Statement: “People have this belief that if you increase class sizes, it has a negative impact on student learning. That is not documented, proven anywhere. Actually, there’s not one piece of literature published to prove that. As a matter of fact, just the opposite,” said Stan Dobbs, the San Diego Unified School District’s new chief financial officer, in an interview with Voice of San Diego published on Feb. 1.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: San Diego Unified School District’s new chief financial officer told us he loves a challenge — and he’s got one when it comes to the district’s finances.

Stan Dobbs joined a district that faces an estimated $80 million budget deficit this year, though more than 90 percent of the district’s day-to-day budget is already set to cover employees’ salaries and benefits.

Last week, Voice of San Diego asked Dobbs where district officials could find extra cash in light of that heavy load. Dobbs suggested the school board shouldn’t avoid a discussion about increased class sizes.

“It’s that sort of entitlement mentality that’s going to kill us,” he said.

School board trustees and district parents have championed smaller class sizes despite years of cuts but Dobbs suggested research hasn’t established they’re worth the financial sacrifice.

Class size is an explosive issue in San Diego and around the country — and lots of research has been conducted on the subject — so we wanted to check Dobbs’ assertion.

To be clear: We’re not fact-checking the class-size debate itself. We’re vetting Dobbs’ claim about the research that exists on the subject. Dobbs said “there’s not one piece of literature published to prove that” increased class size has a negative impact on student learning — [a]s a matter of fact, just the opposite.” This suggests that no research has proven larger class sizes deter performance, but some research has proven larger class sizes have no impact. This is a false assessment of the body of evidence gathered on class sizes.

Dobbs is right that the research on class sizes is not entirely conclusive.

Most class-size research focuses on younger students and shows that the most significant academic gains tend to be in primary school, said Chad Aldeman, a senior policy analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.

“The research shows that class-size reduction in those early grades really helps low-income students (and) disadvantaged students,” he said.

The most commonly cited study in favor of small class sizes was conducted at nearly 80 Tennessee schools in the 1980s.

The study randomly selected students and teachers to be placed in classes with an average of 15 or 22 students.

The four-year study found that first-grade students in the smaller classes scored significantly higher on math and reading tests but second and third grade students saw gains comparable to those in larger classes.

Still, two later phases of the study found that students who remained in smaller classes for more than a year continued to perform better than their peers in larger classes and that low-performing school districts that reduced their class sizes as part of the study saw improved academic rankings. The research showed low-income and black students benefited the most from reduced class sizes.

A smaller Wisconsin study that tracked the impact of class sizes on student performance from 1996 to 2001 also found that primary school students in smaller classes scored higher on standardized tests. Again, black students saw the most significant gains.

Other research found a mixed bag: In the late 1990s, researchers studied how reduced class sizes affected third-grade math and reading scores after the state established class-size targets for students in kindergarten through third grade.

The researchers concluded that smaller class sizes resulted in some achievement gains but that participating teachers’ qualifications were just as critical.

A 2010 study of mandated class size reductions in Florida found even less significant improvements in student performance, in part, as the study’s author acknowledged, because class sizes were only minimally reduced.

But Dobbs claimed researchers had no proof that larger class sizes deter performance and that the opposite is true. It’s logical to assume the opposite would be research existing that proves no negative impact as a result of larger class sizes. That’s incorrect.

Dobbs is clearly aware that a body of research exists on the subject, and he mischaracterized that body to suggest no studies prove that bigger class sizes make a negative impact but that some studies do prove no impact.

It is reasonable to believe that Dobbs made that mischaracterization to his own advantage: to push for increasing class sizes in order to save the district money, a path he believes is a responsible way to improve the district’s fiscal health.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba stood by the district’s commitment to small class sizes in a Monday statement.

“Unfortunately, Stan has not been part of our district long enough to understand the importance of class size on student achievement and the importance of smaller classes to our parents,” Kowba wrote. “Stan is incorrect when he stated that there is no research about the importance of class sizes.”

Kowba included in his statement an Education Week post that cited supportive research as well as the quandary for school leaders across the country: Reducing class size comes at a cost, and not everyone has concluded it’s worth it.

Dobbs did not respond to requests for comment.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt and Will Carless are reporters at Voice of San Diego. You can contact them directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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