San Diego Unified wanted to see if class sizes mattered.

So it poured more than $30 million in federal stimulus money into creating smaller classes for its youngest students at more than two dozen schools, hoping to see if children would do better in classes of 17 students instead of 24.

But the program suffered so many changes that district officials now say they’ll have a hard time evaluating the results. The school board changed which schools were involved. Some schools used their extra teachers to provide extra help instead of shrinking classes. Some carefully tracked results, others didn’t.

And now that the funding has disappeared and the school district faces more budget cuts, the small classes are on the chopping block — with no clear verdict on whether they worked.

The experiment ran smack into a problem that has come up repeatedly in San Diego Unified. As the school board tries to decide what to cut, nobody is always sure which programs work. Touchy debates often come down to emotions and politics because the school district is short on hard proof.

This isn’t just a budget problem. Figuring out what works is at the heart of San Diego Unified’s plan to improve its schools. The school board has built that plan on the idea that the district should zero in on what is already working in local schools, then expand it elsewhere.

But the district has pared back so much on its own research that schools are often left to pull ideas from scattered success stories or outside studies. Even when schools know things are working, they sometimes have trouble figuring out why and exporting it elsewhere.

Measuring what works in schools is always complicated. Schools are not sterile laboratories that can be easily compared. So many things impact children and how they fare in school that it can be hard to tease out the effects of reforms.

Gauging reforms has gotten even harder in San Diego Unified as budgets plunge. Ron Rode, who oversees the school district department that assesses reforms, estimates that a decade and a half ago at least eight people were devoted exclusively to evaluating programs. They put out at least a dozen reports each year.

Now the department has five people who write two or three reports a year, Rode said. Those researchers are also juggling other duties, like computer training and federal requirements.

Shirley Weber, who served on the school board in the 1990s, remembered that once, when they were poised to make a seemingly small change — adding more students to high school writing classes — someone pulled out a study that showed the smaller classes were tied to better scores.

“We made better decisions,” Weber said. “Now the district is struggling so hard financially, they don’t have time to think about these things.”

Rampant turnover in the top ranks of San Diego Unified has also left it without many of the people who remember what was done before. Schools in City Heights, for example, have been overseen by three people in just four years. And the budget crunch has pushed schools to chase outside funding, picking up programs they can pay for and dropping those they can’t, instead of deciding what will really help.

The problem played out three years ago, when the school district spent more than $500,000 to create a special school for students who were held back in eighth grade. The person who dreamed it up left the district. Promised computers came late. And the school district decided to bring younger kids in midway through the year. The school was shut down after a single, troubled year with little analysis of whether it worked.

Though research has been pared back, San Diego Unified insists it still has ways to see what’s working. Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said school staffers analyze test scores to find schools that are doing unusually well, then investigate what they’re doing, a less scientific way to spot successes.

Rode said schools have more access to data about how children are performing than ever before, allowing them to analyze it themselves. Parents, teachers and principals are supposed to share their successes. San Diego Unified has slowly built up communication between the clusters of schools that feed into each high school. But schools sometimes shy from comparing results.

“No one wants to embarrass someone” by pointing out that they get better scores, said Imani Robinson, a Crown Point Elementary mom who leads a committee examining funds for disadvantaged students. “We have to get over our egos.”

San Diego Unified still partners with outside researchers. One of them is Julian Betts, a University of California, San Diego economist who analyzed the controversial reforms of former Superintendent Alan Bersin.

But by the time Betts finished his study last year, Bersin had been gone for five years and his reforms had been dismantled. The timelines for academic research often outlast the funding that schools have to try out something new — or the political will to keep it going. Researchers say it can take at least five years to see the effects of a new program or strategy.

“School board members want to be able to say, ‘I accomplished this,’ before the election comes up,” said Bud Mehan, who directs an educational research center at UCSD.

Though there has been a decline in research, the school system is introducing a new system that could generate more information about what works. Teachers can now use a computer system to track whether specific programs help children learn to read or tame bad behavior, said Michelle Crisci, who oversees programs to help students overcome those problems. That data can be mined to help other teachers decide what to do.

Without systems like that, said Frank Engle, a dad who sat with Robinson on the committee that examined federal funds, “you’re kind of throwing a dart at a dartboard hoping to make a bulls-eye.”

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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