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Will Fewer Pupils Mean More Learning?

Education: Now that teachers are getting their wish, the results depend on classroom skills.

November 06, 1996|JAMES S. CATTERALL and MARILYN KOROSTOFF | James S. Catterall chairs the faculty at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. E-mail: jamesc@ Marilyn Korostoff coordinates the educational administration program at Cal State Long Beach. E-mail:

California schools launched a bold experiment this fall by shrinking early elementary school class sizes to 20 children, in response to state financial incentives.

Gov. Pete Wilson's announcement of the program just a month before the start of school set off a madcap search by school districts for additional teachers and classroom space. Rooms built for 28 children were divided to accommodate two 20-student groups; improvised classrooms were created in libraries, dismantled special-education resource rooms and computer centers. Recently retired instructors were recalled and recruitment drives launched for new teachers, with the usual credential requirements waived.

While these events have been witnessed with great interest and more than a little pain by educators, parents and the public, the real story is whether teachers will take advantage of having fewer minds to nurture. What little research there is on class size suggests that a only a modest boost in student achievement will flow from smaller classes alone. All become more engaged in classroom activities, disruptive and uninvolved students have fewer places to hide and classroom management steals less time from teaching and learning.

Research suggests that attaining substantial benefits from smaller classes will depend mostly on what teachers do. Those using discredited techniques will achieve meager results even when classes drop from 36 to 20. The dustbin of outmoded methods includes such practices as relentless lecturing, overdependence on student completion of work sheets ("death by ditto") and using class time to complete homework assignments.

Productive ideas include teachers spending time to get children reading, listening to one another and discussing what they read in small group conversations and helping them to write down their ideas. The blessing of fewer students will allow teachers to craft more extensive and thoughtful feedback on student writing assignments. Having children team up to solve challenging problems in subjects such as science and social studies, and showing their learning in organized presentations to the whole class, becomes a smooth and workable process with 20 students, when it can lead to stress and chaos with 36. Small classes stimulate the thinking curriculum--and what better time could there be to reengage the arts in children's learning?

If teachers use this opportunity to design new ways to encourage learning, 20-student classrooms will change the quality of school life as well as levels of achievement.

School and district leaders face crucial tasks in guiding the flood of novice teachers in their professional growth, while not neglecting their veteran instructors. At the same time, the sudden move to smaller classes spotlights a pressing need for the state to review its ways of training, certifying and inducting teachers.

Accomplishing smaller classes is a significant and hopeful change for California education. Now we should focus our energies on ensuring that a situation teachers have desired for decades truly matters when it comes to learning.

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