Monday, September 20, 2010


By Rob Kuznia, Daily Breeze Staff Writer | from the Contra Costa Times |

“The swelling is most pronounced in Torrance, which suffers from an outdated state-funding formula that gives the district less money per student than the average California school district. Average class sizes also exceed 40 students for the upper two grades in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

PHOTO: Major budget cuts have push classroom enrollments at many Torrance high school to more than40 students. Mark Duvall instructs the 43 students in his freshman English class at Torrance High. (Robert Casillas Staff Photographer)

9/20/2010 - Students in Mark Duvall's English classes at Torrance High School this year might be surprised to learn that as many as two-thirds of their essays won't be graded.

This isn't because he wants to go easy on them. Instead, the new approach is born of necessity: With each of Duvall's classes crammed with 40 or more students, there simply isn't enough time in the day to grade every paper.

Due to historic budget cuts, average class sizes at Torrance's four comprehensive middle and high schools have soared this year to around 40. That's up from an already high average of 35 the year before. As recently as two years ago, the average freshman English and math course in Torrance contained just 20 pupils, meaning the head counts in those classes have since doubled.

Meanwhile, the average size of the district's K-3 classes has shot up in two years from 20 to 30.

"I don't have all the numbers, but according to the reports I'm getting from the school sites, these are the largest sizes anyone has ever had to deal with," said Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union. "The student-per-teacher ratio is incredibly high."

Crowded classrooms serve as an apt illustration of California's wretched economy. Last year, for instance, so many students were packed into one of Duvall's classes that the last student enrolled was forced to rove around the room every day, using the desk of whomever was absent.

The phenomenon is happening across the state, but on the South Bay the swelling is most pronounced in Torrance, which suffers from an outdated state-funding formula that gives the district less money per student than the average California school district. Average class sizes also exceed 40 students for the upper two grades in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The question is: Does class size matter?

Surprisingly, research on the effectiveness of class-size reduction for grades K-3 has been mixed: A study of California's program found no link between smaller class sizes and higher test performance. (A similar study in Florida came to the same conclusion, but a Tennessee study did find a correlation.)

In Torrance, the steady rise of class sizes over the past three years has failed to stymie the district's seemingly unstoppable improvement on test scores.

But it doesn't take an expert's testimony to know that at some point the huge classes will hinder learning. Michael Kirst, emeritus professor at Stanford and the author of the well-known California study, said he knows of no such research examining the effect of large class sizes.

"All the studies have been about low class sizes," he said. "We have no studies going the opposite way."

All this means that the Torrance Unified School District this next year will serve as a kind of unwitting case study.

Year after year, test scores in the K-12 Torrance Unified School District improve as if it were manifest destiny. Since 2004, the district's academic performance index - a score from 200 to 1,000 - has risen from 794 to the current 853. A sudden freeze in the progress would be telling.

Students say the crowded classes pose challenges.

"It just leads to more friends," said Walter Sketch, a junior at Torrance High School. "And the more friends you have, the more you goof around."

"Some people don't really get the books they need," said Monalisa Zulum, also a junior at the school. "If there's a lot of people, the teacher doesn't really focus. It's hard to answer everyone's questions."

As for Duvall, like many teachers, he tries his best to attend to every student's needs, but knows that when a classroom is teeming with bodies, something's gotta give.

"The biggest thing I notice is the ability to give feedback," he said. "That's where I think we're short-changing the kids the most. ... Classroom management usually isn't the issue."

Duvall, a veteran teacher, said he assigns essays even when he can't grade them all because students need the writing practice.

Torrance is hardly the only district to see class sizes increase. A recent report by California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting group, concluded that all 30 of the state's largest school districts have abandoned their K-3 class-size reduction programs, which were implemented across the state in the mid-1990s.

At LAUSD, classes for juniors and seniors are even larger; in a year, the average grew from 41 to 43. LAUSD's K-3 classes sizes are smaller than those in Torrance, though, at 24 compared with the suburban district's 30.

In Redondo Beach, K-3 classes have gone from 22 to 25; freshman English and math class sizes have increased from 20 to 30.

The Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Peninsula and Centinela Valley school districts have managed to avoid serious class-size increases.

Torrance school officials say the old funding model doesn't explain the entire discrepancy. Believe it or not, the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District - despite the affluence of its families - is also known as a "low-wealth district" due to the Byzantine funding formula. But unlike Torrance, the Palos Verdes Peninsula district has successfully floated two school parcel tax measures in recent years, allowing the district to hire teachers. (Torrance voters approved a school bond measure in 2008, but money from bonds can typically be spent only on construction.)

So Torrance had no additional funding to turn to during the budget shortfall of this past spring, when it reduced its work force by 90 teachers.

Parents and the Torrance Education Foundation are doing their best to make up the difference, launching a major fundraising campaign called "Save Our Schools" to rehire laid-off teachers. Thus far, they've raised $300,000 - enough to hire back maybe four.

As for Kirst, the Stanford professor who conducted the study that found no meaningful correlation between class size and student performance, he said for some reason, huge class sizes tend to be an issue confined to Southern California. He noted that class sizes don't even really afflict Northern California. That, he said, is because 80 percent of all school parcel taxes passed in California have occurred up there.

Kirst said despite the findings of his study, parents aren't wrong to be concerned about large class sizes.

"My grandkids in Nevada County (California) - their classes just went up to 34 and I'm horrified," he said.

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