November 27, 2009
Splashed across today’s Front Page of the San Mateo County Times is an article that reports on how class sizes are going up across the state. According to the article, “California Watch surveyed the thirty largest K-12 schools districts in the state and found that many schools are pushing class sizes to 24 in some or all of the early grades (K-3). Other district have raised class sizes to 30 students–reverting to levels not seen in more than a decade.”
When you dig deeper on this issue, it becomes quite clear that class sizes are going up because California is not funding schools adequately to maintain class sizes of 20 students in K-3. And, debate is heating up around the contention that class sizes of twenty does help to increase student achievement. The current research does not seem to bear this out.
This is one of those “dirty little secrets” that people in education do not want discussed. The fact is that research around small class sizes is completely mixed. For every research report cited in favor of class size reduction, there is another one that comes to the conclusion that class size reduction has no discernible effect on student achievement. A good summary of the research that California used to decide to implement class size reduction in the 1990’s can be found here.
In 2001, there was follow up research supported by the Rand Corporation that concluded that California’s class size reduction program did not result in improved student achievement. And, the cost for this program is estimated at MORE THAN TWO BILLION DOLLARS. That is a heck of a lot of money for a program that has delivered questionable results.
Class sizes of twenty do have some impacts to our education system. First, parents love the program because it does allow teachers to really get to know each of the kids. I do believe this is a very important, and often ignored, important result of having smaller class sizes. The second impact is a huge (and recurring) financial cost because it creates many more teaching positions. This reason is very important to the California Teachers Association leadership.
I think an important question that needs to be discussed openly is this: Given the current state budget mess, can California afford such a costly program that has yet to deliver on student achievement?
My personal opinion is that small class sizes are beneficial. Though CLC has had to slightly increase class sizes in grades 1-3 last year, we were able to reduce class sizes in Kindergarten to 18. In addition, we also reduced class sizes in grade 4 from 30 to 24. And, let’s not forget our middle school children. This group is often ignored and at CLC we have strived to keep class sizes below 30. So far, we have been successful. Our class sizes here at CLC are far from ideal, but necessary in the current financial environment. We do work hard to make sure each child feels connected to an adult staff member.
It is clear that the State of California does not value class sizes since it will not guarantee minimum funding to have class sizes of 20. Costs continue to rise and revenue continues to be cut. Is it no WONDER that school districts are in such dire financial straits?
A recent national study on gifted education illustrates just how far public education has swung away from the brightest students in our school. As this report indicates, both presidents on both sides of the aisle have tries to eliminate funding for gifted and talented programs in the federal budget only to have the money replaced during congressional negotiations
In San Carlos, as in the much of the rest of the state, Gifted and Talented programs have been virtually eliminated as a formal “add-on” enrichment kind of program. Here at CLC, this is something that we, as educators are certainly grappling with. In the face of higher class sizes, how do we best meet the needs of our brightest children? And, more importantly, should their needs be subordinated in order to focus more resources on lower achieving kids?
At CLC, we have tried a couple of new strategies to better meet the needs of our truly gifted and talented students. One approach is to look at how online learning programs can be accessed in order to challenge and engage our learners. EPGY out of Stanford University, and the ALEKS program in Southern California are two such online programs that we are working with. In addition, we have parent volunteers who step up and engage some of our students with enrichment clubs like MathCounts.
In our middle school, Inga Davis, our math teacher, has begun to implement the math program from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Phillips Exeter is recognized as one of the top independent schools in the United States. The “Exeter Math Program” is an all word problem based, comprehensive math program for students taking Algebra and higher. It is one of the most successful math programs in the country and Inga is using it for our students here at CLC. And, we are seeing fantastic results and high achievement for our kids. The link to the Exeter math program is here: http://math.exeter.edu/dept/materials. All the materials are free for anyone to use.
For our learners who may be gifted writers, we are also looking at ways in which we can offer more challenging writing projects nor only in class but also as an after school enrichment opportunity.
I think we would all agree that we can do more for our kids in this area. At CLC, I do feel that we are meeting our kids’ academic needs better and more often than other schools. I think it is in the nature and structure of our program that allows us to succeed in this area. We work to deliver instruction in small group settings. We strive individualize educational programs whenever we can. We look for the most innovative and challenging programs for our kids. As a charter school, we are not restricted by state mandated curriculum.
While most schools (public and private) are struggling with meeting the needs of gifted children, this is one area where I feel CLC can say it has made some real strides over the last few years and we will continue to be committed to the success of not only our struggling learners, but also our most gifted learners.