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Small Classes Pay Big Benefits for All Involved

Students learn more, teachers teach more and parents gain confidence.

May 11, 1997|MICHAEL A. GLUECK and C. MAC BERND | C. Mac Bernd is superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, and Michael A. Glueck is a retired physician in Newport Beach

For the past six months, we have been studying the effects of reduced class size on student performance. This preliminary study has been done in the Newport-Mesa school district and principally at Paularino Elementary School in Costa Mesa, grades one and two. This study will be submitted for publication in its entirety in the fall in one of California's educational journals.

Since preliminary results are favorable, and the California Legislature is now meeting to discuss funding for public education, we decided it would be improper to withhold our information until that time because it has powerful implications for the children of California.

Previous studies in Indiana (Prime Time, McGivern, Jennifer, et al, 1992) reported that students in smaller classes had higher achievement scores than those in larger classes. The Prime Time study compared scores of second-grade students while the Star study included all four grades from K-3. The Star study concluded that the differences were statistically and educationally significant in all locales including rural, suburban, urban and inner city. It is hoped that the more intangible but equally important benefits observed by us will drive state-level decision making toward full state funding rather than the current partial funding.

Our early results suggest increased academic achievement in reading and writing, as well as the humanization and enrichment of the school experience for first- and second-graders from a variety of family backgrounds, including those most vulnerable to learning problems.

Other benefits, some unanticipated, which go far beyond academic test results, include improved bonding between students, teachers, the school and parents. Teachers are able to provide more personalized instruction. Moreover, parents expressed that they now have more confidence in the ability of the school to meet the individual demands of their children, thus reducing parent anxiety.

One parent, Karen Kennedy Wight, who has a child educated in larger classes and another now in the reduced class size project, said that "smaller classes are a gift from heaven."

Teachers have reported far fewer discipline problems, increased student respect for others, markedly increased student tolerance of differences and less hyperactivity in the classroom. One teacher reported reduction of a student's attention deficit medication to one-third of what it was at the beginning of the year.

Other positive outcomes consist of learning in greater depth, a wider array of planned learning activities, much less transitional time between lessons, blossoming of middle-level students, earlier detection and referral of vulnerable children, and increased and more meaningful conference time with parents.

Teachers also report greatly reduced paper shuffling and more time for direct instruction to students. Instructors indicate they are working harder than ever but loving it more. The first- and second-grade teachers interviewed report that their morale is the highest that it has been in many years. High morale makes it easier for administrators to recruit, attract, sign and retain the best teachers. In addition, the class size reduction program has been a magnet to attract some of our brightest and most experienced teachers who had left the profession back to the classroom.

We urge the governor and Legislature to fully fund the reduced class size project in grades K-3 before adding any more grades. The present program does not come close to meeting the costs of a 20:1 pupil-teacher ratio because the current rate of reimbursement is $650 per student and statewide average costs exceed $800. This contrived competition for dollars places more than 1,000 California school boards in a no-win situation because each must choose between the needs of our youngest students and the rest of the children they are entrusted to serve.

In addition to intra-district conflict, the financial ability of different boards to conduct the program varies widely around the state. The ironic result is that high-wealth districts already benefiting from small classes may experience a financial windfall, while low-wealth school districts, many with children who need the program the most, are unable to fully implement. Full funding not only would allow all California students in the primary grades to benefit immediately, but would create long-term societal benefits because children's success in school has positive economic and social implications that will accrue for the rest of their lives.

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