California's Class Size Reduction
In July 1996, California embarked on its largest ever education reform: a nearly $1 billion class size reduction effort to improve literacy in the primary grades. Now in its second year, the Class Size Reduction (CSR) initiative provides $800 (up from $650 the first year) per student to schools that reduce class size to 20 students or fewer in first grade, second grade, and then third grade and/or kindergarten.
The impetus for CSR came from several factors. A revived state economy created a revenue windfall. Under Proposition 98, a minimum amount of this surplus must be allocated to education. The decision to funnel the additional money to CSR stemmed from the belief that smaller classes would help improve early literacy, an area of much concern in light of California's scores on national tests. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, showed that in 1994 only 18 percent of California's students were rated proficient or advanced in reading. In 1994, California's national ranking on NAEP was second from last in reading.
Whether this lackluster performance was due to the content of the state's language arts curriculum frameworks, the increasing number of uncredentialed teachers, inadequate funding for schools or other reasons, is a matter of debate. California's class size, however, was undeniably among the highest in the nation, averaging approximately 28.6 students per K–3 classroom before the initiative was passed.
Hopes are high that CSR will significantly improve student performance. Surveys show tremendous enthusiasm among educators, and news stories report widespread public support. But whether CSR will prove to be the crucial lever for enhancing California's early literacy and overall academic achievement remains to be seen.