Monday, February 04, 2008

Class Size Reduction Ideas

With the release of the Class Size Reduction (CSR) audit report which I wrote about here and here, the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA) in its January newsletter wrote a short criticism of CSR efforts in Utah. They highlight that Utah's demographics - lots of kids, with more on the way - coupled with studies showing class sizes need to be at least as small as 15 (Utah is currently at 26), make class size reduction efforts pointless. They estimate that it will cost almost $900 million in additional, ongoing money to hire enough teachers to reach the 15 benchmark, and another $4 billion to buy land and build additional schools. The costs are staggering. Because of this, they posit that the CSR program should be scrapped with the money then being spent on other education programs like higher teacher salaries.

The keystone of this argument is that, according to the UTA, studies show that only by reaching class sizes of 15 is there any noticeable increase in student achievement. So I set out to verify the claim.

The National Education Association's (NEA) website on class size makes it very clear that reaching 15 is the goal. It touts studies and statistics showing the effectiveness of having class sizes at 15, and supports petitioning of legislators to fund this goal. The website of utah's chapter of the NEA, the Utah Education Association, does not specifically address class sizes other than to say it supports funding and lobbying for smaller classrooms.

Google offers some more information. It led me to a US Department of Education publication which contains a compilation and analysis of class size studies. This in turn led me to what seems to be the seminal study of class size reduction efforts: Tennessee's Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio). This study compared student achievement for k-3 graders in class sizes of 13-17 with classrooms of 22-25 and 22-25 with a teaching aide. The smaller classrooms showed significant improvement at all levels (Also of note was that the larger classrooms with a teacher aide did not show much improvement.). It also showed that low income and minority students got a big boost from the smaller class sizes, which tapered out after a couple of years.

Project STAR seems to prove, or at least provide a strong basis for, what seems intuitive - that smaller class sizes are better. But the Taxpayers Association does not directly dispute that. Their criticism is that it would simply cost too much to reduce class sizes, and that the money is more efficiently spent elsewhere.

How the Tennessee study does apply to UTA's argument, though, is that by focusing CSR monies to the first few grades, a lasting effect can be achieved, even after the student returns to the larger classes. This effect diminishes each year, but lasts until at least the 8th grade. Also important is that traditionally poor performing students get a big boost from the early class size reduction. And while 15 seemed to be the goal, anything under 20 netted significant results, especially for students coming from class sizes of 25+, as Utah's are.

Based on this knowledge, my recommendation for Utah's CSR funding program would be to continue it, but to streamline it so that it reaps the most bang for the buck. All initial funding should go towards K-3rd grade classroom reduction, specifically in at-risk and low scoring districts. This way, the students who stand to gain the most are ensured of receiving the CSR money. Districts should apply for the money, with a clear plan demonstrating their need. Funds also should be required to be used for hiring teachers, and not for teacher aides.

The drawback to this strategy is that, depending on the funding requirements for these specific districts, there very well may be districts that receive no CSR funding at all. However, the current program netted two teachers over seven years, and many districts had to use non-CSR money just to keep on the teachers hired in previous years. Clearly, the program as presently constituted is not working, and simply funding it sufficiently for everyone is just not financially feasible. Let's add to our current levels of CSR funding at a reasonable pace, and let's use it efficiently so that children, teachers, and parents actually notice the difference.

And, please, let's keep track of it this time.

9 comments:

Ashlee said...

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Minnick Family said...

Cam,

I see your points made on class size reductions but..... I worry that you trust too much in the system. How are we going to disperse these funds- ratings by test scores? This sounds like 'No child left behind' to me.
I think that while fiscally difficult we have to go with the initiative that we build more schools, hire more educators, and then lower the class sizes. If our state or local populations were stable, no increase, we could look at just refining the process of 'how do we instruct', 'who do we hire', and 'what do we fix' with our dollars yet we almost can't.

In Sandy, and surrounding areas, we just split Jordan Schools and I was in favor of this because it will allow us to come that much closer to do the aforementioned of refining our schools within my area.

A point that I agree with you on is hiring more teachers. Currently at my kindergarteners school there are aides which I am certain do some good. However, the need for trained instructors is greater.

-Doug

PS off to primary voting I go.

Cameron said...

Doug,

I tried to show in the post that class size does matter when it comes to student acheivement. The UTA for the most part seems to agree, but they point out that it'll cost billions of dollars to get to where the NEA wants to go.

Where is the money going to come from? Where are all of these new teachers going to come from? We have positions we can't fill as it is.

Because of that, the CSR program needs to be more strategic, more specific. We just spent tens of millions of dollars over the last 8 years and got almost nothing out of it. To keep the program running as it is means getting no benefit as far as reducing class sizes is concerned.

That's why the UTA argued that the program should be scrapped in favor of other things, namely increasing teacher pay. They say that higher pay will attract better teachers, and that will translate to better student acheivement.

Maybe that's true. If we scrap the CSR program entirely and use those millions to increase teacher pay, that could make things better.

But I don't see how a really good teacher can handle a kindergarten class with 26+ students in it, any better than an average teacher can. 26 five year olds is still 26 five year olds.

So, to manage the fact that there isn't money to fully fund the CSR program statewide with the fact that CSR efforts have been proven to work, it seems prudent to focus those efforts where they will do the most good.

I don't think it is the be all end all solution. I think this strategic funding program should just be one arrow in the education reform quiver, so to speak.

As far as the dispersement of the funds go, the only way to do it is by test scores. While they have their issues, they still give a pretty good picture of where a school is acheivement-wise.

Low-income, minority areas tend to have lower test scores. These students experience a remarkable boost in acheivement by reducing class size. It seems most efficient to start here.

Cameron said...

Here is a site with a few research articles on class size reduction efforts. Lots of reading, but looks interesting. You know, if you actually think this sort of thing is interesting...

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Cameron,

I've been meaning to comment over here for a couple weeks. Great posts about the audit. I can see where you are coming from agree that if we have to prioritize, the early grades are the way to go. The proposal in the paper today seems to be aimed at the first few grades exactly as you advocate.

But as you've pointed out, all of the "extra" money already allocated for class size reduction has barely allowed us to keep pace. I do not support removing that money from district budgets on false grounds that it has been mismanaged somehow (legislative accusations, not you). That would make a bad class size situation even worse.

Class size absolutely is an issue at the secondary level! This includes classroom behavior and discipline and individual performance of all students, especially gifted and struggling students. I think the NEA stuff shooting for 15 a class is like low-balling your first offer to a car dealer in order to get the best price. 15 students per class would obviously help, but claiming those studies mean it's pointless to shoot for any improvement less than that is a Clintonesque Taxpayer Association misrepresentation.

It also has a HUGE factor in teacher retention. Salary is part of it, but I almost quit after both of my first two years of teaching over workload issues, not salary. We know the classroom size numbers thrown around are BS. I average 30-32 kids per "core" classes. Electives in my school are averaging around 40 students per class! That wears on a teacher no matter how bright, engaging, and talented they are. I can easily distinguish between the behavior of my classes with 32 and my one with 27. Just that "insignificant" decrease makes a difference. And it's not just which kids are in the class, though that makes a big difference. The make-up of the classes changed around dramatically
at semester break, and the smaller classes are still better-behaved despite the fact that challenging individuals ended up in those classes.

Think of Scouts, sports clubs, or any group of teenagers. Think of your own youth. Teenagers act differently in groups. Would 5 more scouts add to the stress level of a camping trip?

And take grading...If you reduced all 6 of my core classes down to 25 students per class for a total reduction of 30-40 students, you just saved me an entire class' worth of grading. That's 2-4 hours less grading each paper I assign.

Addressing class size helps every ill of schools for both students and teachers.

Karen said...

I'm interested your opinion of Rep. Morgan's bill to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 through grants, that must be repaid if they do not actually reduce class sizes. Do you think it would make class size reduction really happen?

Thanks for reading my Utah Moms Care blog.

Cameron said...

UT,

Thanks for the comment. I think I would agree with the 15 "low-ball" stuff. If I remember correctly, the Tennessee study found that yes, around 15 was optimal, but even just getting under 20 showed results. However, it also showed that minimal reductions, like going from 26 to 24 or 22, didn't really affect student performance. That's why I advocated focusing on the early grades and on poor, minority schools. These are the students that react the most to smaller class sizes, and by narrowing the focus a bit we could actually make a results oriented dent in class size. In other words, I thought it would be better to really lower class size for fewer schools than to make minimal impact on a lot of schools. The latter is pretty much how the CSR program has been operating, and the audit showed it to be basically a failure.

I wonder what you think of the UTA's numbers regarding the costs of lowering class sizes. They're putting out some pretty major numbers.

Also, what of the issue that there is already a teacher shortage, so where would we get all the new teachers in order to lower the class sizes of the existing ones?

Those are two major issues I can see with a broad CSR program.

I also think that increasing teacher pay substantially would increase morale and decrease teacher burnout. There are other professions that have high stress and workload, but they are generally compensated for it. Maybe teaching should be too?

There are a lot of budget things that I am still fairly ignorant of. How much money would my limited CSR program cost? If we were to take all of the current yearly CSR funding and put it towards the schools I suggest, and require the class size has to be reduced to at least under 20, how many schools would that affect? I just don't know the answers to these types of specific questions at this point.

Bottom line, I think that if Utah is going to have a Class Size Reduction program, then it needs to be streamlined so that it actually is noticed and felt by schools, teachers, kids and parents. Right now it's just not.

One final note, I am intrigued by the "core class" data you provided. I wonder then if it's a good idea to focus class reduction on those core classes. Obviously that's at a secondary level and not elementary, but perhaps an effort to hire more math, science, english etc, teachers would be effective.

Cameron said...

Karen,

I emailed Rep. Morgan about the bill, and here is what she sent back to me:

Dear Cameron,

Thank you for contacting me regarding HB 194. It is actually up for
debate tomorrow morning in the Education Committee. I am trying to get
$26 million, but the way the grant program is set up, we could use any
amount. Schools with larger class sizes would apply for the money to
reduce class sizes to a targeted range. There would be accountability in
that if schools take the money but don't use it to reduce class sizes,
they would have to return it. Schools would be awarded the grant
money according to the greatest need until the money runs out. If you have
further questions following the public hearing tomorrow, please feel
free to contact me again.

Best Wishes,
Representative Karen Morgan


I think the bill could be a good idea. I'm not sure how I feel about the schools having to pay the money back if they don't meet the stated class size goal. The legislative audit from December noted that enrollment growth outstripped expectations every year of the CSR program, so what happens to a school that planned well, but just had a larger than expected rise in enrollment? How exactly are they going to pay the money back? Pretty much all past CSR money was spent on hiring teachers, and I expect that that would continue to be the case. So unless there are teachers sitting around not doing anything, while other teachers are in huge classes, I don't see how the school could be expected to return the money.

This bill seems to mirror the conclusions I came to after my bit of research, so I shouldn't complain. It is a specific amount dedicated to K-3, and has some good accountability features. It requires the class size to be lowered to effective levels. The money has to be accounted for. Sounds good to me.

I just want to know what's going to happen to the rest of the CSR fund. I'd like to see some changes to it, but I haven't heard of anything yet.

Cameron said...

Rep. Urquhart is on the Education Committee and on his blog has advocated for education issues and using many strategies to improve it. So I emailed him as well, and since he's commented on my blog before, I sent him a link to this post and asked for his input, as well as for his thoughts on Rep. Morgan's bill. I haven't received a response yet, and I noticed that he voted against it in committee. I'd really like to know what his reasons are. I haven't finished listening to all of the committee meeting yet, so hopefully he gave input there.