California Tests if Smaller Classes Are Better

Gov. Wilson expands the bold experiment as educators nationwide watch for results.

In Classroom 22 at Dixie Canyon Elementary, 20 second-graders draw quietly in small groups as teacher Karen Gelinas makes the rounds.

"This is bliss," Ms. Gelinas says. "With 20 kids instead of 30, I have so much more time to give each child individual attention."

Across the playground in another room, three teachers divide the instruction of 60 students between two, adjoining classrooms. "This is a disaster," says veteran teacher Jerian Bayless. "The children don't know which teacher to listen to. It's chaos."

The two vignettes sum up the promise and perils of California's drive to reduce class sizes, a groundbreaking attempt to reverse the state's three-decade slide from one of the nation's top educators to one of its worst.

California will use its giant budget surplus this year to put $800 million into shrinking the number of pupils per class (to no more than 20) in the formative years of kindergarten through third grade. The sheer scope of this experiment could definitively end the national debate on how class size affects learning.

"States around the country are watching to see if California gets ... results from this," says Michael Kirst, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

After a 1979 proposition limited property taxes, reducing local government's ability to fund schools, California fell from No. 1 in several education indicators - including student scores and per-pupil spending - to below 40.

With the state in economic recovery, it is also trying to recoup some of its former education glory. Although Governor Wilson's idea of reduced class size sounds great in theory, many of the 856 school districts participating have had to work administrative sorcery in practice. That has meant using any available space - from computer labs to auditorium stages - as makeshift classrooms.

"In terms of sheer classroom space, it has been very difficult," says Barbara Baseggio, administrator for elementary education at the State Department of Education. Thousands of portable classrooms have been delivered, but thousands more are needed.

As a result, the first-year report card reads A for effort, anywhere from D (poor) to B-plus (very good) for performance. But most educators say the program's long-term promise looks strong.

"This is the single, best move that anybody could make in terms of bettering education," says Annie Pakradouni, curriculum coach for Columbus Elementary School in Glendale. "You can see dramatic results almost instantly in kids' interest as well as teachers' enthusiasm."

While the benefits of smaller classes seem to make common sense, there is "no consistent evidence that smaller classes are better than larger ones with the range we normally see," says Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester in New York. But educators here feel the California experiment - if it can be kept going financially - could provide that proof.

One hurdle will be finding qualified teachers. California hired an unprecedented number of "emergency waivered" teachers with minimum acceptable levels of reading, writing, and math skills. Parent reactions have ranged from mild concern to outrage.

"Some of the teachers they've hired haven't seen a first- or second-grade classroom since they were in first or second grade themselves," says Day Higuchi, of the Los Angeles Unified School District's union. Noting that about 4,000 emergency waiver teachers have been hired, he says, "until the problem of training and hiring good teachers is worked out, it [may not be] the best learning environment for the kids."

Funding is another concern. The state legislature is now debating a $500 million increase for next year, but this would only cover $666 of the $800 average statewide cost per student per year. Local districts must make up the shortfall.

To participate this year, "we've had to take a $70,000 bite out of our general fund," says Bill Baker, financial director of the Visalia School District in central California. "That will hurt us for the next few years."

But most administrators, educators, parents, and kids think the long-term prognosis is positive. "We found that 100 percent of teachers are behind this idea, and 97 percent of parents," says Doug Langdon, a researcher for the San Diego Unified School District, which has conducted polls to assess the first year there.

"The change from 32 classmates last year to 19 this year has been dramatic for my son," adds Suzanne LeDuke, whose son, Killian, is a first-grader at Dixie Canyon Elementary. "He has been able to establish a one-on-one relationship with a teacher who understands his strengths and weaknesses. That is just not possible with a brood of 32."

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