualification Levels Declined in Grades K–12, But the Decline Was Greatest in the Elementary Grades
While CSR was being implemented, the qualifications of California’s teacher workforce declined. The proportion of teachers with full credentials decreased in all grades (see Figure 2), as did the proportion of teachers with the minimum level of college education (only a bachelor’s degree) and the proportion of experienced teachers (those with more than three years of experience). A number of factors, including the booming state economy and increasing enrollments may have been responsible for this decline.
But the problem of underqualified teachers was greatest in elementary schools, where CSR created the greatest increase in demand. The decline in qualification levels of the
K–3 teacher workforce that we described in last year’s report continued in 1998–99, although at a much slower pace. And the changes in the teacher workforce that we saw for K–3 were mirrored in grades 4 and 5. That is, the proportions of teachers who were fully credentialed, had college training beyond a bachelor’s degree, or had more than three years of experience decreased for grades 4 and 5 at the same rate they decreased for K–3.
Figure 2 — Percentage of Fully Credentialed Teachers, 1995 to 1999
Source: CSR Consortium analysis of California Department of Education, California Basic Education Data System–Professional Assignment Information Form (CBEDS-PAIF) data.
Decline in Teacher Qualifications Was Greatest in Schools Serving Students Most in Need
The decline in teacher qualifications was greater in elementary schools serving low-income, EL, or minority students than in other schools (see Figure 3). Elementary schools serving the fewest low-income students saw the proportion of fully credentialed K–3 teachers decrease from 98 to 96 percent from 1995–96 to 1998–99, while schools serving the most low-income students saw the proportion of qualified K–3 teachers decrease from 96 to 80 percent. In 1998–99, the rapid decrease in qualified teachers that happened in the first three years was halted for schools with fewer low-income students, but it continued, though more slowly, for schools with more low-income students.
Figure 3 — Percentage of K–3 Teachers Fully Credentialed In Schools with Different Proportions of Low-Income Students
Note: Differences between the top and bottom quartiles in the same years are statistically significant at the 0.01 level.
Source: CSR Consortium analysis of California Department of Education, CBEDS-PAIF data.
The uneven decline in teacher qualifications seen in grades K–3 occurred to a lesser extent in all grade levels, K–12. This is illustrated by dividing all schools into four groups based on the percentage of low-income students, and looking at the gap in teacher qualifications between the top and bottom groups (see Figure 4). At every grade level, there was a difference in teacher qualifications between schools with high percentages of low-income students and schools with low percentages of low-income students, and these differences increased from 1995–96 to 1998–99. These gaps were greatest in the elementary grades.
Figure 4 — Difference in Percentages of Fully Credentialed Teachers Between Schools with Less Than 7.5% Low-Income Students and Schools with More Than 30% Low-Income Students
Source: CSR Consortium analysis of California Department of Education, CBEDS-PAIF data.
Reduced Size Classes Provided More Individual Instruction But Not Different Curriculum
The survey responses we received from third-grade teachers for 1998–99 were similar to those we had received for the previous school year. They indicate that teachers in reduced size classes, once again, devoted more instructional time to small groups and to working with individual students on mathematics and language arts lessons than did teachers in non-reduced size classes (see Table 1). Moreover, teachers in the smaller classes also continued to provide comparatively more extended attention to poor readers, and were more positive about their ability to assess and meet student needs and to provide students with quick feedback and individual attention. Reduced class size was related to better student discipline in both years as well. In 1997–98, teachers in the smaller classes spent proportionately less time disciplining students than their counterparts in the larger classes did; in 1998–99, the proportion of students who were disruptive during lessons was smaller in the reduced classes.
Table 1 — Grouping Practices Used by Teachers in Language Arts
Note: Differences shown in bold italics are statistically significant.
Source: 1998 and 1999 CSR teacher surveys.
However, teachers reported few differences in curriculum, regardless of class size. Teachers in reduced and non-reduced size classes alike covered about the same number of mathematics and language arts topics and devoted about the same amount of time to each major curriculum element. There were no differences between reduced and non-reduced classes in terms of language arts learning activities, and there was only one difference in terms of mathematics: Students in reduced classes worked with measuring instruments in mathematics (e.g., rulers, compasses) more frequently than their counterparts in non-reduced classes did.
Small Improvement in Third-Grade Student Achievement Persisted into Fourth Grade
This year’s evaluation and last year’s found that third-grade students who were enrolled in reduced size classes performed better than those who were not. This was true in
1997–98, when both of these groups had little or no prior exposure to reduced size classes, and it was true again in 1998–99, when both groups had one to two years of prior exposure to such classes. For 1998–99, we also found that between 1 and 4 percent more third-grade students scored above the national median in schools that had implemented CSR than in schools that had not (see Figure 5).
Figure 5 — Percentage of Third-Grade Students Above 50th National Percentile Rank (Median) With and Without CSR
Moreover, we found that the gains in achievement were similar regardless of a school’s student characteristics—that is, regardless of the percentage of minority, low-income, or EL students in the school. This was true in 1997–98 and again in 1998–99.
In addition, there was evidence that the benefits of being in a reduced size class persisted after students returned to a large class for one year. In 1997–98, third-grade students who were in smaller classes had higher scores at the end of the year than did third-grade students who were in larger classes. In 1998–99, both of these groups were in fourth grade and thus in non-reduced size classes. At the end of fourth grade, students who had been in the smaller third-grade classes once again had higher scores than did students who had been in the larger third-grade classes. The difference in achievement at the end of fourth grade was smaller than the difference after third grade, but it was still statistically significant.6 And the difference was observed whether students in the smaller classes had been in them for third grade alone or for both second and third grade. There were no lasting effects in fourth grade, however, for students who had participated in reduced size classes only in second grade.
When we looked at the state-level results, comparing the whole 1997–98 fourth-grade class that had little or no exposure to reduced size classes with the whole 1998–99
fourth-grade class that had over a year of exposure to CSR on average, we found no differences. We are more likely to see statewide effects from the CSR program in fourth grade in the future, when the total years of exposure will be greater.
Special Populations Fared Somewhat Worse Under CSR
The percentage of students identified as needing special education services was unaffected by CSR, although interviews in six large districts suggested that the number of students referred for special education assessment did increase with the implementation of CSR. However, the CSR program placed additional pressures on services for EL and special education students. As the program grew, many teachers switched from teaching these two groups of students to teaching in regular K–3 classes (see Table 2). Based on reports from superintendents, we estimate that in 1998–99 alone, about 1,000 teachers moved out of these programs and into K–3 classes.
Table 2 — EL and Special Education Teachers Becoming Regular K–3 Teachers from
1995–96 to 1997–98
Note: Statewide estimates are based on responses to district surveys.
At the same time, more teachers were obtaining extra training to qualify for special certificates to work with minority and bilingual students. Although the proportion of teachers with extra certification increased dramatically during this period, schools serving more EL students received proportionately fewer of these teachers (see Figure 6).
Figure 6 — K–3 Teachers with CLAD or BCLAD Credentials in Schools with Different Proportions of EL Students
Source: CBEDS and R-30 Language Census Forms.