A fourth bill (AB 2821, Richter) provides that 95 percent of any funds appropriated for class size reduction should be distributed to school sites. This bill does not specify any class size goal. A fifth bill (AB 2700, Sher) provides an appropriation for facilities if legislation reducing class size is passed and signed by the Governor. This latter bill is not included in the side-by-side, because it does not propose a reduction in class size.
The Governor's proposal, along with SB 1414 and AB 2449, was motivated in part by the findings reported by the Tennessee Project STAR research team. Project STAR is a demonstration project that tested the effects of reducing class size on student performance. It was conducted for four years beginning in 1985. Subsequent to evaluation of the demonstration project, Tennessee has legislated a reduction in class size to no more than 18 students for kindergarten through grade two.
Other factors that will influence California's class size proposals include: fiscal considerations resulting from increased revenues from the improving economy; requirements of Proposition 98; and a general belief that smaller classes are better than large classes.1
The experiment required that children be randomly assigned to either a small size class (13 to 17 students), to a regular size class (22 to 25 students), or to a regular size class with a full-time aide 4. During the first year, children were randomly assigned to the various class types when they entered kindergarten. Each subsequent year, new students were randomly assigned to one of the three groups. Teachers also were randomly assigned to one of the three class types.
Schools volunteered to participate in the project and agreed to abide by the rules of the demonstration. Seventy-nine schools were randomly selected from among the volunteers. These schools were divided into four geographic groups: inner-city, suburban, urban (small cities over 2,500), and rural. Two tests -- the nationally normed Stanford Achievement Test and the curriculum-based Tennessee Basic Skills First Test -- along with an "inventory" survey designed to identify student self-concept and academic motivation, were given at the end of each year to students who participated in the demonstration. In addition, several surveys and questionnaires were administered to participating teachers and school site administrators. These exams and surveys provided achievement and other data for various types of analyses. Three analyses were performed:
The Project STAR research team reported several significant findings6, including:
Analysts have raised several fiscal and implementation issues, including questions about whether the benefits of reduced class sizes are sufficient to offset the costs incurred to create them. These studies suggest that other strategies can be implemented to improve student performance at a lower cost. In addition, there are concerns about whether classes with as few as 15 children are small enough to achieve marked improvements in performance, and whether those improvements persist in subsequent years. Finally, there are concerns about whether other reforms, such as curriculum and teaching style changes and quality improvement mechanisms, should accompany smaller classes in order to assure consistent achievement gains.
Following is a discussion of the literature that drove the Project STAR demonstration project, as well as other literature that addresses other comprehensive reforms that can complement smaller classes10.
Researchers Had Different Thoughts About the Appropriate Size of
Classes. The small class size of 15 students was chosen for Project STAR
based on the work of a group of researchers headed by Gene Glass and Mary Lee
Smith. These researchers used a statistical technique known as meta-analysis
to determine an estimate of the relationship between class size and student
achievement. The primary finding of the Glass-Smith analysis was that class
size reduction improved student achievement, but that those improvements were
relatively small for class sizes of 20 or more students. Student achievement
was more significantly improved for classes that had fewer than 15 students11.
Another research entity, the Educational Research Service12 (ERS), challenged the Glass-Smith analysis on several grounds, including the reliability of the meta-analysis technique to predict appropriate class size, and the studies used by Glass-Smith to support its research13. By the early 1980's, however, the basic Glass-Smith results were widely cited in the literature. While these results are the basis for many policy initiatives, the debate has not been settled, and many researchers remain unconvinced about the Glass-Smith results.
A 1986 ERS report, using a different analytical technique, suggested that achievement gains are found in classes that enroll fewer than 22 students. Further, the report suggests that these results are most pronounced in early elementary classes (kindergarten through grade 3) and in classes containing mainly disadvantaged children. The ERS results have been challenged for many of the same reasons as those attributed to Glass-Smith.
Field Projects Complemented the Research Literature. In the early
1980s, as Project STAR was under development, researchers were reporting
encouraging early results from a class-size demonstration project at one
Nashville elementary school. In addition, another class-size experiment,
Indiana's Project Prime Time14, was showing
promising results. University researchers that were evaluating the Nashville
demonstration project also were advocating Project Prime Time as one possible
model for reducing class sizes in Tennessee. Follow-up studies of the
Nashville experiment, along with later studies of Project Prime Time, reported
that achievement gains made by children in smaller classes in the first year
were not sustained in subsequent years of instruction. These studies, however,
were published after Project STAR began.
A recent analysis of the Glass-Smith data by Robert Slavin15 challenges whether reducing classes to 15 students or less would actually improve performance16. As it turns out, when removing one study from the group used by Glass-Smith, the average effect for classes of about 15 students declined significantly17. Further, most of the large gains in achievement in the Glass-Smith analysis can be attributed to tutoring situations that had only 1 to 5 children.
Studies Also Identify Other Outcomes from Smaller Classes. In addition
to achievement gains, researchers have reported other benefits that are
attributed to smaller class size. For example, some of the Project STAR team
reported that children in small classes were less likely to be retained than
children in regular classes. They also found that fourth grade teachers
reported more active participation from students who had previously been
enrolled in smaller classes.
A different small class size evaluation conducted in Nevada18 suggests that children in small classes are less likely to be referred to special education. Researchers also have reported higher morale and less teacher stress for teachers who instruct classes with a smaller number of students. Another byproduct of smaller class size is that teachers report that they can move through their curriculum at a faster pace. In most of these instances the changes are small and are not always statistically significant. Nevertheless, such factors can be considered as benefits to class size reduction. In addition, to the extent that these nonachievement outcomes of smaller classes reduce costs over time, they could be considered in policy discussions.
Does Money Matter? Many policy analysts have used the research noted
above to debate whether the benefits derived from reducing class size are
greater than their cost. Much of the literature on this topic, however, does
not provide enough information to determine whether money does or does not
matter, or under what conditions money does matter. Studies typically focus on
broad averages, across many types of school sites, and often lead to very
different conclusions. For example, a recent article in the Harvard Education
Letter19 used a demonstration project in
Austin, Texas to show how different analytical techniques could yield
contradictory conclusions. In the Austin demonstration, 15 poorly performing
elementary schools were given $500,000 each per year for five years, and were
directed to improve student performance. Each school used some of its funds to
reduce class size; yet, only two schools showed improvements. One analysis
(counting successes and failures) would suggest that money didn't matter, in
that 13 schools did not improve student performance. Conversely, another
analysis, one that focuses on average gain in student achievement across sites,
might show that the two exemplary schools compensated for those schools that
did not succeed; thus, money did matter.
The real significance of the Austin demonstration to policy makers is that it suggests the need to compare improved schools to those that did not improve. What the authors found is that the improved schools markedly changed the way teachers taught in the smaller class settings. This example emphasizes the need to examine what is occurring at each test site rather than merely relying on averages to drive policy formation.
The class size debate is both more subtle and more complex than just reducing class size. Recently, one researcher from Harvard, Richard Murnane, stated that asking whether money matters is the wrong question. Instead, he suggests that policy makers should identify student performance goals, along with a set of strategies for achieving those goals. He suggests that policy makers should then determine how funds can be used to support the achievement of their goals20.
The researchers who conducted the evaluation of Project STAR did not adequately discuss potential problems with their evaluation design, or how those problems might affect the study's results21. Other researchers who have used the data from the Project also have identified technical issues. Some of these technical problems could reduce the significance of the results for California. Nevertheless, some reviewers seem to think that the main results of the Tennessee project are valid. However, since other recent demonstrations around the country have not shown results as dramatic as those found in Tennessee, any evaluation regarding the effects of class size reduction on student performance should be viewed with caution.
Implementing smaller classes in California is likely to be more complicated than was true for the Tennessee demonstration. Following are several considerations that should be addressed when considering the Tennessee model:
There are three fiscal issues that should be addressed regarding the implementation of smaller classes in California.
The Project STAR longitudinal study strongly suggests that virtually all achievement gains made by students in the small classes occur in either kindergarten or first grade. When considering the current California proposals, it is important that special consideration be given to enrolling children in small classes, preferably beginning with kindergarten.
One of the more dramatic findings in the Project STAR reports is the relatively large achievement gain for children in small inner-city classes, when compared to children in small classes elsewhere. Research has shown that schools with disproportionately large numbers of minority and low socio-economic status children also are more likely to be low performing schools. Thus, the legislature may want to target low-performing schools for class size reductions.
The legislature may wish to establish a formal evaluation program that would examine issues related to reducing class size24. In order for such a program to be effective and to provide useful information, it should be distinct from State Department of Education school district reporting programs. It should be focused on evaluating student achievement, performance, and other outcomes.
This evaluation program should be on going and include several components. Among these are: (1) oversight by an advisory group drawn from state agencies such as the Legislative Analyst, State Department of Education, California Research Bureau, Department of Finance, and an outside group of prominent academic researchers with evaluation experience; (2) comprehensive implementation evaluations (sometimes called process studies) so useful information can be gathered about how schools implement small classes; (3) establishment of an on going statewide representative sample of children so researchers can conduct longitudinal studies of progress through school and into adult life; and (4) detailed analyses of the internal workings of "good" implementations so that best practices information can be shared with other schools. The products of these studies could provide valuable information about future education needs, and could result in more informed policy development.
The legislature may wish to give schools flexibility to use their class size reduction funds to test other strategies. In many cases, schools have some authority to do this; but for a variety of reasons schools are unable or reluctant to implement new strategies.
Another example of a comprehensive program is Success for All. This reform effort shows promising results for inner-city schools26. Like the Accelerated School program, Success for All focuses on strengths rather than deficiencies. It also stresses prevention rather than remediation. The program uses reading tutors, a special reading curriculum, and frequent reading assessments. Success for All schools also have preschools and kindergartens where a specialized learning curriculum is used. Many Success for All schools also have family support teams that work with children and families in conjunction with school staff. This program stresses quality reviews and staff development. Evaluations of Success for All show significant gains for participating schools.
As amended May 29, 1996
As amended May 30, 1996
As introduced May 16, 1996
1 through 3
through grade 3
through grade 3
children per certificated teacher
children per certificated teacher