Even before the negotiations collapsed concerning tax extensions, California’s class sizes were ballooning. Now we are exacerbating class size increases, but there is no research to predict or understand future implications. Class size studies have focused on ranges from 30 to 15. Results are contested, but no study has examined the California’s “natural experiment” of moving many classes in K-4 from 20 to 1 to 35-40 to 1 in a few years.
Moreover, almost all research is on grades K-8, but high school classes in social studies for example, are climbing into the 35-40 range in several districts. We are flying blind into an uncertain future. The only cap on class size in California seems to be the square foot size of the classroom.
The latest round of class size reductions came in the 1990’s spurred in part by a well designed random control experiment in Tennessee. But the Tennessee classes were reduced from 25-27 to 15. The greatest impact on Tennessee seemed to be in K-2 grades for disadvantaged children. In 1996, California Governor Pete Wilson sponsored a bill to reduce class sizes to 20 to 1 in grades K-3. This reduction has been eviscerated by the recent state budget cuts, and most districts will probably exceed 30 students in K-4 in the future.
Research on class size impact in secondary grades is very scant across the United States. The secondary grades in California often have class sizes in 30-40 range, but we know little about how the impact varies depending on secondary subjects. For example, now grade 9 English classes are rising from 20- to 37 in Chaffey High School District. California reduced English class size in grade 9 to 20 pupils, but no definitive evaluation was ever conducted.
Not only are class sizes being increased, but the support personnel for teachers (coaches, aides, curriculum specialists) are gone also. I talked recently with a staff development expert in math who took his promising approach to other states because of California’s huge classes and inadequate infrastructure to support teacher development. I was a part of the team that evaluated the 20 to 1 classes in California from 1996 to 2002. One thing was clear; parents preferred smaller classes even if they some concerns about teacher quality. What will gigantic classes do to parental support for California schools? What types of teachers succeed in very large classes?
California research organizations need to study the impact of such large classes immediately. They will find little guidance from most current research base that uses 30 to 1 as its ceiling ratio – a class size California will only be able to dream about. Perhaps there are strategies to reallocate limited district and school funds that will reduce class sizes, but research is not clear on how to do this in such a constrained fiscal environment.