Critics Say Class Sizes 'Ain't All That'

A group of researchers looking into California's class reduction efforts are on the verge of reporting that the state has wasted its money.

The Class Size Reduction Research Consortium, made up of the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes for Research among others, will release a study next week that suggests that the state of California might take a look at other ways to spend the billions of dollars it has put into its massive class size reduction program.

The consortium, commissioned by the state, has reported in two previous studies that efforts to reduce class size in kindergarten through third grade have done little for boosting achievement, but have managed to stretch thin the number of quality teachers in California.

"It’s safe to say that the results we have had have been mixed and in some cases are going to be viewed by some as disappointing," said George Bohrnstedt, a researcher for AIR.

And while the California program to reduce class sizes from 28 to 20 students for 1.8 million students at a cost of $8 billion since 1996 has been criticized for penalizing mostly poor, minority students who have lost their teachers to better income areas, supporters of reduced class size say the results are better educated students.

"The students have shown that not only do smaller class sizes improve achievement, but they improve achievement for the neediest of students," said Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country. "This is about student achievement and that’s why we push for smaller class sizes."

The consortium does acknowledge that the number of teachers in the school system has risen in the past year, but other problems continue to plague California's school system.

Among them, resources have thinned to accommodate more classrooms. And more troubling, the group said that state test averages for students in smaller classrooms are not comparably higher than those in larger classes.

"We did not find a strong association between achievement and participation" in the program, the study says.

For critics, the results are clear indicators that many districts have been relying too heavily on class size to reform underperforming schools, and that the momentum for smaller classes is reaching unstoppable rates.

"For parents, they think it’s a good idea, because on the face of it, they think their child is going to get individual attention," said Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst for the Center for Education Reform.

"I think it's popular because there are a lot of policymakers who get a lot of money from the unions and on the face of it, it makes sense," he said. "And the more educators on the front lines say, ‘this is a great idea,' it takes on a life of its own."

Observers say that returning to larger classes isn't the answer. Andy Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute, which has released two examinations on the positive effects of reducing school sizes, said that the effect of class size reduction depends on the school district's individual circumstances.

"I think you want to be very careful," he said. "Reducing class sizes is not always appropriate, especially when you have a shortage of quality teachers, but in other instances it can be better. What you want is an environment of local flexibility."

Meanwhile, California education officials say they are going to take a close look at the CSR consortium report. Faced with state budget cuts, it might have to rethink the class size reduction program, at least for now.

"We put a lot of stock in the study," said Jim Padila, director of policy and evaluation for the state education department. "It is a useful study and I think it will certainly have an impact on upcoming budget discussions. We have to decide if it’s worth the cost and that's the main issue."