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TNLI: Action Research: Professional Development: The Effect of Class Size Reduction on the Reading Instruction of Students in Santa Barbara County

by Linda Wiezorek
AUGUST, 1997

Appendix A
Appendix B
References, Resources, and Contacts

In 1992 and 1994, California's fourth graders performed below the national average in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In an effort to correct this problem, Gov. Pete Wilson, in July of 1996 , signed legislation creating the largest class size reduction program ever attempted in the United States. Senate Bill 1777 provided incentive funding to school districts throughout California to reduce class size in kindergarten and grades 1 to 3, to no more than 20 pupils per certificated teacher. This ambitious reduction plan, in combination with reading and other staff development initiatives, was enacted with the goal of improving student achievement.

Although California educators are hopeful, just how well early readers are doing as a result of smaller classes is to date uncertain. Given the substantial allocation of resources in 1996-1997 as well as the $771 million proposed for 1997-98, this legislation is of particular interest to those with an eye on early literacy practices and achievement. Educators, elected officials, parents and community members are eager for quantitative evidence of improved student learning.

To date, districts throughout California have little but the testimony of teachers and parents in reduced size classes that success is imminent. Researchers and policy analysts, however, are more skeptical. The effects of class size on students' learning have been studied without reaching definitive conclusions.

It appears that California , however, was greatly influenced by a recent experimental study conducted in Tennessee. Student Teacher Ration project (Project Star) does provide compelling evidence that smaller classes contribute to higher student performance, as does a more modest-sized study in Indiana, called Project Prime Time. Both studies investigated effects of reduced class sizes in kindergarten, first, and second grades. Although both studies were designed somewhat differently, both reported that:

  • Students in smaller classes scored higher on standardized tests than did those in larger classes

  • The smaller classes had fewer behavioral problems

  • Teachers of smaller classes evaluated themselves as more productive and efficient than when they taught larger classes
These academic gains were sustained throughout the elementary grades, and by the time they reached sixth grade, students in small classes scored eight percentile points higher than students in larger classes. More significant, the gains for disadvantaged and at risk students were even more pronounced. (California Education: The Comprehensive K-12 Perspective, Oct.-Nov., 1996 )

Tennessee and Indiana are different from California, and the reductions in both those states were substantially fewer than those being undertaken in this state. California's schools are more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than an any other state. These and other complex issues, such as availability of existing classrooms, space and/or funding to purchase new classrooms (which largely determined the number of grades a district could include) , greatly complicated the class size reduction program. Districts had to hire teachers, obtain classroom space, and place students appropriately in classes in a very short period of time.

With no near term state-wide evaluation expected and the intricacies of implementation, mounting on-going questions, as well as tough, often emotionally-charged choices, difficulties continue to confront educators.

Getting the numbers down is merely a means to an end. The real goal is improving students' literacy. Only moderate gains in reading achievement can be expected unless policy makers and the general public are made to understand clearly that lowering class size is a necessary but not sufficient condition for quality reform in our state.

Generally speaking, research confirms that parents and teachers believe that students are more likely to get a better quality early literacy program in small classes. There is wide agreement that the critical question is not whether class size can make a qualitative difference, but how and under what conditions we can assure increased learning in early reading. What are the trade-offs, and where are the priorities as districts act on this reform? What strategies for implementation seem most promising, and what other provisions are being made to ensure increased reading competency? What gains can we reasonably expect as result of these changes and when?

In the Fall of 1996, a committee of the Santa Barbara County Curriculum Council met to discuss the feasibility of evaluating class size reduction. Without a state assessment instrument in place, it became clear that our county and it's districts needed to begin creating a survey to assess the perceptions of involved local parents, teachers, and principals regarding the success of class size reduction in Santa Barbara County classrooms. This information could be useful when considering further implementation.

Forms were sent to approximately 15,000 parents of children in reduced-size classes and the almost 800 teachers who were involved in the county's 23 school districts. Subsequently, machine-scannable surveys were completed and returned by 5,007 parents and by 445 educators county-wide.

Bill Cirone, County Superintendent of Schools , stated recently in the Lompoc Record:

In the face of this ambitious effort to improve student achievement, and the substantial allocation of resources expended to date, educators in the county took seriously the need for an evaluation document- a self- imposed source of accountability. While it will take some time before test scores can be correlated with the reduced classroom configurations, the perception of parents and teachers is clearly significant. (Lompoc Record, July 1, 1997)

The survey determined that there is strong local support for smaller classes and parents and teachers agree that there is also increased student participation and more one-on-one time with teachers. (Appendix A )

Of particular interest, as well as having important implications for future planning by local districts, is the summary of comments from the educator's and parents survey. (Appendix B)

Significant to future staff development is the fact that both educators and parents specify more "one on one instruction" as the number one advantage of small class grouping. The one-on-one interaction between teacher and student seems to be at the heart of the matter suggesting quite specific questions. What do teachers need to know to maximize these teaching opportunities? What staff development opportunities are being made available to ensure that teachers know how to use this time effectively. What does the teacher need to know and be able to do to ensure increased literacy learning as well as diagnose students' progress sufficiently to inform his/her on-going instruction.

As a result of this survey, key planners in Santa Barbara County were hopeful to glean "the big picture" of how local districts perceive the success of class size reduction and what might be the next important steps.

"It's fairly certain that this information will be good insight for the State Department of Education and our legislators as they look at funding and other opportunities for class-size reduction in the future," says Debra Bradley, Superintendent of Instruction in Lompoc. ( Lompoc Record, July 1, 1997).

A practical interpretation of the survey, however, is necessary if it is to be of value to local planners. When there are many items/questions on a survey, it often becomes difficult to get a clear view. Factor analysis is a statistical procedure that allows one to combine questions that have a similarity in the response pattern, thus simplifying the information so that it can be of use. There is a common theme among them, based on how participants answered the questions. A factor analysis on the educator questions for the Santa Barbara County survey resulted in four significant factors. ( A factor is a "new" variable consisting of a combination of the original questions.) The name of each factor is based on the items that it is composed of. Factors were identified as the following:

  • Factor 1 Teaching and Knowing Students: 4.53
  • Factor 2 Students Outcomes: 4.24
  • Factor 3 Parent Communication: 4.23
  • Factor 4 Preparation for Teaching 4.14
These are countywide averages (on a 1 to 5 scale: 1= great decrease; 2=some decrease; 3 =no change; 4 = some increase; 5= great increase). The bottom line analysis here is that educators believe that all these areas have been positively impacted by class size reduction, but by far the strongest gains have been, in delivery of individual instruction and assessment. The least changed (but still reflecting growth) has been time and effort spent in preparing to teach. (Class Size Reduction Evaluation Survey 1996-1997, Santa Barbara County Final Report, 1997)

Keeping these factors in mind, as well as, responding to requests from Santa Barbara district offices, I have conducted action-based research that will be helpful to local districts as we develop in-service plans for continued class size reduction in 1997-98. Extensive training and almost thirty years of successful classroom practice have given me a broad knowledge base, as well as, a pragmatic perspective of what a balanced literary program should include. One of the things I have learned from years of experience in a multiage grouped classroom is that students can not do better until they know what better "looks like". This insight prompts me to suggest that a teacher's learning might be excellerated if they are able to see what a well balanced reading program "looks like" in an exemplary classrooom. I believe that successful experienced teachers are the best mentors to help teachers hone their instructional knowledge and skill. I am convinced that we can expect little change in students' achievement in reading if teachers do not know how to teach reading.

Extensive in-service training, using state and county funds, have been made available this year. Specifically this training has targeted new and novice teachers hoping to strengthen instructional practices in reading. (Project Read, Wright Group, Phonology, Reading Comprehension, Intervention Strategies for Beginning Readers, Best Books, Working Toward Proficiency in English)

In spite of this training, teachers are still asking very fundamental questions about how to create a classroom that balances explicit instruction as well as opportunities for students to read authentic quality literature. It seems, there are still serious gaps in teachers' understanding of what constitutes a well-balanced reading program. One workshop participant was overheard saying "But we won't have time to do any of these interesting things during reading because we have to do phonics"and "how will we ever have time for one-on-one instruction?" Clearly, we need to help teachers learn how to maximize the teaching opportunities that lower class size provides.

Although teachers identified the opportunity for one-on-one instruction as the most significant advantage of having a smaller class size , when I asked them what they actually did during this one-on-one time, few gave a definitive answer. Evidently they are continuing to use familiar group practices with a single child.

I believe that for teachers to maximize teaching/learning potential a more defined model of appropriate one-on-one instruction needs to be made explicit. I have designed a short demonstration to share with teachers, based on my Reading Recovery training, that begins with spelling and moves rapidly from familiar reading, to writing, and unfamiliar text. In a matter of a few minutes a teacher can learn how to fully engage a student in the language arts processes (reading, writing, speaking and listening), make a valid diagnosis of the child's instructional needs, and move on.

I am amazed how "in demand" this presentation has become. Teachers are recognizing that smaller classes are not automatically going to lead to higher reading achievement unless they make better use of their teaching opportunities. This is an increased awareness, I think, that specific teaching and learning behaviors need to change if achievement gains are to be made.

There is developing an expectation, as well, that in-services are best designed when they include multiple sessions with personalized follow-up in the form of classroom visitations or teaching demonstrations. This can be accomplished by mentors, master teachers, or by a network of local successful, practicing classroom teachers.

Teachers who demonstrate exemplary teaching practices in reading, identified by local districts, have far greater impact on change than a "one shot" presentation by an outside expert. (In-service evaluations collected 1996-1997)

Effective in-service training for the novice teacher as well as the experienced teacher presents a challenge! The difficulty lies in that they have similar and overlapping, as well as unique and separate needs. Differentiated in-service needs must be considered. It is important that all teachers understand the latest and best research on teaching reading and be able to apply this research to their teaching practice. Significant differences may be in issues of classroom management, organization, discipline, and choice of appropriate materials. Staff developers need to make an effort to respect and provide for the needs of their audience and at the same time "leave no stone unturned" to help all teachers meet the increased demands of exemplary practice. There is no place for mediocrity in our profession.

Based on my experience as a staff developer and Language Arts mentor, I make the following recommendations for supporting teachers preparing for the challenge of the increased demands and expectations of lower class size achievement.

Districts should be encouraged to:

  • Provide systematic differentiated staff development in reading for all teachers of K-2 classrooms.

  • Use mentors more appropriately, as defined by the California Reading Initiative, encouraging classroom visitation and demonstrations to meet specific needs.

  • Create opportunity for extensive collaborative planning for reading instruction among teachers.

  • Provide release time for teachers to observe exemplary practioners teaching reading.

  • Provide a follow-up meeting for each observation to discuss successful practices (guided feedback).

  • Provide professional reading materials, relevant to teaching reading , and opportunity for reflection during collaborative planning sessions.

  • Apprentice new teachers before and while they teach to suppport effective reading practices.

  • Set high standards for schools with a knowlegeable, caring, and supportive principal providing them administrative staff development relevent to reading instruction and it's evaluation.
In its report, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, states simply: "American students are entitled to teachers who know their subjects, understand their students and what they need, and have mastered the professional skills required to make learning come alive." Policy and educational reform that does not aggressively support such basic educational rights is not likely to have any substantive impact regardless of class size.

In your opinion, what is the most advantageous aspect of class size reduction?

More individual/one-on-one attention. (227)
Student learn more/better. (53)
Better classroom control. (23)
Better knowledge of problem areas students need to concentrate on. (19)
Fewer distraction/disruptions for students. (18)
More response/interaction between students, and student to teacher. (17)
Less chaos/stress for teacher. (15)
More time to get to know students. (13)
More student/class participation, questions answered. (10)
Better/individualized teaching styles. (10)
Better individual assessment. (8)
Students pay more attention. (8)
More positive student behavior (6)
More student motivation/confidence to learn. (6)
Cover more material/confidence to learn. (6)
Higher self esteem. (5)
More student cohesiveness/sense of belonging. (4)
More space/comfort for students. (4)
No difference. (3)
Smaller group work. (3)
More challenging work for above average students. (2)

In your opinion, what are you doing differently in your reduced size class that increases student achievement?

Work more one-on-one with students (62) Meet more often with small groups. (38) More thorough assessment/monitoring. (24) Know child's needs better. (6) More child contact with teacher. (6) More time for enrichment activities. (6) More time for e4nrichment activities. (6) Covering more of curriculum. (5) Have smaller "small grouups." (5) Less time on classroom management/cntrol.(4) Know individual students better. (4) Increased use of computers/technology. (4) Daily rotation system for 3 groups. (2) More "hands-on" in science. (2) More writing/reading activities. (2) Reading daily with each student. (2) More student accountability for work. (2) Deal in a much more positive way with kids. (2) More arts/music activities. (2) More time in meeting with parents. (2) More time to individualize learning. (2)

In your opinion, what staff development experiences would benefit you in wortking with students in a small class?

Reading, writing, language arts. (26)
Math. (8)
Small group management. (8)
Assessment techniques. (8)
Independent center activities. (7)
Cooperative learning. (6)
Grade level meetings/articulation with other teachers. (5)
Science/"hands-on" labs. (4)
Enrichment activities. (3)
One-on-one techniques. (3)

Special needs students. (3)
Technology (Internet, desktop publishing). (3)
Authentic assessment. (2)
Bilingual reading/phonics. (2)
Independent projects for students. (2)


Class Size Reduction Evaluation Survey: 1996-97 Survey Highlights Parents and Educators:

95% of both parents and teachers graded the quality of children's education an "A" or "B", as a result of class size reduction.
94 % of both parents and teachers graded the opportunity for children to reach their full potential an "A" or "B" as a result of class size reduction.

Educator Survey Facts:

Survey's Returned: 445 (59% of the total possible respondents)
93% of the returned surveys were from teachers of students in reduced-sized classes.
7% of the returned surveys were from site administrators.
68% of the teachers have 6 or more years of experience, 50% have more than 10 years of experience.
63% are first or second grade teachers.
89% teach in standard-sized self-contained classrooms.

Educator Responses:

98% graded the quality of the educational program offered to students and"A" or "B", as a result of class size reduction.
99% graded the oportunity for students to reach their full potential as an "A" or "B", as a result of class size reduction.
96% responded that class size reduction has increased time for teachers to know their students.
96% responded that class size reduction has increased time for 1:1 instruction.
95% responded that class size reduction has increased time for small group instruction.
96% that class size reduction has increased time for monitoring and assessing students' progress.
94% responded that class size reduction has increased tine for students' active involvement in their own learning.
94% responded that class size reduction has increased time for students' academic achievement in basic subjectds.

Educator Comments:

Educators stated that the most advantageous results of class size reduction were:

  • Getting to know students
  • Having more tiime for 1:1 instruction
Teachers stated that a mojor difference in teaching in a reduced size class is the opportunity to tailor the curriculum to individual needs.

Parent Survey Facts:

Surveys returned: 5,007 (35% out of the total possible sample)
75% of the returned surveys were completed in English.
25% of the returned surveys were completed in Spanish.
One third of the parents have 4 or more years of experience in their school system.
77% of the parents have children in the first or second grades.

Parent Responses:

95% graded the quality of their child's educaztion an "A" or "B" as a result of class size reduction.
94% graded the opportunity for their child to reach full potential an "A" or "B" as a resultof class size reduction.
80% responded that class size reduction has increased their child's academic achievement.
72% reported an increase in how much their child likes school as a result of class size reduction.

Parent Comments:

Parents stated that the most advantageous results of class size reduction were:

  • More individual attention and one-on-one instruction
  • More learning occurred
  • More time was available for teachers to get to know students
  • Better assessment of each student's progress
  • Children's increased sense of "belonging" in the classroom setting

References, Resources, and Contacts

Campbell, Jay R., NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Trial State Assessment of Educational Progress and Trial State Assessment, Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics,1995.

Berger,M.(1982). Class Size Is Not the Issue. National Institute of Education, NIE -G 80-0170, Washington,D.C.

Bourke,S. (Winter 1986). "How Smaller is Better: Some Relationships Between Class Size, Teaching Practices, and Student Achievement." American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp.558-571.

Clay, M. Becoming Literate: The Constuction of Inner Control, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991.

Clay, M. An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement. Portsmouth,NH: Heinemann, 1993

Glass, Gene, Leonard Cahan, Mary Lee Smith, and Nikola Filby, School Class Size: Research and Policy. Sage Publications ( Beverly Hills, London, New Delhi) 1982.

Illig, David C. Reducing Class Size: A Review of the Literature and Options for Consideration, Sacramento, Ca: California Reasearch Bureau, California State Library, 1996.

Mitchell, Douglas E., and Sara Ann Beach, "How Changing Class Size Affects Educational Research and Classrooms and Students" (Policy Brief), San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Development, 1990.

Murname, Richard J., and Frank Levy, "Why Money Matters Sometimes," Education Week (September 11, 1996): 48, 36-37.

Odden, Allan "Class Size and Student Achievement: New and Affordable Strategies That Make Sense," School of Education, USC, report for the California Department of Education (May 1989)

Peterson, Mary L., and Keith Rheault, The Nevada Class Size Reduction Evaluation Study 1995, Carson City, NV: 1995.

Richardson, James and Deborah Anderhuh, "Class Reductions: Tough Assignments for Schools," Sacramento Bee, August 18, 1996. (News stories from other major California dailies also provided background)

Robinson, Glen and J.H.Wittebols, Class Size Research: A Related Cluster Analysis for Decision Making, Educational Research Service (Arlington VA) 1986.

Slavin, Robert, "Class Size and Student Achievement: Is Smaller Better?" Contemporary Education (Fall 1990)

Word, Elizabeth, Director, et al, "Project STAR Final Report, 1985- 1990," Tennessee State Department of Education, 1990.


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