In the national debate over why Johnny can't read, one of the most fundamental questions in American education - are smaller classes better? - will soon face its biggest exam.
In a mammoth education experiment beginning this academic year, the state of California begins limiting the number of pupils per classroom in kindergarten through third grade. It is spending $800 million in the hope that fewer pupils per teacher (20 instead of 32 on average) in those key developmental years will reverse the Golden State's three-decade decline from one of the nation's shining educational beacons to a dim bulb.
But questions abound over whether the state can attract enough teachers, find room to house all the students - and even whether smaller is better.
"The governor, legislature, and educational establishment are all unified in their adamancy that reading scores in this state were a disaster and that this is the way to turn it around," says Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for education and child development. Noting that in class size and in reading scores, California recently ranked 50th among the states, she says: "This is a huge commitment, a huge amount of money, and a huge risk."
In California, the decade of education reform that began in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk" ran headlong into America's first tax revolt. The limits Proposition 13 put on property taxes reduced local governments' ability to fund public schools. Californians then watched the state slip from No. 1 in several education indicators - among them student scores and per-pupil spending - to below 40th.
During that time, the state's population soared to more than 30 million and over half of the school-age population became minority, exacerbating school problems with language and cultural differences.
Now, as 1,000 school districts across the state scramble to translate the new-found dollars into new teachers and classrooms, debate rages over whether the California example will produce real, measurable results.
"States around the country will be watching to see if California gets achievement results from this," says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor and director of Policy Analysis for California Education. "With a gigantic state downsizing all at once, it will be an excellent opportunity to find what variables do and don't make a difference."
Although common sense and logic seem to dictate that fewer pupils per teacher will result in more creative, individualized tutorship, analysts disagree strongly over whether improved teacher-student ratios translate into better learning.
"We feel that all the reputable research of recent years shows that smaller classes are definitely better," says Bernie Bond, a researcher for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers union. Experts point to a large-scale, four-year study of 7,000 children in 79 elementary schools in Tennessee. Among the results: Pupils scoring in the 51st percentile in reading - meaning better than half of kids at their grade level - moved up to the 60th percentile. Results among poor and minority children were even more striking - in smaller classes gains were twice those of whites.
Such results have helped to prompt states such as Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, Indiana, and Texas to mandate smaller classes.
Others say the preponderance of indicators point the other way.
"There is no consistent evidence that smaller classes are better than larger ones within the range we normally see," says Eric Hanushek, an economist at New York's University of Rochester. He reviewed 300 studies conducted over a 25-year period of classrooms that contained between 15 and 40 pupils. He found that 16 percent of the studies showed students improved significantly in achievement as teacher-student ratios fell. But 13 percent showed significantly worse achievement.
"There is no question that it is easier for the teachers to manage a classroom," Mr. Hanushek says. "Although a smaller class with a teacher who knows how to use it can be wonderful, a teacher doing exactly the same things as before may produce no change. The reality is that having a good teacher is much more important than having a smaller class."
The quality-of-teachers issue will be paramount in the California experiment, observers say. The program is being fast-tracked because of the way funds are allocated and the need, by law, to establish funding baselines for future budget years. But that means the state's 1,000 school districts need 20,000 new teachers by February, and California produces only about 5,000 a year from its own universities. Pressure is growing to lower standards, waive requirements, or allow teachers to get credentialed while on the job.
"Are they going to keep standards up or hire the first ones through the door?" asks Chris Pipho, director of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
The answer, for now, is hire first, worry later. "We do not have a pool of sophisticated, certified teachers to draw from, so we are hiring people with bachelor's degrees and throwing them in to sink or swim," says Day Higuchi of United Teachers, Los Angeles. "That isn't doing anything for the children in that classroom."
The rapid pace with which the new mandate is being implemented is causing consternation among citizens. First hint of the surplus funds came only in May and final approval came last month.
"I don't want my seven-year-old to spend her only second-grade year with a complete novice," says one Van Nuys housewife.
As schools get ready to open, most analysts are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. A worthwhile assessment may take years.
"The data may never be very clear," says Hanushek. "There are so many variables in a state this large."