More is less for schools
Canan Tasci, Staff Writer
Created: 03/28/2010 07:39:20 PM PDT

After 14 years and more than $10 billion spent for smaller class sizes, many California classrooms in the fall will move in the opposite direction.

In just a few months, classrooms across the state will increase their student-to-teacher ratios in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms from 20 students to as many as 30, essentially reversing what was advocated more than a decade ago in better economic times.

“My biggest fear is not knowing my students the way I got to know them when I had 20 and not knowing their needs and just being spread too thin,” said Renee Chipman, first-grade teacher at Valle Vista Elementary School in Rancho Cucamonga.

It’s not that educators haven’t advocated for smaller class sizes, but the state’s dwindling cash flow and budget crisis has forced many districts to lay off teachers, resulting in some teachers having to take on combination-grade classes, additional students and responsibilities, educators said.

“It’s not about what’s good for kids or education, it’s about economic survival, and that’s why you see these decisions to put more students into a classroom,” said Ron Leon, Cal Poly Pomona associated professor of graduate studies in education.

Concerns in the mid-1990s about how students performed on a national test coupled with California having some of the largest class sizes in the nation were the primary reasons why the state pushed for class size reduction.

But the idea is no longer a reality for K-3 educators, who for a decade were used to having up to 20 students in their classrooms.

“California is not alone in this. The problem was happening all over the country, and it’s unfortunate, because we’re expected to do better in school,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan clearinghouse for information on class size and the proven benefits of smaller classes.

Ten extra students may not seem as bad, but when broken down into a classroom, things start to get hairy.

Chipman teaches in the Central School District, where the 20-to-1 ratio was the law of the land for years, that is, until the current school year. Budget woes forced the district to have as many as 25 students in a room with a teacher.

In the fall that number will increase to 30.

The good news is Chipman had only 23 kids this year; the bad news is it’s because of declining enrollment.

“But if there were any new kids enrolled, I would take them in,” she said.

Chipman had a laundry list of changes she saw and felt in the first year of her larger class:

Less one-on-one interaction.

Fewer opportunities to get to know every student.

Afraid of not knowing when or if they’re falling behind.

Fewer distractions with only 20 students.

Remembering more parents’ names.

Less frequent parent conversations.

A feeling of being disconnected.

Less space and visibility.

More hands.

More desks and supplies.

More chatter.

Creating a different style of classroom management and control.

“With 20, I knew their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, their strengths, their weakness,” Chipman said. “Now it takes me a little longer to get to know them, but I also feel like I never will know them the way I want to.”

Chipman’s concerns are echoed by other educators and parents who say less is more.

Part of the fear of class sizes going up is that so many of programs that were implemented to support class size reduction, such as intervention and staff development, are now on the chopping block because of budget cuts, said Jill Hammond, assistant superintendent of learning support services for Ontario-Montclair School District.

“We’re at the mercy of the budget,” Hammond said. “What’s going to happen when we lose all these abilities, how is this going to affect students and teachers and the delivery of instruction are just a few things we have to think about as this began to unfold?”

Class-size increase is one of a number of changes schools are dealing with all the while still having to comply with state and federal standards and curriculum. Hammond calls the changes a “domino effect.”

“There are so many other initiatives that have been ingrained in the class structure, because those are ways to improve student achievement. Decreasing the number of students in a room was one of them,” Hammond said.

Assessing a classroom is easier to do when there are 20 students, said Tyra Weis, Associated Pomona Teachers president.

“With 20, I was able to more effectively reach individually a child. I did a lot of one-on-one. I rotated from table to table, and it made me control my classroom better,” said Weis, a former teacher.

“I was more able to frequently sit with my students, and I was able to have more time for parent conferences.”

Weis said teachers are fully capable of handling students and teaching them, but what it boils down to is what is more effective for each student.

Chino Valley Unified parent Debbie Cruz said she can already see the effects of the class-size increase with her third-grade daughter who attends Cortez Elementary.

“I see her not getting one-on-one, and not doing smaller group activities as often,” she said. “This year I see her getting distracted now because there are so many kids. She tells me, `Mommy, I have to say shh, shh, shh, in class because it’s too loud.”‘

While there have been no studies that show there’s an ideal class size, most people believe the smaller the class the better.

A lack of research linking student achievement to smaller classrooms in K-3 in California doesn’t take away from the anecdotal belief, Cal Poly’s Leon said.

“This belief is still very important by teachers who say they can do more or know their student better … not everything that is done in a classroom is reflective in research,” he said.

“If you were to survey parents, teachers, administrative about how they feel, the vast majority would say class size matters to them, but that hasn’t translated into test scores.”

That’s not to say there has been no research done – a Tennessee study more than a decade ago concluded students who were placed in smaller class sizes in grades K-3 had better high school graduation rates, higher grade-point averages, and were more inclined to pursue higher education.

In California, however, no significant study has been completed showing smaller class sizes do cause significant academic improvements.

“I think part of difficulty is that there are so many variables that affect student achievement, the fact that the economy has declined, the fact that more families are struggling, that has an impact on students, and where there is a large number of students who are in poverty, it’s a hard to say class size alone will make things better,” Leon said.

A four-year study was done eight years ago by the American Institute for Research, who along with RAND Corp.

The research concluded while “achievement scores have risen significantly in California’s elementary schools in the last six years – during the same period when the Class Size Reduction program was implemented – the researchers found it difficult to determine if CSR played a significant role in the rise.”

However, despite the inconclusive findings, the researchers noted reduced class sizes remain highly popular among parents and teachers.

“It helped increase communication between teacher and student, and they were able to give more time to help struggling students,” said Brian Stecher, associate director with RAND and one of the editors on the report.

Because CSR was implemented quickly, almost fully in the first and second grade by the time the consortium study began, it make it difficult to evaluate its effects.

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