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Education | COLUMN / SUPERINTENDENT'S MEMO: From Ventura
County's School Chiefs

Positive Effects of Reducing Class Sizes

September 22, 1997|ALBERT D. MARLEY | INTERIM SUPERINTENDENT, SIMI VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

California's class size reduction program, the most significant school reform in decades, was presented statewide to school districts in 1996-97 as a means to improve student achievement, particularly in reading and math in the primary grades.

The rapid pace of implementation has created many challenges for boards of education, school administrators and teachers. The major concern was hiring and placing new teachers and creating new classes, and Simi Valley Unified completed those tasks in record time.

Personnel administrators developed innovative strategies to accomplish the task, attracting teachers from other states, hiring retired and temporary teachers, diminishing substitute pools, and filling gaps with novices and emergency permit teachers.

The district successfully met the challenges within a two-week period and reduced class sizes to 20 or fewer students in grades one through three. Research has consistently pointed out that the most effective way to improve the quality of education is to improve the skills of teachers. Class size reduction has provided the impetus and state mandate for this to occur.

Staff development programs are essential to provide our newly hired, as well as seasoned teachers, with the training and support needed to ensure that class size reduction does indeed positively impact student achievement. In Simi Valley, mentor teachers were identified to coach, guide and advise new teachers. An extensive orientation and induction program was implemented that provided ongoing support and inculcated the best practices for instructional success.

Districtwide, teachers and administrators explored strategies to improve reading, math and small group instruction, as well as ways to address individual student needs. Changes in delivery of instruction, along with careful monitoring over time, are essential for this educational reform to accomplish the goal of improved educational outcomes for students.

Yet, in only the first year of reduced class sizes, we have witnessed positive changes. Principals report that the addition of many new teachers has re-energized their teaching communities, giving veteran teachers opportunities to share their experience and "what worked" with new teachers, while benefiting from the new knowledge and enthusiasm of teachers just beginning their careers.

Simi Valley teachers say class size reduction has strengthened collegiality among teachers, and resulted in more shared planning, teamwork and support. In addition to teacher changes, class size reduction has positively affected other conditions of the educational environment.

Student (and parent) attitudes, motivation, and morale--psychological factors proven to affect student learning--have improved. Parents report that class size reduction has also had a beneficial effect on the quality of school programs by allowing for better teacher-student relationships, providing more opportunities for individualized instruction and smaller instructional groups, and creating a climate focused on learning with fewer discipline problems.

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While the effect on student achievement is yet to be fully determined, most educators and the public firmly believe that small class size is a critical factor during the formative years of student learning. Children in the primary grades benefit most from small class sizes because it provides greater encouragement and support for their adjustment to school and meets their needs for individualized instruction and teacher attention.

Class size reduction is truly making a difference in the learning opportunities for our children and in the way teachers teach. Children get more individual attention, learning problems are more quickly identified and effectively remediated, resulting in more productive instructional time.

When I visit classrooms, children tell me that being in smaller classes makes a difference in how they feel about school and learning. They think that they have better relationships with their teachers and that their teachers notice and talk to them more. The students believe that these things help them "do better" in school.

Teachers also agree, saying the greatest benefit of class size reduction is the ability to stay aware of student progress and thereby provide more individual academic support.

Parents report that while individual attention from teachers toward children improved, attention was also shifted to instruction rather than behavior, and more hands-on, exploratory activities were provided.

In summary, our first-year experience provides strong evidence that reduced class size has had a positive effect on student achievement, teachers' work conditions and the quality of the classroom environment. Time will tell if class size reduction will accomplish its purpose of improved educational outcomes, but if the first year experience is any indication, our investment will reap extraordinary rewards.

This is the first in a series of occasional columns by superintendents of Ventura County's school districts on issues affecting local schools.

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