Problems arise as classes shrink

The Education Beat

Study shows slight rise in scores, accompanied by teacher, space shortages

June 27, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE FIRST REPORT card on California's Great Class Size Reduction came out last week, and it provides more precautionary evidence for those who think smaller classes mean bigger scores in reading and math.

Conducted by a respected five-member consortium of research outfits, the study found that California's extensive experiment -- putting 2 million children in smaller classes at a cost so far of $4 billion -- produced small achievement gains in its first two years.

But there was a painful trade-off: The already weaker qualifications of teachers serving poor and minority students are much worse. And the burden of finding staff, space and funds for thousands of new classrooms has fallen disproportionately on the cities.

The findings are in line with my observations on a reporting trip to California in February. I couldn't find an elementary school in Oakland without portable classrooms. To fill teaching positions, officials had recruited any adult who could fog a mirror. Many were teaching without certification or experience in reading instruction.

The California researchers cautioned against drawing firm conclusions, saying the findings issued last week amount to "a finger on the pulse rather than a full diagnostic report." They looked only at the first two years. Third-year test scores are due this week. Five years of data would be a luxury most school reforms can't -- or won't -- afford.

Still, we can ask preliminary questions of the researchers' preliminary findings:

Is 20 students low enough?

The inspiration for the California reduction was a controlled experiment in Tennessee, Project STAR, in which from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, class size was reduced from an average of about 25 to about 15. Poor and minority students benefited almost twice as much as other groups from the smaller classes.

In California, classes shrank from an average of 28 to 20. But, and it's a big but, Tennessee had space for smaller classes, it had enough trained teachers, and almost all of its students spoke English. By contrast, nearly one-third of California kids are learning English, and many of them hear no English at home. Moreover, the small achievement gains in California were realized equally by all racial, ethnic and economic groups.

Is the trade-off -- a shortage of qualified teachers and other urban problems in return for a few upward ticks in reading and math achievement -- acceptable?

The researchers said no. "The No. 1 concern is the disparities," Brian M. Stecher, the principal investigator, said by phone Thursday. "This generation of teachers will be with us for a long time, and if they're hampered, hindered, handicapped by poor qualifications, the system is in for trouble for a long time."

To deal with the inequities, some experts involved in the study suggested adjusting the "one-size-fits-all" California program to favor minorities and the poor. Michael W. Kirst of Stanford University said, "The state should 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."

That, of course, is the nub of the school finance debate. We'll be hearing arguments like it in Maryland when a commission, to be appointed by the governor, begins rewriting state school-aid formulas. It may not be fair that Montgomery County, which is training all of its teachers this summer to conduct reading classes of no larger than 15, can afford to do it, while Baltimore cannot.

But it may be legal. And why should Montgomery be penalized for going to the trouble and expense? One of the reasons for California's one-size-fits-all approach, said Stecher, was to "avoid punishing the districts that had done the most.

"It's an extremely complex problem," he said.

Learning Center gets help

The Bank of America -- still NationsBank to those of us on the right coast -- released $107,000 in liens on the South Baltimore Learning Center last week. That benevolence allowed the tutoring center to purchase its East Ostend Street building free of debt and launch a $1.5 million campaign for renovation and expansion.

As part of my job as a beginning reporter at The Sun, I used to drop by the building, just east of Charles Street, when it was the old Southern District police station. The courthouse is gone, but the basement cells haven't been removed.

Today, 300 people, from kindergartners through septuagenarians, use the 10-year-old center, which has a $400,000 budget and 70 volunteers -- with more needed.

One of the clients, 40-year-old Angela Sutton, spoke of her struggle to earn a high school equivalency diploma. Sutton, who dropped out of Calverton Junior High School at 16, started at the center about a year ago. She just missed passing the General Educational Development test in April and is preparing to take it again in September.

"This time I'll be ready," she said.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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