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Despite Subsidies, Class Sizes Rise in California Schools
Posted on Nov 19, 2009
By Louis Freedberg and Hugo Cabrera, California Watch
One purpose was to bring California’s class sizes down — to get them in line with those of other states. That did happen in the elementary grades. But by 2007, California had larger student-teacher ratios than every state except Utah and Arizona across all 12 grades.
Larger K-3 class sizes now threaten to push California even further behind.
“Having the largest class size in America is a crime and a shame,” said Delaine Eastin, the former superintendent of public instruction who oversaw the implementation of the class-size-reduction initiative until 2002.
It is not only poor districts that are affected. In fact, in some cases, districts serving large numbers of low-income and minority students have benefited from the additional $1.25 billion in Title 1 stimulus funds California receives from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
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This year, at Oliveira Elementary, Accurso has her students sitting in groups of six, at five tables, instead of groups of four, at five tables, as in previous years. Across the yard, one of the bungalows brought to the school when the class-size reduction program began in 1996, now stands empty.
But Accurso isn’t nostalgic about the smaller class sizes.
“My focus is on the 30 kids I have in front of me and what I can do for each of them,” she said. “I can’t be thinking about what might have been. I can’t go there.”
She says she is managing with the extra kids — in part because she gets help from another teacher for about two hours, as well as parent volunteers. “We’re just worried that we won’t be able to get them where they need to be at the end of the year,” she said.
In Los Angeles, each of the district’s 524 elementary schools could choose between retaining all their teachers and keeping class sizes low — or laying off teachers and keeping support staff such as school nurses, math coaches and “intervention coordinators.” At Plummer Elementary in the San Fernando Valley, principal Angel Barrett made the painful choice to let go seven of the school’s first and second year teachers, out of a teaching staff of 45. As in many schools across Los Angeles, her classrooms are more crowded this year.
“You guys are doing a great job at listening,” Norma Plascencia, a teacher with 22 years of classroom experience, told her 24 second-graders on a recent morning, before launching into a lesson about family trees.
“It doesn’t make it impossible to teach, it just makes it harder,” she said. Plascencia said she and other teachers are doing much more advance planning to take into account the extra students. “We are not mass-producing items; we’re not making shoes or pizza. We are dealing with human beings — so four extra bodies are not just four extra bodies — it is everything that comes with them, or doesn’t come with them.”
Will it affect how her students will do this year?
“It better not,” she said. “You have to assume they can reach for the stars. Are some going to fall by the wayside? We’ll find out this year. Is there a possibility? Yes, I think there is.’’
Her comment points to the controversy that has so far been waged mostly in academic circles — whether class-size reduction makes a difference in boosting student performance. Dominic Brewer, a USC professor, said there is no compelling research showing that class-size reduction results in improved academic performance in California. What research does exist has typically been done in other states and in classrooms with even smaller enrollments than in California.
“A class of 20 may be terrible for an ineffective teacher,” he said. “And a great teacher can do great things with 30.”
Some education leaders who have been lukewarm about the program are now making the case that the funds could be better used.
“I don’t think 20-to-1 is sacred,” said L.A. schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines. More important, he said, “is the kind of quality time you spend with your students, and how you divide your time in the classroom.” To tackle high drop-out rates, he believes the real need is for smaller classes in middle and high schools, where class sizes in his district have soared to 40 and higher in some schools.
San Jose’s Iglesias said that even if the state’s economy rebounds, he’s not sure he’d put money back into the class-size-reduction program. “I’d put it into longer school days or Saturday classes rather than this,” he said.
But California superintendent O’Connell doesn’t share any of these concerns. He said his experience as a teacher in Ventura County convinced him of the merits of smaller classes.
The same goes for Doug Wheeler, a veteran kindergarten teacher in San Pablo, just north of Richmond, who said that the larger the class, the more difficult it is for teachers to “deliver the goods.” This year he volunteered to take more students into his bilingual class rather than having some of them be cut from the program. He now has 27 students.
“Teaching is not just standing in front of the class and delivering a lesson,” he said. “It’s about working with kids who are in danger of falling far behind. To get really good results, it has to be one on two, or even one on one.”
California Watch is an investigative reporting unit with offices in the Bay Area and Sacramento. It is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
This story was edited by Editorial Director Mark Katches and copy edited by William Cooley.
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