Education Matters: How Much Does Class Size Matter?

Teacher protesting class size at rally“Teaching is about relationships,” said Orca K–8 seventh grade humanities teacher Donte Felder. He told the assembled crowd how proud he was to receive his Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. “I was a Special Ed kid for five years,” he remembered. “But a teacher believed in me, and I realized I didn’t have to be limited by that.”

Felder was among a group of teachers, union leaders, parents and students assembled in the rain at Franklin High School in Seattle last Wednesday afternoon to protest the recent announcement by Seattle Public Schools (SPS) that, in order to deal with growing enrollment and capacity constraints, the district plans to increase class sizes in grades 4–12 by two students per class. The average class size would grow to approximately 30 students in grades 4 and 5 and 32 students in grades 6–12.

This issue now dominates the contract negotiations underway between SPS and the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the union that represents the city’s teachers.

Washington State currently ranks 47th in the nation in class size. Frustrated that the change signals a trend in the wrong direction, union leaders organized a “Race to the Bottom” at Franklin High School to illustrate their point.

“If I have fewer students, I can get to each one,” said Denny International Middle School science teacher Will Nelson, who has taught six sections of roughly 25 students each, for a total of 150 students he’s responsible for, including some special education and English-language learners. Under the proposed changes, the number of students he’ll teach in the coming school year could reach 160.

Denny International Middle School librarian Jeff Treistman said he’s frustrated when he can’t provide help to each student, during 45-minute class visits to his library. By the time the students get settled and he issues instructions, he has less than two minutes per student — precious time which will shrink if classes grow.

Teachers protest class sizeWhat the research shows

The research is inconclusive about the impact of class size on student achievement, with the following exceptions: Students from less advantaged backgrounds benefit most from smaller classes, as do all students in grades K–3. If a class is significantly reduced in size, it makes a difference, but whittling it down by one or two students has no proven impact.

For a good overview on the subject, check out this Brookings Institution May 2011 paper: "Class Size: What the Research Says and What it Means for State Policy."

The impact of class sizes is hard to measure because it’s one of many important influences on a student’s ability to learn. Teacher effectiveness is often cited as the most important factor. Home environment and family support play important roles, too.

A key question researchers and administrators have to grapple with is whether money spent on class-size reduction has as great of a return as money spent on other things, such as raising teacher salaries, implementing better curriculum and investing in early learning and technology.

The psychological impact of overcrowding

Cost benefit analysis aside, as a parent, it’s hard to believe there’s little impact when your child is in a crowded classroom or shunted off to a portable classroom. When your child pours her heart and soul into an essay or a research paper, you can’t help but wonder whether the teacher, who has to evaluate 60–100 such papers, (depending on how many classes he or she teaches), can fully appreciate her efforts.

Teachers are frustrated when they can’t provide adequate personalized attention to their students.

And for residents of Washington, it’s maddening to see our state at the bottom of a list, especially one that deals with student:teacher ratios.

SPS’ response

SPS officials say the increase in class size is one of a number of solutions they are contemplating to deal with increased enrollment, which is expected to continue to grow over the next five years.

In February, Seattle voters passed the nearly $700 million Capital Levy – Building Excellence (BEX) IV for the construction, renovation and retrofitting of schools. Plans include the building of large elementary schools with 600-plus student capacity, so crowding is no longer an issue.

The District will once again change school-assignment boundaries (effective for the 2014–2015 school year), and is holding a series of public meetings this fall to elicit community input. Here's the meeting schedule.

For now, people are frustrated that the District demographers didn't anticipate growth and adequately plan for it.

Union leaders, teachers and parents are lobbying the superintendent and the School Board to find another solution to accommodate the nearly 50,000 students in Seattle Public Schools.

Meanwhile some wonder, if class sizes increase, will teachers still have time to believe in their students?

Looking for a little light reading? Here’s the text of the 2010-2013 collective bargaining agreement between Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association.

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