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Education experts disagree on importance of school class size

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When Greg Sumlin looks at the incoming kindergarten class at East Elementary School in Littleton, he sees a group of English learners who need immediate, intensive instruction — in small classes where teachers can give them individual attention.

Then he looks at this year’s first-graders, calculates his staffing and crunches the numbers: although these kids also have high needs, three classrooms of 16 or 17 will have to be shoe-horned into two second-grade classes of 23.

It’s a vexing academic sudoku that principals tackle — and teachers must adapt to — as schools try to line up budgets, staff and attendance projections in pursuit of an elusive educational sweet spot: effective class size.

“We’re still talking about it and will be all the way to the start of the school year,” said Sumlin, whose school was recognized by the state last year for its progress with a largely at-risk population. “It’s a problem-solving process we need to get through.”

Class size generally is determined on a building-by-building basis. But the trend of districts’ student-to-teacher ratios in Colorado, as calculated by the Colorado Department of Education, has been upward as budget cuts have taken a toll over the past five years.

Though district-wide averages may vary by only one or two students from year to year, individual classes can fluctuate significantly as principals weigh tough decisions on where to deploy resources.

Class size remains part of the debate over competing priorities at a time of fiscal constraint, increasing accountability and the ever-shifting shape of reform. Some reform advocates discount the impact of class size on student achievement in favor of focusing on what they consider a higher priority: teacher effectiveness.

“The combination of the recession with this push for quality teachers, the nexus of the two, is why we’re seeing this move away from class size,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, who heads the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.

Generally, research into the effect of class size on achievement has found that it can have significant impact in kindergarten to second grade, though findings are mixed after that. But large increases in class size suggest certain intuitive results — challenges in classroom management, less individual attention, a reluctance to assign homework — that could affect student performance.

On the other hand, the “fashionable” research, as Klopfenstein calls it, zeroes in on teacher effectiveness as a more cost-effective remedy than hiring more teachers to reduce class size.

“If a teacher doesn’t do anything differently, teaches the same way big or small, then I don’t think less is better,” Klopfenstein said. “It’s just more expensive. If they’re really an effective teacher, then what they’re doing with 18 kids could probably be done just as effectively with 27.”

That’s a sentiment repeated among high-level administrators presented with the issue of class size. They almost immediately shift the conversation to effective teachers.

“If my children could have a teacher who was not as great in a class of 22, or a phenomenal teacher with 28 or 30, and you gave me that choice as a parent, it’s very clear I’d choose the latter,” said Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan not only emphasizes teacher effectiveness, but takes it a step further. He proposes not just putting more kids with the best teachers, but also paying those teachers more.

“So if you have a good teacher with higher class size, and they’re compensated more, the district saves money and you have a higher percentage of kids with strong teachers if you do it systemically,” Duncan said.

But some experts maintain that class size not only is a proven indicator of improved achievement, but a cost-effective one as well.

Alex Molnar, a research professor for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recites the talking points dismissing the impact of smaller classes as opposed to more effective teachers and then pauses.

He punctuates the litany with a single, emphatic expletive.

Molnar, who headed a major study of class size in Milwaukee schools, contends that the research — particularly at the younger grades — is formidable in favor of smaller numbers. The initial investment in more teachers, he says, ultimately saves money by producing gains that carry through to college.

He adds that smaller class size remains a major factor in attracting quality teachers at any grade level, particularly in hard-to-staff schools trying to close the socioeconomic “achievement gap.”

“Parents want it, teachers want it, schools use it as a selling point,” Molnar said. “And yet, those intuitive perceptions about the advantages of smaller classes seem to be trumped, in many cases, by the topic of effective teachers and conflicting data.”

Molnar also casts the discussion in larger political terms — which is to say, he sees elements of the reform movement ill-advisedly shoving public education toward privatization. Making a case for larger classes means fewer teachers and lower expense.

“The principal reforms promoted in education policy right now are not reforms associated with education — the reforms are about money,” he says. “Class-size reduction can’t be allowed as a policy matter because it directly reduces the trajectory that’s being attempted. It threatens the possibility of making a profit.”

The class-size discussion eventually veers in yet another direction — its long-term effect on teachers.

At Mountain Range High School in the Adams 12 district, Brandi Potestio teaches five English classes heavy on writing. Three years ago, she averaged about 25 students per class. That number now hovers around 33.

The difference, multiplied by five, comes to roughly another class-and-a-half of pupils based on her former averages. For her, class size isn’t just a factor. It’s the biggest factor — especially in a subject like English that often requires complex student evaluation.

“Grading is insane,” Potestio said. “It’s always time-consuming, but when you increase class size, it’s overwhelming. I can see why some teachers don’t assign a lot. I wish I could (assign less), but it’s not in my DNA.”

The result can be burnout, if the current trend continues.

“They’ll lose good teachers,” Potestio said. “If you’re a good teacher, you know that this is not possible forever, unless you want to have zero life.”

Smaller class size has a proven track record — but only when a teacher effectively uses it to individualize instruction, offers Diana Sirko, deputy commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education and a former district superintendent, principal and math teacher.

But, she adds, raw numbers do matter: From kindergarten through third grade, class size of no more than 20 makes sense; 25 represents a reasonable middle ground for most other grades — though context and common sense should rule over any rigid formula.

“I think when you get above 30 students,” she said, “there’s a law of diminishing returns in terms of teachers’ ability to tailor instruction around individual needs of students. It can be done, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best conditions for success.”

Van Schoales, head of the reform group A+ Denver, takes the issue in an entirely different direction. He says that using class size to frame the discussion of how schools apportion resources isn’t particularly helpful in the first place.

“Class size forces you to basically fit in the current paradigm of how schools are organized,” Schoales said. “If those things were working well, and if there was a direct relationship to student achievement, it might be a good way to talk about this stuff. But there isn’t. It’s much more helpful to talk about an amount of money and work backwards to see the most effective way to pull together resources.”

Meanwhile, parents like Marykay Cicio keep tabs on class size amid painful budget cuts while education reformers repeat the mantra of providing every child a highly effective teacher.

Cicio, a parent and part-time tutor at Boulder’s Creekside Elementary, said she’s all for skilled teachers. But she can do the math: the bigger the class, the less attention her child gets.

“We have all these goals and aspirations to attract the best and brightest into every classroom. Great goal,” Cicio said. “But what happens to kids right here, right now, suffering consequences of budget cuts?”

Kevin Simpson

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  • comment avatar Gordon May 27, 2012

    It’s pretty obvious, anybody who remember public school, being in a classroom, or in any situation with more than one person, the more people there are, the less intimate the situation is.

    Anybody who has ever tried to lead, or control, a group of people into coordinating a task will take longer to do a task with more people unless the task may be better performed with more hands working on it.

    I’m not buying the “focus on teacher performance” cop-out. Try to have more people sharing the conversation space and less gets said by fewer people.

    It’s completely obvious unless you somehow isolate yourself in a vacuum somehow. Making kids sit around and wait for order, only to have time ineffectively spent managing a show/education might serve the disciplinary goals, but run contrary to the goals of education. Why are administrators pushing tactics that do not work and only serve to make a buck?

  • comment avatar Al May 27, 2012

    I feel for the teachers without a doubt. The increase in class size means more grading of papers after school. No time to do anything else. No time for their families.
    Teachers, just like you, need to be able to have a life . This doesn’t seem possible any more. The good ones will leave or pursue another field. All this nonsense will eventually hurt the kids and the Country.
    This is all about the money and anything else is a smoke screen .
    Administrators want a free lunch paid for by the teachers. Shame on them !

  • comment avatar Josh May 27, 2012

    Setting up classroom sizes sometimes has more to do with other constraints besides just the number of teachers or rooms available.

    If you have 12000 students equally divided among all grades then setting up teachers is relatively easy but since schools have varying class sizes (1000 one year 1400 the next and then 900 the year after) some adjustments will obviously be needed. Additionally you have certain hard limits on how many can be in some classes (ex a computer class with 30 computers cant exactly have 35 students and be efficient).

    But lets do some basic math just as a visual

    We are going to assume a district that is ‘easy’ where every student is the same and none require more or less attention than any other. There are 20,000 students

    If the district has the same budget for Salary regardless of how those 20,000 students is broken up (which is easy as well) then teacher salary has defined extremes and a float in the middle. I am going to use for the budget related to salary $3000 per student for a total of 60 million.

    So theoretically your end points are 1 teacher at $60m or 20,000 teachers at $3,000 each. Each of these extremes is clearly ludicrous. Lets take a look at 4 scenarios and see how they turn out.

    Class size of 15: 1334 teachers needed $44,077 average salary
    Class size of 20: 1000 teachers needed $60,000 average salary
    Class size of 25: 800 teachers needed $75,000 average salary
    Class size of 30: 667 teachers needed $89,055 average salary

    In one case you have lots of teachers none of which make very much and by factor of the sheer numbers includes 660 teachers that are not as qualified as those that would be hired if the class size was 30. Additionally you would lose out on the top end of the candidate pool with an average salary of $44,077 where you wouldn’t lose some of those candidates for teaching with a an average salary of $75,000.

  • comment avatar Stan May 27, 2012

    Class size, while an important factor, simply avoids the fact that parents of these children do not value education. It is an on-going, generational attitude emanating from being cared for without putting forth any effort of their own. Look to Detroit for the cause and effect.

  • comment avatar William May 27, 2012

    Part of the reason for disagreement is that the question of class size is the wrong question. The question should be: why have we not modified the way education is being done to produce more cost effective results that allow ALL children to reach their potentials?

    The educational institutions should spend more time and effort giving teachers and students more productivity tools so they can do better rather than trying to measure the failure of the system and then trying to assign blame. This kind of fundamental change to educational structure requires the resources of large resource bases such as the federal government and state governments.

    Unfortunately, there has been a consistent failure of leadership at all levels which results in a less relevant education for the modern world and increasing educational costs. The bad news is that I do not see the educational inertia of public education allowing significant changes. The good news is that public education as we know it will crumble and be replaced by more effective educational structures that are currently being developed elsewhere.

  • comment avatar Vivian Kirkfield May 30, 2012

    My great-aunt’s first grade class had 77 students…that was almost 100 years ago…and the children were required to sit in their seats, hands clasped in front of them, silent until called upon to stand and read from their reader. Any child who misbehaved was sent to the principal’s office for a scolding and then straight home. These days, we mainstream many children who would never have attended regular school back then…and we expect teachers to cope with children who have emotional and/or physical issues while at the same time provide high-level instruction to all. Size of class DOES matter…to the children and to the teacher! How could anyone think otherwise?

    I note with glad surprise that the five comments above mine are all from men. 🙂

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