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Why Lodi Unified's smaller 9th-grade English classes are worth saving

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Posted: Friday, May 1, 2009 10:00 pm

As the economic crisis continues, school districts across the state are making difficult decisions to balance their budgets.

Lodi Unified's Board of Education and administrators are currently in the process of making such grim decisions, placing many district programs on the chopping block.

One program recommended for elimination is class size reduction for ninth-grade English. Currently, freshmen English classes are capped at a 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio; however, were class size reduction to be eliminated, the ratio would increase greatly, likely to reach at least 32-1. Such a development should be alarming for teachers and parents alike, not only because there is data within the district to support that program's ability to raise test scores, but also because of the support that smaller English classes offer students during a pivotal year in their educational career.

Class-size reduction programs are most often associated with the elementary grades; research has shown such programs effective in improving student achievement. However, the body of research on similar programs at the high school level is scant and inconclusive.

On the advice of a colleague, I looked up English Language Arts scores on the California Standards Test (CST) for the classes of 2008, 2009, and 2010 at Tokay, Lodi and Bear Creek High Schools, and the classes of 2009, 2010, and 2011 at McNair High School on the California Department of Education's Web site.

I followed these students' scores from the seventhto their tenth-grade years (except for the class of 2011, whose tenth-grade scores will be reported this summer), culling scores from each high school as well as its primary feeder school.

In particular, I analyzed the "mean scaled scores" for each group; a percentage breakdown that classifies a student's mastery of grade-level English standards as advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, or far below basic. These scores give a clear picture of students' academic progress over time.

What I found after analyzing the data was truly eye-opening. At each of the four comprehensive high schools in Lodi Unified, there is a noticeable spike in English CST scores in the ninth grade that trails off in subsequent years. This spike is evident yearly. For example, at Lodi High, 14 percent of the class of 2010 scored "advanced" on the English CST during the seventh grade. In eighth grade, 17 percent of these students scored in the same category. During their freshman year, the number jumped to 25 percent. The following year, it dropped to 18 percent. Similar score spikes and subsequent drop-offs are evident at Tokay, Bear Creek and McNair high schools.

When considering these figures, it is important to realize that the only quantifiable difference between ninth-grade English classes and any other sevenththrough eleventh-grade English class is the student-to-teacher ratio. As such, there is consistent data within Lodi Unified that ninth-grade class size reduction works for increasing student test scores. However, student performance on standardized tests is not the only, nor perhaps the most compelling, reason to retain class size reduction.

The move to high school is a difficult one for many students, and smaller English classes make this transition smoother. In a class of 20, a teacher is able to give each student more one-on-one time, helping students to build their academic skills in preparation for the high school exit exam they will take their sophomore year, as well as Senior Project. For students moving from a small middle school to a large high school, such personal attention cannot be underestimated.

Freshman year sets the tone for high school and lays a critical academic foundation for all four years. An effective program that directly impacts student achievement is about to be eliminated. If you have a child who will be entering high school, soon or any time in the future, speak up - ninth-grade class size reduction is worth saving.

Janie Cunningham is an English teacher at Tokay High School.

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • posted at 5:48 am on Fri, May 15, 2009.


    ....dyan slinks away with her tail between her legs, again.

  • posted at 8:30 am on Thu, May 14, 2009.


    dyan: You are evading the question/request (as usual). Please submit evidence of your claims that conservatives that can afford private school do not send their kids to public school.

  • posted at 6:48 pm on Wed, May 13, 2009.


    dyan wrote "we can't even recognize George Washington's birthday in these jokes called public schools"So now you want the schools to take more days off? That's contrary to what you've said in the past. Do you know which end is up, dyan? LOL!

  • posted at 6:46 pm on Wed, May 13, 2009.


    dyan: Please submit evidence of your claims that conservatives that can afford private school do not send their kids to public school.

  • posted at 8:54 am on Wed, May 13, 2009.


    They do if they can afford it. Who wants to celebrate Harvey Milk day when we can't even recognize George Washington's birthday in these jokes called public schools?

  • posted at 6:16 am on Wed, May 13, 2009.


    dyan wrote on May 12, 2009 7:40 PM:" Absolutely. they are the only ones supporting this public farce and don't want private competition. "dyan: So are you telling us that only liberal people have children in our public school system and all conservative people choose private schools?I can't wait for this response. :-)

  • posted at 2:40 pm on Tue, May 12, 2009.


    Absolutely. they are the only ones supporting this public farce and don't want private competition.

  • posted at 1:47 pm on Tue, May 12, 2009.


    So dyan says liberals should pay for the public school system.

  • posted at 9:56 am on Mon, May 11, 2009.


    No yours. You libs make a lot more money.

  • posted at 7:11 am on Mon, May 11, 2009.


    dyan wrote on May 10, 2009 9:53 AM:" You mean Your pocket? "Is that where you think the money SHOULD come from, dyan?

  • posted at 4:02 am on Mon, May 11, 2009.


    Thanks to the wisdom of Sacramento, public schools are now a sick joke. Teachers have to teach strictly by the daily guidelines from the bureaucrats, whether interesting, or whether the kids understand it or not. Kids don't get it? Too bad. Move on to the next day. Who would have ever thought a free country would end up this way.

  • posted at 12:33 am on Mon, May 11, 2009.


    Why would we give small class sizes to only the students that are not up to par? Is readiness the answer? Is maturity the answer? What is the way to group students for student success? You develop classes that create the academic skills from classes that students are interested to perform. Such as the drafting classes, auto classes, home economic classes, art classes. Then these students have the desire and motivation to perform. They are human beings and will perform with the interest instead of just the status quo. Make school interesting and fun for students again!

  • posted at 4:53 am on Sun, May 10, 2009.


    You mean Your pocket?

  • posted at 8:19 am on Sat, May 9, 2009.


    dyan: I think most of us know where the money should come from to save these classes.

  • posted at 4:38 am on Fri, May 8, 2009.


    Great. Let's save 'em. Now who is going to pay for them? The question no one ever asks.

  • posted at 5:26 pm on Wed, May 6, 2009.


    Whoa Whoa.....I doubt you were one of my students. My current school is a 90-90-90 school: Over 90% EL population, over 90% of students getting free or reduced meals, and over 90% of my students are proficient or advanced on state tests. We do it because every single teacher follows the "no excuses" philosophy and has pride in the school and students. Nellie, you can come visit anytime and I'll show you how we do it. I love to show off my school.

  • posted at 4:23 pm on Wed, May 6, 2009.


    Mr. Loblaw, I was one of your students way back when. With all due respect, you have no idea what it is like currently in the district.As Contrapasso brings up those who do not speak English are an added burden to teachers at all levels. And at certain elementary schools it is almost 20% of the population. Also, the lack of student discipline is unbelievable. The things I see in the classrooms would never, ever be tolerated 20-30yrs ago. Ask any teacher with 15+ yrs experience and they will tell you how different it is now versus when they started their career.

  • posted at 5:52 am on Tue, May 5, 2009.


    9th grade class size reduction goes a long way in helping students build a strong academic foundation for high school. In a class of 20 a teacher is able to spend more individual time with students, helping to identify areas that the student needs to improve upon in order to be successful not only on the CAHSEE, or senior project, but in their other classes as well. The communication skills, especially written communication skills, that students hone in their English classes transfer to their other courses as well. Additionally, given that our students come to us with varying ability levels, such smaller classes in the freshman year are important because they afford a teacher a greater opportunity to address a child’s specific needs. We owe our students a strong start to high school. By the by: if you'd like to research CST scores the California Department of Education's Testing and Accountability website is http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/

  • posted at 5:12 am on Tue, May 5, 2009.


    As far as differentiating curriculum, should a student who is asked to do less complex tasks because of low skill level be given the same grades and credits as the student who truly meets college prepatory standards? Here is an example from a differentiated lesson strategy:"With written quizzes the teacher may assign specific questions for each group of students. They all answer the same number of questions but the complexity required varies from group to group."So Suzie gets the same grade for answering easier questions than Johnny has to answer? This mentality is unfair to the students who are at grade level.

  • posted at 5:01 am on Tue, May 5, 2009.


    Loblaw: I agree with you about college prep and LUSD being oxymoronic. The district insists that all kids be placed in college prep classes. This is the problem. The district does not acknowledge that most of your kids are going to a JC. There is nothing wrong with going to a JC! My point is that when the classes are truly college prepatory, like they were prior to 2004, the students actually have a vested interest in doing well. The behavior problems caused by uninterested, lower-skilled students who are in over their heads are greatly reduced. The students who are not college bound get the same curriculum, but maybe we work more slowly or with adapted texts. A teacher realizes that there may be more behavior problems and plans accordingly. When the classes were separated into levels, they can be larger because the students work at the same pace and they have approximately the same skills. As it is, the mixed classes waste time for the true college prep students; they get bored with the slower pace. Bored students are NAUGHTY students.

  • posted at 3:57 am on Tue, May 5, 2009.


    contrapasso: College prep and LUSD are oxymorons, unless you consider prepping students for Delta JC college prep.In one breath you complain about the wide range of reading levels in classroom, and in the next claim you want to maintain a "college prep" curriculum. Your district needs to come to grips with the fact that not everybody goes to college. To quote Judge Smails, "The world needs ditch diggers too." As far as differentiating instruction, I believe the teacher's job is to teach kids. The curriculum is an end to that means and should be adapted when needed.

  • posted at 3:39 am on Tue, May 5, 2009.


    loblaw: I still don't agree with you and would like to ask you a few questions for clarification. When were you in the classroom? Was it within the last 5 years? Was it in this district?The reason I ask is because the job has changed immensely in the last 5 years, and I believe that is because of the heterogeneous groupings in high school classes. When you have kids who all are at approximately the same level, the numbers in the classroom can be higher. However, this is not the case anymore. The heterogeneous classes are especially difficult because many of the students just don't care. I do not agree with differentiating lesson plans. If we are to maintain college prepatory curriculum, we must maintain high academic standards. Differentiating is just a euphemism for watering down!

  • posted at 11:00 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    Yes, yabajobu, you are correct that no one specifically categorized her in this fashion, but one poster did raise the issue of weak teachers in general. I was simply making a reference to that point in order to differentiate the author of the column from ineffective teachers. Her column was well-written and concise, something I would expect from an effective English teacher, which I can only assume she is in the classroom; of course I could be wrong.I stand by that analysis of her as well as the rest of my earlier post. Relying solely upon data (which can be manipulated to support almost any conclusion), I would give at least equal weight to good old common sense; a commodity that is sadly not so common these days.

  • posted at 9:13 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    contrapasso: I have over 20 years of classroom and admin experience. The challenges you mention have existed throughout my career. That is the nature of public school. The common denominator, the element that makes teaching possible in the public school setting you describe is ROUTINES. Good teachers have effective routines, weak teachers do not. I have found it is the weak teachers who use the kids' varied abilities as an excuse why they can't do their jobs. The good teachers work with the hands they are dealt and get the job done.

  • posted at 5:04 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    Jamie: Nice job.

  • posted at 5:03 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    loblaw: You said: "Conversely, a classroom with 35 students will learn if the teacher knows how to assess student needs and then effectively deliver instruction catered to those needs." The class size does matter, especially in the light of the "all college prep" class groupings. Imagine 35 students per class. The reading levels range from 3rd grade to 12th grade. The students with learning and behavioral problems are also there. Then add the English language learners, who struggle daily to grasp the confusing and arbitrary English language. Multiply the above issues by five, because that's how many classes a high school teacher has. According to you, an effective teacher should be able to assess individual student needs and effectively deliver instruction. You acknowledge that it's easier said than done, but do you have any real classroom experience to back up your statement? Do you really have any idea what a Herculean task that is? Or are you just making assumptions without complete analysis? If the classes were grouped according to skill level, class size would not be so much of an issue. However, due to the “all college prep” groupings, SIZE MATTERS.

  • posted at 4:02 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    lodisafeway,No one has said anything about Ms. Cunningham's personal performance as a teacher. The question is whether, as a matter of public policy, there is evidence to support the proposition she espouses. I don't think that her simple analysis holds enough weight. Such is the problem with relying on "common sense" when it is unsupported by serious data. To my understanding there is no causal connection between smaller class size and better academic performance. Until we see something more substantial, we are relying only on the conjecture and speculation of people who have no actual idea what works better and what doesn't.

  • posted at 1:40 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    lodisafeway...on this, I totally and completely agree with you.

  • posted at 1:35 am on Mon, May 4, 2009.


    After closely reviewing each paragraph of Ms. Cunningham's article, it is clear to me that she is not a weak teacher. First, she took the time and effort to write what is an otherwise effective column in support of a program that she deems vital to the success of her students. Second, with teachers such as her, I would submit that size does indeed matter. Common sense would dictate that the more time an effective teacher has to spend on each student individually, the chances of them learning more rises exponentially; on the other hand, when a class exceeds 30 students even the best of teachers must find themselves terribly outnumbered with respect to this one-on-one relationship that must be seriously considered as essential to our children's education.There are many fine teachers out there who do their very best no matter what size the class; and yes, there are those who cannot (or will not) be effective even if they have but one student. The principals of these schools should be the overseers to ensure that sub-par teachers are brought to acceptable levels or removed from the classroom.

  • posted at 6:25 pm on Sat, May 2, 2009.


    Contrary to the article, there is no conclusive data that shows class size reduction - at any grade level - positively impacts test scores. What does make a difference in student achievement is strong first teaching delivered by effective teachers. You can have two kids in a classroom, but if the teacher is weak, they will not learn. Conversely, a classroom with 35 students will learn if the teacher knows how to assess student needs and then effectively deliver instruction catered to those needs. Easier said than done...

  • posted at 4:41 pm on Sat, May 2, 2009.


    I don't mean to be a wet blanket, because I certainly want to have the best educational ideas succeed, but Ms. Cunningham seems to have a correlation/causation problem in her analysis. While it is certainly plausible that she is correct, it is just as likely that there are other factors at work. She takes no account for changes in the class population, differences in curriculum or teachers, or even external factors that might help explain the unusual result. For my taste, she has a long way to go before showing that smaller class size necessarily brings about the results she attributes.It also appears from her analysis that she looked at the average scores for the group instead of individuals. This is a crude and likely misleading measure of individual performances.


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