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Class-Size Reduction Doesn't Benefit All

Quality teachers gravitate to upper-income school districts, while inner-city students lose out.

April 07, 1999|RANDY ROSS

With great fanfare in 1996, California began spending more than $1 billion a year to reduce the size of classes in the early primary grades. Many schools in high-income communities have benefited measurably from the class-size reduction program. They had no inexperienced teachers before the introduction of the class-size reduction program, and they had none after. Yet, a wholesale reduction in class size nibbles away at the chances that students in poor inner-city neighborhoods will get a good education--even if fully qualified teachers were available to fill the new classrooms.

Here's why.

A substantive reduction in the size of classes in the lower grades for virtually every one of California's public elementary schools triggers a frenetic stirring among the existing teacher force. Schools post job openings for the newly created classrooms. Teachers apply to multiple sites, some more attractive than others. The more attractive schools--those in middle to high-income communities--receive stacks of applications along with well-honed cover letters. The least attractive schools--poorly performing schools in high poverty areas--scrape far fewer applications from their mailboxes.

Of the applicants who fail to make the cut for the plum teaching slots, some opt out of the teaching profession while many others, by default, repair to classrooms in the inner city. A 1984 Los Angeles Unified School District survey of about 2,000 Los Angeles teachers measured the extent of this smarting but natural dynamic. Teachers were asked how they felt about working in hard-to-staff schools--primarily schools in the high-poverty areas hit by the 1965 Watts riots. The widespread perception was that, in these schools, teachers were less safe and students were less prepared to learn and more difficult to discipline. Forty percent said they would resign if they were forced to take on such a tough assignment.

The California class-size reduction story is drearier. The state's rapidly rising K-12 enrollment, an aging teacher force and the inability of schools of education to keep up have combined to create a teacher shortage so gaping that inner-city school administrators laugh deliriously when admonished to cease hiring inexperienced and unprepared teachers.

Even before the class-size reduction program, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District had begun to hire thousands of inexperienced teachers (primarily those with emergency credentials). The School Accountability Report Cards for LAUSD schools show that many poor, inner-city children are, indeed, being taught in smaller classes but by less-experienced teachers.

The precipitous rise in the number of inexperienced teachers is but one part of the dark side of the story of how class-size reduction lowers the quality of teaching in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Stories are rife about classrooms in inner-city schools going without teachers during the year (they employ long-term substitutes).

Does it matter that California's class-size reduction program results in the redistribution of the quality of teachers? Yes. Poor teaching nullifies the potential benefits of smaller classes. A recent study of Dallas public schools suggests that spurts in academic performance take place only when students are exposed grade by grade to quality teaching. A single break in the quality stream causes the educational wheel to spin in place, digging a deeper and deeper hole for children.

What can be done to resolve this problem? Given that California (as well as the federal government) seems bent on adding more fuel to the stupendous class-size reduction locomotive, at minimum the state should figure out how to implement the program in ways that benefit all students--rich and poor.

One idea involves giving schools greater flexibility over how they implement the program. In lieu of creating smaller classes, a school could reduce its reliance on inexperienced teachers by using the same resources to hire one full-time, out-of-classroom super-mentor teacher for every four inexperienced teachers in a school. The focus would be on what to teach, how to teach it, how to assess what students learned and how to organize and manage a classroom.

On the face of it, the predictable redistribution of teaching quality fostered by California's class-size reduction program looks, smells and feels a lot like triage. The three-of-20 teachers who view the education of inner-city children as their calling need a lot more help than they have gotten in the past. And they certainly don't need policies that dampen their good work by ensuring that inner-city kids with certainty encounter some ineffective teachers along the way.

Randy Ross is vice president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project.

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