Small classes, mixed results in California

Test scores rise, but bring shortages of teachers, rooms

`I died and went to heaven'

Critics say reductions are easy, expensive and inefficient

February 28, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The nation's most ambitious attempt at reducing early-grade class sizes has lessons for those interested in doing the same thing in Maryland: It has been hugely popular, but so far has produced some serious problems and uncertain benefits.

Since 1996, California has invested $4 billion in limiting kindergarten through third-grade classes to no more than 20 pupils. That has shown tentative signs of raising reading test scores, particularly at lower-performing schools. But it has resulted in a severe shortage of experienced teachers and adequate classroom space.

California's class-size reductions are being closely watched across the country. Urged on by President Clinton, half the states are adding teachers to shrink classes.

In Maryland, class size is a hit-and-miss proposition as county and school officials struggle with crowded schools and impending teacher shortages. But, as elsewhere, the issue is shaping up as a top statewide educational -- and political -- concern.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged in his campaign last fall to hire 1,100 teachers statewide over four years, but he has postponed for a year the first phase of funding. Some school districts -- including Baltimore, Howard, and Montgomery counties -- are pressing ahead with their own class-size reduction plans and clamoring for state funds now.

California's approach to reducing class sizes has been sweeping. "It was amazing," says Gary Yee, a former Oakland school principal. "There was no targeting of kids who can't read or kids who are poor. All boats were to rise together."

Recent visits to urban elementaries here and in Sacramento find both parents and educators who appear to love the results. "Parents can count," says Lynn Piccoli, a state education planner.

Adds Barbara Buswell, a first-grade teacher at Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary: "I think I died and went to heaven."

Makeshift classrooms

But because of space shortages, many of the new, smaller classes have ended up in portable buildings, teachers' lounges, auditoriums, libraries and computer labs.

At Mark Twain Elementary in Sacramento, for example, Principal Douglas Hatley stands on the auditorium stage and surveys the scene below: three classes of first-graders, each class with 20 desks, separated by portable room dividers -- a consequence of a lack of regular classrooms for so many smaller classes.

Among the teachers hired in a mad scramble to fill such classrooms across the state, fully a fourth have no state credentials, and 21 percent are working on emergency permits that allow them to teach while taking education classes. The first year of the program, half the new teachers were inexperienced.

Still, says Don Oliver, principal of Bella Vista Elementary in Oakland: "The 20-to-1 ratio allows far more flexibility and flow and movement. Everything is easier, from grouping students to taking field trips."

At Bella Vista, teacher Carrie Johnston speaks in Spanish and English to a bilingual class housed in a worn portable classroom. In an Oakland tradition, her second-grade class is split. Eleven "early birds" start the school day; nine "late birds" end it. "I can't imagine having a class of 30," she says.

Kimm E. Ward, another Bella Vista teacher, cites an advantage of small classes she says is often overlooked: "Children, too, have a stronger voice."

Since the statewide effort went into effect in fall 1996 -- with funds from budget surpluses -- more than 18,400 new classrooms have opened. Last year, almost a third of California's 6 million public school pupils were in smaller classes.

Compliance has been nearly universal, says Piccoli, in part because the state is giving participating school districts an additional $800 per pupil and in part because of the program's popularity.

The class-size reduction initiative is so politically popular that, in the state's 1996 political campaigns, almost all of the California legislators running for re-election claimed credit for the reductions.

But even so, Gary K. Hart, the state's new education secretary under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, acknowledges that the effort has been "probably too much, too soon."

Some improvement

The first thorough evaluation of the program isn't due until April, but a survey of reading test results from last spring showed better scores for students in smaller classes.

On those tests, 41 percent of second-graders in small classes scored higher than the national mean, compared with 35 percent of second-graders in larger classes (which averaged 29 pupils).

Officials caution, however, that these results are preliminary and do not take into account such factors as poverty and English fluency. (About a quarter of all California pupils are not fluent in English.)

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