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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Smaller classes the one education reform with a track record of success

From sign on San Diego

by Mayree Magee

The case for small classes in public schools may never have faced so much opposition.

School districts across the state and county have lifted class-size limits in the name of saving money to cope with California’s relentless budget crisis.

On top of that, business-minded education reformers have questioned the effectiveness of smaller classes — lumping the issue into a broader debate over how teachers are hired, fired and paid.

Through it all, Central Elementary School in City Heights has championed the cause, fighting to preserve a student-to-teacher ratio launched by the San Diego Unified School District three years ago.

“We know how to teach our kids. We know how to support children to help them learn and achieve,” said Principal Cindy Marten. “The knowledge for this exists and that’s what we are showing.”

Some studies show smaller class sizes are linked to academic improvement. But critics contend any such connection is tenuous and that academic success is more dependent on the teacher than the number of students.

At Central, this year’s crop of third-graders (known as the class-size babies), are being taught in the same classes of 15 to 17 children that were assembled in kindergarten. They have outperformed students who learned in mostly larger classes of up to 24 students on both state tests and district assessments.

The class-size study started as a pilot program in the district in 2008 by then-Superintendent Terry Grier. But San Diego Unified now only loosely monitors the once-scientific study that was scaled back shortly after it was implemented.

Officials believe a districtwide double-digit increase in state test scores roughly during that time period resulted from numerous reforms, including the smaller class sizes.

The numbers may tell an even more dramatic story at Central, a campus where every student qualifies for free lunch and 85 percent are not yet fluent in English.

Last year, 45 percent of Central’s second-graders — the class-size babies — tested proficient or better in English on state tests. That’s up notably from the 2007-08 school year, before small classes were implemented, when 31 percent of second-graders tested proficient or better.

Most students at Central have produced increased test scores in smaller classes, save for 2009-10 when second-graders tested 29 percent proficient or better in English.

Second-graders districtwide had much smaller, though consistent, increases during that period.

Central’s teachers say the intimate classes have allowed them to reach their children more effectively.

“I can pull children into small groups throughout the day instead of throughout the week. I can identify more quickly who gets it and who doesn’t,” said second-grade teacher Jennifer Webb. “It’s very easy for a student to hide the fact that they don’t get something in a big class.”

The original San Diego class-size experiment was modeled after the landmark Tennessee STAR project, a study conducted in the 1980s that produced what many consider to be the most conclusive evidence on the matter.

In the STAR project, children in classes of 13 to 17 students outperformed those in classes of 22 to 25 in kindergarten through third grade. School behavior also improved.

Poor and minority children benefited the most. Researchers tracked STAR students and found they went on to enroll in more Advanced Placement courses, earn diplomas and take college-entrance exams at rates higher than their peers who were in larger classes.

Chief STAR researcher Charles Achilles said small classes are a proven tactic for improving student achievement — but only in concert with other reforms.

For example, students should be randomly assigned to kindergarten classes so the high-achieving children of savvy parents don’t end up with the best teachers. They also should be kept together in cohorts — or groups — and randomly assigned teachers year after year.

“The number of youngsters in a class influences what a teacher can do,” said Achilles, who lives in Geneva, N.Y., and is frequently asked to speak about his research.

Grier, San Diego’s former superintendent, wanted to reduce class sizes in the lowest grades of every school in the district. But the school board insisted on a pilot study that would give the district its own base of research.

As a result, the district in 2008 trimmed class sizes from 20 to 15 students at 30 of its schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods — with half of them randomly assigning kindergartners and keeping the groups together through second grade.

Without lowering class sizes, another 30 schools participated in the first year of the study — with half of them making random student assignments and keeping students together. The remaining 15 schools would serve as the control group and adopt none of the changes.

The project almost fell victim to budget cuts after the first year of the study, but the school board salvaged a scaled-back version of the program by funding it with federal stimulus money during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years for 28 schools.

With the program once again vulnerable to budget cuts, Central’s principal attended every school board meeting last year to promote the cause. The board ultimately voted to keep the project going this year, even expanding it to include third grade.

Central has stuck with the terms of the original study by keeping its small groups of students together year after year and continuing to make random kindergarten assignments.

But the district has no idea how many — if any — of the other small-class schools have maintained the changes called for in the study. The research behind the Tennessee study, however, has given the district confidence the small classes are making a difference.

“It will be a challenge to do an analysis because a lot of changes have occurred,” said Ron Rode, executive director of the district’s accountability office. “Cindy (Marten) is probably the one person who tried to keep the original design.”

Some reformers have come out against class-size efforts, arguing that schools should focus on improving the quality of teachers. They want to weed out less-effective educators who are protected by union contracts.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, is a leading critic of efforts to reduce class sizes. He said small classes are too expensive and do not address problems with seniority-based contracts that prevent administrators from terminating bad teachers.

“Any effects of class size are just slumped by differences in teacher quality,” said Hanushek, who also teaches at Stanford. “The variation that occurs in classrooms in teacher quality is much, much stronger.”

The debate raises an obvious question: How big is too big for classrooms of the youngest students?

San Diego has kept classes at 18 in early grades of 28 schools with the poorest children. Elsewhere, classrooms hold an average of 24 students through third grade. In other districts, the rate has climbed to 26, 28 and 30.

Hanushek wouldn’t offer up an appropriate class size number. But he understands that smaller classes are more desirable to teachers — including himself.

“I argue with my department chair that I should have fewer kids. It’s easier. I have fewer papers to grade and fewer kids competing for my attention,” he said. “Take the best teachers and put them in bigger classes and pay them more.”

Achilles said teacher behavior doesn’t necessarily change with smaller classes. But students do change, becoming more engaged in lessons and finding anonymity more difficult.

Achilles also pointed out that private schools, special education classes and remedial programs all seek to limit the number of students in classrooms.

“You never see private schools advertising they will put your kid in a bigger class,” he said. (619) 293-1369 Twitter: @MaureenMagee

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