What Have We Learned About Class Size Reduction in California?

Gerald C. Hayward
Policy Analysis for California Education
Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University


The mid-1990s found California worried about the education its students were receiving. Standardized tests provided evidence that the state’s students were losing ground compared to their counterparts across the country. The results of the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released in 1995 only reinforced the concern—California’s fourth graders had tied for last place in reading among the 39 states that participated in NAEP.

A task force assembled by the California Department of Education called for, among other reforms, smaller classes—a move strongly favored not only by the teachers’ unions, but also by parents and teachers. California elementary schools had the largest class size in the country—averaging 29 students. Evidence from the Tennessee STAR experiment had shown rather clearly that elementary students in the primary grades did better academically when in small versus larger classes in K–3, and the difference was greatest for inner-city and minority students.

All that was missing to put class size reduction into place was the political will and the money to do so. The dot-com boom of the 1990s solved the latter problem by providing a windfall of tax revenues, most of which were required by law to be spent on elementary and secondary education. Republican Governor Pete Wilson and the Democratically controlled legislature seized the moment and passed SB1777 (O’Connell) in July 1996. The law provided districts with $650 per student for each K–3 classroom with 20 or fewer students, providing they first reduced all first grade classes in a school, followed by all second grade classes and finally by either kindergarten or third grade classes. The cost to the state in the first year was roughly $1 billion dollars and in the current year, roughly $1.6 billion.

The California Department of Education and a group of California foundations awarded contracts to the American Institutes for Research, who along with RAND headed up a consortium to evaluate the effects of class-size reduction on achievement, on the quality of the state’s teaching corps, on special needs students, and on other practices. The consortium, which also included PACE, WestEd, and EdSource, has produced three evaluation reports thus far. This is the fourth and final report. This report summarizes previous findings and discusses new research done in the final year of the contract; it also includes a set of policy recommendations and concludes with lessons learned.

Suggested citationHayward, G. C., & Kirst, M. W. (2002, September). What have we learned about class size reduction in California? [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.