Class Size: Does It Matter, and How Much Does It Cost?

by Save Our Schools Los Alamos

As noted in last week’s article, small class size is the Los Alamos community’s top education priority, based on the very credible Community Survey conducted by the Los Alamos School Board in 2011.

With a sample size of over 700 respondents including elementary, middle and high school parents and teachers, and community members; every segment surveyed ranked class size as their most important preference when considering over 170 elements that impact the educational experience of Los Alamos students.

Given the community’s strong preference, it’s worth considering why Los Alamos has drifted away from a commitment to small class sizes under financial pressure.  Los Alamos ranks as the 3rd wealthiest U. S. community in terms of household income, and ranks 4th for communities with populations of over 5,000 in terms of the percentage of adults with advanced degrees.  Los Alamos is a community with resources, one that values education, and yet our children are being educated in a system that struggles to meet the class size standards of one of the poorest performing state educational systems in the country.

This week’s article takes a more in-depth look at class size from political, research and cost perspectives.

Class Size:  Define It, Please

First it’s important to understand the difference between “Average Class Size” and “Pupil-Teacher Ratio”.  When parents, teachers, and community members talk about class size, they typically mean Average Class Size, defined by the National Education Association (NEA) as “the average number of students assigned to a classroom for instructional purposes.” 

The other term used is Pupil-Teacher Ratio.  This ratio compares students to the entire professional staff in a school; to include principals, art, music, physical education teachers, librarians, etc.  It does not reflect the actual number of students sitting in the typical classroom.  This term is commonly used by school administrators and education policy decision makers.

According to the NEA, research indicates that the difference between average class size and pupil-teacher ratio is typically 9 or 10 students.  So, for example, if LAPS talks about a pupil-teacher ratio of 13:1, it really suggests that there are on average 22 or 23 students present in the typical classroom.

The Los Alamos School Public Schools seem to primarily use the Pupil-Teacher Ratio when reviewing class size.  This can be confusing for people not involved in the business of education and it’s important to keep the distinction in mind.

Class Size Is a Political Issue

When reading about class size research and its associated financial impact, it’s important to note that class size is a highly-charged, hot-button political issue. 

One side argues that there is credible and important research that validates the importance of small class size; taking the position that small class sizes provide the optimal, most evidence-based method for improving student achievement across the county, especially for minority and poor students.  The NEA, representing teachers and other education professionals, is a strong advocate for small class size; and is very active politically in support of this approach.

The opposing side argues that other methods, typically called “education reforms,” can be more successful at improving student achievement than small class sizes, and at lower cost.  These reforms include drives to increase teacher effectiveness (i.e. teacher evaluations), and to provide teachers with more test-based data about student performance in order to better target lessons to student needs.  The latter initiative is often tied to raising compensation for teachers who can succeed in this mode through targeted merit incentives; and to funneling K-12 education funds to private companies that provide student assessments and other reform tools.  The for-profit education reform industry is intensely engaged to grow their business by pushing for public adoption of these reforms, which will generate new business and revenue for them.

In summary, the small class size advocates argue that the best approach is for passionate and qualified teachers to engage with small classes, reaching each student in a creative, customized way.  And the reform advocates argue that teachers should use sophisticated tools and tightly structured methods to effectively advance the skills of large student classes under a well-defined, closely tested curriculum. 

The former group has strong support from the teaching community and, according to the survey results, from parents, teachers and other community members in Los Alamos.  The latter group has the strong support of budget-conscious reformers, including Governor Martinez. 

The New Mexico Public Education Department’s website suggests that a more structured program of instruction with large class sizes can be as effective as (or perhaps even more effective than) small class sizes.  PED Secretary-designate Skandera said last week in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal that small class size is not a priority.  For more detail, read http://www.abqjournal.com/342703/news/education-chief-not-pushing-smaller-classes.html.

The Governor’s recent 2015 budget submission earmarks 55% of new funds to “below the line” education reform programs to be controlled by the NM Public Education Department, many of which advance the aim of larger class sizes and a more structured curriculum and testing regime.  By contrast, the New Mexico State Legislature’s budget request assigns 95% of new funds to local school boards, supporting local decision making which tends to be aligned with smaller class sizes. 

This dichotomy in funding approaches is emblematic of how the political struggle between the reform advocates and the small class size advocates is playing out across the country.

Legislative Action on Class Size

In addition to being a contentious political issue in the upcoming election cycle, class size is something that many State Governments have addressed through legislation.  In the past several decades, at least 24 states have created legislation or incentives to drive class-size reduction.

As an example, in 2002 there was a statewide referendum in Florida that resulted in an amendment to the Florida Constitution imposing limits on class sizes in core classes for all grades: 18 students in prekindergarten through grade 3; 22 students in grades 4 through 8; and 25 students in grades 9 through 12.  In 2014, statewide class size averages in Florida were 15 students in grades K-3, 18 students in grades 4-8, and 19 students in high school grades.

In Washington state, a bill was introduced last week that would reduce class sizes with a priority on high poverty schools.  The bill identified a general goal of 17 students in grades K-3 and 25 students in grades 4-12.  Even lower class size goals are called for in high-poverty schools.

In New Mexico, there is an NMPED administrative rule that limits class sizes (see a summary of this code at the end of this article).  However, since 2005, the New Mexico State Legislature and the Governor have approved waivers that have permitted schools to exceed the administrative class size requirement, as a matter of fiscal expediency.

This legislative session, Representative Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), the chair of the House Education Committee, has earmarked $20 million of the State Legislature’s K-12 education budget request for “above the line” spending to bring New Mexico schools in compliance with the state’s class size limits. She says that it will cost $20 million out of a budget of $2.6 billion to keep class sizes of 20 students in kindergarten, 22 to 24 students in elementary school classes and 27 to 30 students in middle and high school classes. For more detail, read http://www.abqjournal.com/344883.

In addition to providing funding for smaller class sizes, some Democratic lawmakers are recommending an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution that would end the practice of bypassing class size requirements through NMPED waivers.  The amendment would also lower class size limits to 18 students for grades K-3, 22 students for grades 4-8, and 25 students for high school grades.  This change in class size is expected to cost nearly $63 million a year.  Representative Stephanie Garcia Richard (D-White Rock), is a sponsor of the proposed amendment.

The Argument for Small Class Size

After wading through numerous research studies on the issue of class size, SOSLA found that the best, most credible studies are those done by organizations that are not influenced by either liberal or conservative ideologies; and there is plenty of research with both biases to sort through out there.

We believe that the major class size studies conducted by the states of Tennessee, Wisconsin, Texas and California are the most credible, use the largest sample sizes, and were administered in nonpartisan ways.  The studies from this mix of conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning states all found that small class sizes are valuable and effective in promoting student achievement, with some finding small class sizes beneficial, and some finding small class sizes extremely beneficial.

The Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio study was conducted from 1985-1989 and included almost 12,000 participants.  The survey results showed that students in small class sizes (reducing class sizes to 15 students from 22) had improved academic results as evidenced by higher test scores, an increased likelihood of taking college-entrance exams, and a reduced achievement gap between minorities and white students, with meaningful growth in minority student performance.  Overall, a significant reduction in class size was shown to raise student achievement by the equivalent of 3 additional months of schooling four years later (Brookings Institute).

The studies from the other states also had large sample sizes and appear to have had a non-partisan focus.  The results from those studies showed tight alignment with the Tennessee study results by some measures; and less dramatic results in benefit than the Tennessee study showed on other measures.  In summary, the evidence of benefit from small class sizes was present in all cases, but was sometimes less compelling.  Broadly, all of these studies indicated that small class size significantly and beneficially impacts student achievement, both in the short and long term.

The Argument Against Small Class Size

Rather than arguing against the importance of small class size, which seems quite well-established by research, reason, and personal experience; some sincere and well-intentioned advocates of education reform argue that alternatives to small class size must be found because small class sizes are expensive in a nation that has come to loathe taxation.

Just as teachers have finite attention to give to their students, school districts have finite resources to fund schools.  Small class sizes mean more teachers; more teachers means higher personnel costs; which, when the funding pie is limited, means less money for other educational enrichment opportunities and expenses.

With the current restricted funding scenario in Los Alamos, using limited K-12 education funds for small class sizes means making trade-offs that can hold down teacher compensation, delay improvements in technology and stifle other educational initiatives. 

It is attractive to think that a large class can be taught as effectively or more effectively than a small class, and at lower cost, by imposing strict instructor protocols and standardization methods pioneered in manufacturing and production environments; but we have not found credible research to show that efforts along these lines have yielded the desired results.

In Conclusion

SOSLA reminds readers that our group originally organized after experiencing dramatic class size growth in some Los Alamos Public School classrooms; with up to 28 students in some second grade classrooms.  Recognizing our own strong feelings on class size, we’ve tried to provide a balanced review of information and links to solid research, in an effort to improve the community’s understanding of the connection between K-12 education funding and class size.  We recognize that reasonable, well-intentioned people can disagree about whether small class sizes or a more structured classroom provide the best path forward, under constrained resources.

Like many parents, we hope that our children can have what we had; or perhaps something better.  We understand the economic argument in favor of a factory-like classroom in which large groups are led through a highly structured program of specific skill attainment.  But to us, education should be more than just an accretion of testable skills in the common core curriculum; it should be a more robust and vibrant journey.  Even the most highly effective teacher has finite resources to give to her or his students.  More students in a class means less teacher time per student, and large class sizes mean a more standardized, less customized learning opportunity.   This is a straightforward perspective and, based on the 2011 Community Survey results, we think it’s one that’s shared by most in our community.

SOSLA continues to believe that the State of New Mexico, with its tight central control of K-12 education funding, fails to provide our community with the opportunity to sustain the quality of public schools Los Alamos enjoyed in past decades.  Changes to increase class sizes, stagnating teacher compensation, and reductions to student enrichment opportunities are all bad alternatives arising from a state-imposed educational funding scheme that is just plain inadequate to meet our community’s expectations. 

The solution for Los Alamos does not lie in adroitly choosing among and executing these bad ideas within a constrained budget environment, but in delivering an educational experience that meets our community’s unique needs and developing community funding streams to provide today’s students with the opportunities enjoyed by those who went before them. 

Absent new funding relief in the short run, we ask LAPS to lead a community discussion about class size; and we ask that they do so before class rosters are posted in the first week of classes, blindsiding parents.  The School Board should articulate class size standards, and should publicly discuss the cost implications and tradeoffs.

Given our community’s demographics and the strong community preference for small class size, it is not unreasonable to think that LAPS would manage its resources by community-driven class size goals, rather than by the waffling standards of one of America’s weakest education states. 

To read more about Save Our Schools Los Alamos, go to http://www.soslosalamos.com.

Background

New Mexico Class Size Limits per NM Administrative Code 6.30.2.10.g “Class Loads”

Elementary School Class Size Limits (aka Class Load):

  • Kindergarten:  20 students maximum; 15-20 students qualifies for a full time Instructional Assistant;
  • Grades 1-3:  Average class load at an individual school of no more than 22 students when averaged over grades 1,2,3; any teacher in grade 1 with 21 or more students qualifies for a full time Instructional Assistant;
  • Grades 4-6:  No more than 24 students when averaged among grades 4,5,6.

Middle and High School Class Size Limits (aka Class Load):

  • Grades 7-12:  daily teaching load per teacher of 160 students;
  • Grades 7,8:  teachers of required English classes have daily teaching load of no more than 135 students with a maximum of 27 students per class;
  • Grades 9-12:  teachers of required English classes have daily teaching load of no more than 150 students with a maximum of 30 students per class.

http://sde.state.nm.us/admin.personnel/NMAC6.30.2.10.g.pdf

Sources:

http://www.nber.org/papers/w7656

https://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer1999/STARSummer99.pdf

http://www.classsizematters.org

 http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB08_ClassSize08.pdf

http://www.nea.org/assets/img/content/NEA_Rankings_And_Estimates-2013_(2).pdf

http://www.nea.org/home/35617.htm

http://neatoday.org/2011/04/20/does-class-size-really-matter/

http://neatoday.org/2012/07/09/politicians-ignore-research-say-smaller-class-size-makes-no-difference/

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/class-size/7-class-size-myths—-and-the.html

http://www.nber.org/papers/w8875.pdf?new_window=1

http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2011/05/11-class-size-whitehurst-chingos

http://ped.state.nm.us/ped/index.html

http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/blog-5032-in-session-legislators-talk-about-funding-smaller-classrooms.html

http://www.abqjournal.com/342703/news/education-chief-not-pushing-smaller-classes.html

http://www.abqjournal.com/344883

http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Bill-would-reduce-K-12-class-sizes-add-staff-5169070.php

http://dataspace.princeton.edu/jspui/bitstream/88435/dsp01w66343627/1/451.pdf

http://www.fldoe.org/ClassSize/pdf/TraditionalDistrictAverages1314.pdf

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