School Climate & Safety

Slight Gains Found From Calif. Class-Size Program

By Lynn Olson — June 23, 1999 4 min read

California’s massive effort to reduce class size in grades K-3 brought smaller classes to more than 1.6 million children in 1997-98 and a slight increase in student achievement.

But a study to be released this week has found that the rush to smaller classes also yielded some unanticipated consequences: most notably, a decline in the quality of teachers and a strain on school facilities and resources that has hit schools serving poor and minority students the hardest.

For More Information

“Class Size Reduction in California: Early Evaluation Findings, 1996-1998" is scheduled to be available online this summer at:

“If you think of this as a rising tide that lifted all boats,” said Brian M. Stecher, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., and a lead investigator for the study, “it lifted all boats but exacerbated the levels between them, and that is very troubling.”

California launched its program to reduce class sizes in July 1996 with the aim of raising student achievement. Its experience is being closely watched nationwide, as states gear up to spend $1.2 billion in federal aid to reduce class sizes in the early grades.

The interim findings on the California program are from a four-year evaluation, mandated by the legislature, that is being undertaken by a consortium of five California-based research groups. The study is based on an analysis of statewide school data and surveys of superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents from a sample of about 125 districts and 625 schools within them.

Almost all 1st and 2nd graders in California, and almost two-thirds of kindergartners and 3rd graders, are in classes of 20 pupils or fewer, the study found. But the enormously popular initiative has worsened an already severe teacher shortage.

Lack of Certified Teachers

The number of K-3 teachers in the state increased by 38 percent from 1996 to 1998. At the same time, the average education, experience, and credentials of teachers in those grades declined sharply.

For example, the proportion of K-3 teachers who were not fully credentialed jumped from 1 percent in 1995-96 to 12 percent in 1997-98. The percent of first-year K-3 teachers jumped from 17 percent to 28 percent.

The decline in teacher qualifications was worst in schools serving the highest proportions of students who are poor, minority, or have limited English skills, the researchers found.

“Schools with the greatest percentage of at-risk students were not only the slowest to be able to implement class-size reduction, but then were the least able to hire credentialed teachers,” said George W. Bohrnstedt, the senior vice president of the American Institutes for Research and the other lead investigator for the study.

The push for smaller classes also forced California’s already crowded schools to take space away from other programs. By 1997-98, more than a quarter of schools studied had diverted for classroom purposes space from special education, music and art programs, and computer labs; more than one-fifth had converted library space.

Because of facilities and revenue shortages, districts that serve large numbers of disadvantaged and minority students have been slower to shrink class sizes. As a result, the authors say, they have received disproportionately less state aid under the initiative, and have been more likely to take resources away from other programs to support smaller classes.

Though California has spent more than $1 billion annually to pay for the class-size reductions, more than 40 percent of superintendents surveyed in 1997-98 reported that the state money from the program was inadequate to cover implementation.

One Year’s Data

Whether the program’s benefits outweigh the costs remains to be seen. In 1997-98, 3rd graders in smaller classes outperformed their peers in regular-size classes on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. But the gain was small, roughly equivalent to a student at the 50th percentile moving up to the 53rd percentile nationally.

The gains were similar for all students in smaller classes, regardless of race, income, or English fluency. The researchers cautioned, however, against concluding too much from one year’s test data.

They also suggested that some midcourse adjustments might increase the program’s benefits. These include additional steps to bolster teaching, promote school construction, and reduce inequities across districts and schools.

An experiment to reduce class size in Tennessee has produced relatively large achievement gains, with the biggest gains for poor and minority students. But researchers involved with the study cautioned that there are many differences between Tennessee’s carefully controlled study and California’s large-scale implementation.

“The lesson is, it all depends on the state and local context that you’re implementing class-size reduction within,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who is also participating in the California study.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as Slight Gains Found From Calif. Class-Size Program


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