Education Commentary

How Class-Size Reduction Harms Kids in Poor Neighborhoods

By Randy Ross — May 26, 1999 9 min read
Prepare for a predictable redistribution of teaching quality.

In 1996, the state of California began spending with great fanfare over $1 billion a year to reduce the size of classes in the early primary grades. Emboldened by intuition and confirmatory findings from Tennessee’s rigorously designed class-size-reduction experiment, California policymakers embraced the vision that a rising tide of class-size reduction would lift the performance of all students. The expectation, moreover, was that poor children’s academic boats would rise even higher, thereby reducing the nagging performance gap between rich and poor students that even the most mammoth and muscle-bound of public-policy heroics (for example, Title I) have barely put a squeeze on.

Unfortunately, these sky-high expectations fail to take into account how class-size reduction tinkers with the quality of teaching in well-to-do and poor neighborhoods. Many schools in high-income communities have fared well as a result of the class-size-reduction program. They had no inexperienced teachers before the introduction of the program, and they had none after it. Yet, contrary to the findings from the Tennessee experiment, a wholesale reduction in class size predictably nibbles away at the chances that students in poor, inner-city neighborhoods will get a better education--even if fully qualified teachers were available to fill the new classrooms.

Here’s why. A substantive reduction in the size of classes in the lower grades for virtually every one of California’s public elementary schools triggers a frenetic stirring among the existing teacher force. Schools post job openings for the newly created classrooms. Teachers apply to multiple sites, some more attractive than others. The more-attractive schools--for example, those situated in middle- to high-income communities--receive stacks of applications iced with well-honed cover letters. The least-attractive schools--for example, poorly performing schools in high-poverty areas--scrape far fewer applications from their mailboxes. Of the applicants who fail to make the cut for the plum teaching slots, some opt out of the teaching profession, while many others, by default, repair to classrooms in the inner city.

In 1984, the Los Angeles Unified School District commissioned a survey of about 2,000 Los Angeles teachers that measured the extent of this unfortunate but natural dynamic. Teachers were asked how they felt about working in hard-to-staff schools--primarily schools in the high-poverty areas hit by the city’s 1965 riots. The widespread perception was that, in these schools, teachers were less safe and students were less prepared to learn and more difficult to discipline. While 16 percent of the teachers surveyed said they would eagerly accept an assignment at a hard-to-staff school, 40 percent said they would resign if they were forced to take on such a tough assignment.

The California class-size-reduction story is actually a bit drearier than that. The state’s rapidly rising K-12 enrollment, an aging teacher force, and the inability of the suppliers of teachers (schools of education) to keep up have combined to create a teacher shortage so intense that inner-city school administrators laugh when admonished to cease hiring inexperienced and unprepared teachers. Even before the class-size-reduction program, for example, Los Angeles had already begun to hire thousands of inexperienced teachers (primarily those with emergency credentials). With the state’s class-size-reduction program, and the fact that the waiting room of the marketplace for educators is languishing with dusty seats, you can bet the Sunday tithe that many poor, inner-city children are suffering through the dubious blessing of being taught in smaller classes by less-experienced teachers.

Let me bring the issue closer to home. A few years ago, I was spotted at a luncheon by a coach who had supervised the park in my old South Central Los Angeles community. He called me over to his circle of associates, hugged me around the shoulder and exclaimed, “This young man grew up in the toughest neighborhood in Los Angeles.” For sure, the neighborhood of my youth was tough, as are many working-class communities. But was it the toughest? Coach Hawk’s somber assessment engendered thoughts of the “good old days” of my preadolescence, including images of the schools that had surrounded me.

Poor teaching by the underqualified nullifies any potential benefits of smaller classes.

My regular elementary school was Miramonte, located about a half-mile south of my childhood home. Images of some of the teachers from my six years there came to mind. Ms. Calhoun, my kindergarten teacher, was kind and caring. No one ever forgets Mr. Vick, the principal, or Mr. Ewing, an ever-present, no-nonsense 5th grade teacher. They were the ones who served up tough discipline to miscreant boys. There was also my mild-mannered 5th grade teacher, Mr. Buchanan, who seemed to have disappeared after his stint with my class. In the first semester of 6th grade, there was Ms. Richmond, a diminutive, take-charge woman, who also seemed to have disappeared after that semester. Then there was the gregarious, witty, beefy mainstay, Mrs. Turner, my second-semester 6th grade teacher, who was tickled by my reluctance to memorize the 11- and 12-times tables. Substitute teachers were a drag--they had a penchant for assigning make-work on smudgy purple-inked dittos. On days when neither the regular teacher nor a substitute teacher showed up, we were escorted to another class to wreak havoc with that teacher’s plans for the day.

In the first year of the implementation of California’s class-size-reduction program, Miramonte enjoyed a net gain of one credentialed teacher. However, the number of inexperienced teachers swelled from 16 to 24--more than a quarter of the school’s total teacher force. While that result supports Coach Hawk’s assessment of my “tough” neighborhood, Miramonte is only one school.

Six weeks of summer school filled my schedule annually, sometimes away from Miramonte. Lillian Street Elementary was a small, nondescript school just east of my home. I went there the summer before the jump to junior high school. I recall no faces from Lillian--just lots of boredom in the back of the classroom. When Lillian Street lowered the size of its classes in 1996, the number of fully credentialed teachers did not change. But the number of inexperienced teachers rose from five to 11--three of every 10 of this school’s teachers. I feel Coach Hawk’s hand clasping my shoulder.

The summer before I went to Lillian Street Elementary School, just after 5th grade, I had attended Florence Avenue Elementary, which was southeast of Miramonte. The daily walk was long and lonely. My clearest memory is of using half my daily lunch money to buy crackers and cheese on the way to school and pocketing the rest to purchase Marvel comic books. In the first year of California’s class-size-reduction program, Florence Avenue lost a net of three credentialed teachers, but the number of inexperienced teachers climbed from 11 to 20--about 40 percent of this school’s teachers. I am numbed by Coach Hawk’s ear-piercing dramatic pause around the word “toughest.”

There was one more elementary school in my neighborhood--Hooper Avenue, located on 51st Street about a half mile north of our home. I never attended Hooper Avenue, although it was closer than Miramonte, Lillian Street, and Florence Avenue. The reason lay in the railroad tracks at Slauson Avenue, where rival youth gangs set up imaginary bunkers. The first year of California’s class-size-reduction program, Hooper Avenue, enrolling more than 2,000 students, lost a net of three credentialed teachers. To cover this loss and to staff the newly created classrooms, the number of inexperienced teachers with emergency credentials grew from 18 to 25--about three of every 10 teachers in this school. It seems no matter which way I looked away from home, Coach Hawk’s assessment was dead right.

The precipitous rise in the number of inexperienced teachers is but one part of the dark side of the story of how class-size reduction lowers the quality of teaching in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Stories abound of classrooms in inner-city schools going without teachers during the year (they employ long-term substitutes). There are also tales of inner-city teachers who, failing in their efforts to obtain teaching positions elsewhere, continue to undereducate poor children.

Does it really matter that California’s class-size-reduction program effectively redistributed the quality of teachers? It matters dearly. Poor teaching nullifies the potential benefits of smaller classes. A recent study of the Dallas public schools suggests that spurts in academic performance take place only when students are exposed, grade by grade, to a continuous stream of good teaching. A single break in the quality causes the educational wheel to spin in place, digging a deeper and deeper hole for some children. The three out of 20 teachers who view the education of inner-city children as their calling need a lot more help than they have gotten in the past. And they certainly don’t need policies that dampen their good work by ensuring that inner-city kids will with certainty encounter some ineffective teachers along the way.

What can be done to resolve this problem? Given that California (as well as the federal government) seems bent on adding more fuel to the class-size-reduction train, the state should, at a minimum, figure out how to implement the program in ways that benefit all students--rich and poor.

One idea involves giving schools greater flexibility over how they implement the program. In lieu of creating smaller classes, a school could reduce its reliance on inexperienced teachers by using the same resources to hire one full-time, out-of-classroom, super-mentor teacher for every four inexperienced teachers. Adapting an idea advanced a decade ago by the California Business Roundtable, the super-mentor would provide continuous professional development for those four inexperienced teachers. The focus would be on what to teach, how to teach it, how to assess what students learn, and how to organize and manage a classroom of curious, eager children. The super-mentor would organize, coach, observe, plan, demonstrate, and review teacher practice. In effect, the super-mentor and the four inexperienced teachers would become an in-school work team or “critical friends” group.

No doubt there are other ideas for making better use of taxpayer dollars to educate kids in the “toughest” neighborhoods. Kids today probably have as strong a passion for learning as we did 30 years ago. Parents in poor neighborhoods, then as now, view education as the straight path to a good life. Now, as then, kids in these areas probably have no idea that many teachers don’t want to come to their schools. I certainly didn’t know, back in the 5th grade, that such feelings were so prevalent. And I had not a clue that government spending could make my life worse rather than better.

On the face of it, the predictable redistribution of teaching quality fostered by the implementation of California’s class-size-reduction program looks and feels a lot like triage. While my old coach may have been privy to these realities, they were as distant from my preadolescent radar as the planet Pluto. Come to think of it, maybe it was best that I didn’t know.

Randy Ross is the vice president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project.