Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Call For Reducing Class Sizes

The Deseret News ran another editorial advocating reducing Utah's class sizes. They reiterated the statistics showing Utah as last in per pupil spending, as well as polls showing most Utahans believe class sizes are too large and education spending is too small. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, the News writes,
"The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance."
What the Deseret News seems to have forgotten though is that the state spent over $700 million over a decade for the sole purpose of reducing class sizes, and netted a whole two teachers for the effort.

Two years ago the state conducted an audit of their class size reduction (CSR) program. It was this audit that revealed the two net teacher gain despite hundreds of millions of dollars. I wrote about this audit here, here, and here.

The reason for such a poor return on investment is that the number of children entering school increased by far more than was expected. The problem with the Deseret News's argument about cost is that the child increase is expected to continue - so much so that the state will be fortunate just to keep the unacceptable class sizes we have now, let alone reduce them. In fact, the Utah Taxpayers Association put numbers to the traditional class size goal of 15 students, and found it would cost almost $5 billion to reach it.

Reducing class sizes is a worthy goal, but it's important to understand the reality behind the numbers. Editorial boards like the News would do well to remember the lessons learned from audits like the one conducted just two years ago, and use those lessons to shape their policy proclamations.


UtahTeacher said...

Whoa there. We've discussed this over on my blog before. Especially here...but also here, here, and recently here. Class size is always understated and is being specifically targeted by influential GOP lobbyist LaVarr Webb for budget savings. And as you stated in our discussion in that first post, once class size affects our own children, it becomes much more real than just idealistic wishing. I don't think we can realistically do a lot right now with our current budget crunch, but class size reduction should be a higher priority than many legislative pet projects, both in education and out. The students likely hurt the worst by our crowded classes are special needs students and gifted students.

The net two teacher increase argument from CSR funding is misleading-- the report figures schools achieved 2 extra teachers beyond the increase they project was needed to absorb the huge increase of students over that decade...and then the "ineffectiveness" of the money is lamented.

I think the more truthful way of stating the impact of the CSR program would be:
Insufficient funding was provided public education to cover population growth. The legislature allocated $700 million "extra" dollars for Classroom Size Reduction (CSR) which in reality barely covered actual growth plus two more teachers."

Or in my more cynical turn of phrase from one of my posts:
Mixed message to districts: We didn’t assign enough money to reduce classroom sizes, but we’re mad that you didn’t reduce classroom sizes. Now as punishment for not accomplishing what we didn’t assign you enough resources to do, we’re going to take the already insufficient state money away and demand you reduce class size with local money. All of this, even as Rep. Dougall runs a bill eliminating some of the local revenue streams in favor of taxes distributed by the state legislature. (Does this sound like an educational Dilbert comic to anyone else?)

Charles D said...

One suggestion might be slowing down the birth rate with some good contraceptive practices. That would save the state a lot of money.

JBTalcott said...

Well said Utah Teacher.

If one can honestly acknowledge and accept the actual root of the problem, therein lies the only possible solution.

The large number of children in LDS families are a direct result of LDS doctrine. There are more children per taxpayer than any other state because of the teachings of the LDS faith. Therein lies the "root" of the problem.

A fair minded and logical solution as I see it would be to do the following:

As long as an LDS family still has one or more children in the public school system, the LDS church would transfer the amount of tithing paid by that member to the state general school fund.

Once the last child from that family graduates, then the LDS church would keep the amount that family pays in tithing for its own use from that point on.

The rationale is simple. The LDS Church is not only a Religion, it also includes multi billion dollar corporation called "the business arm of the LDS Church as well. What better use of a portion of that vast wealth than to help provide a quality education to the children of its members who are often referred to as "our greatest asset".

The taxpayers of Utah would not need to pay higher taxes to raise the per pupil funding to the national average and to reduce class sizes. The parents of the large families would (indirectly) pay their fair share for the first time without having to pay any more money out of pocket.

To those who would argue that the tithing has a spiritual purpose and should only be used for such, I would point to the fact that the tithing would still go to that purpose only that the business arm of the LDS church would transfer an "equivalent" amount to the state general school fund.

There I have solved the state's education funding crisis and all before breakfast. Let the counter attack begin. :)

Cameron said...


I'm not arguing against class size reduction efforts. As you wrote in the first post you linked to,

"We can't afford smaller classes" is a legitimate point. "You don't actually need smaller classes" is an insulting one to teachers and families.

$5 billion is nothing to sniff at. I'm simply making the point that it's not reality based to say, as the Deseret News does, that we need to spend more money so our class sizes will go down. That's not a thoughtful or intelligent conversation that takes into account every issue we face. I expect our editorial boards to educate themselves so they can fully understand what's going on.

Now, I understand how some legislators spun the audit as somehow showing schools were inefficient. I think that spin reveals a) they didn't read the audit or b) something more underhanded. I don't agree with that spin either. But that doesn't change the fact that organizations like the Deseret News are also dumbing down the debate by oversimplifying the issue.

Tom said...

When faced with limited resources, you're asking the wrong question. It's not, "Should we have smaller classes?" (yes), which leads directly to "Can we afford smaller classes?"

The real question should be: "Is reducing class size the most effective thing we can do with education dollars?"

That's a much more difficult question to answer.

Cameron said...

Great point Tom. Therein lies the real issue. It was this "difficult question to answer" that I felt the D News was glossing over. Their editorial makes it sound as simple as spending more money, while forgetting the fact we've already spent a lot of money and still have poor class sizes.

UtahTeacher said...

As usual, Tom puts things in proper perspective.

Cameron, I agree the D-News editorial was simplistic. I knew from our discussions much of your position here, but I guess I was confused by the post. I just took issue with your characterization of the CSR money as a "poor return on investment" when class sizes would be even higher without it and framing class size reduction under Utah Taxpayers' false premise that we have to reach 15 or not bother.

We're never going to get anywhere near 15 students per class in Utah, but I would be ecstatically happy with an average of 25 students per class. (I believe most parents would too.) And, when we realize that class sizes are already well over 30 in most secondary schools, and generally approaching 30 in upper elementary, I think it has great bearing on Tom's question, "Is reducing class size the most effective thing we can do with education dollars?"

Even the most excellent and efficient use of the tax dollars will be impacted by the class sizes. Will the curriculum be effective if the students receive less individual time? Will there be enough computers for all students to have access to the educational software we find useful? (Our school currently has fewer computers per lab than students per class. We have to hope someone is absent in order to fit in the labs.) Will the lower level of discipline from large numbers (possibly made worse by not having enough desks) result in worse results despite an effective learning activity? Will the larger class loads force simplification of the curriculum? (e.g. fewer assignments which require extensive grading)

Cameron said...

Hmm, thanks for the clarification. Perhaps poor return on investment was a poor choice of words. I characterized it that way because we could continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into reducing class sizes and still just maintain what we have, a situation which would result in ever more editorials claiming we haven't spent any money to reduce class sizes.

In that way I think we're kinda saying the same thing, but using a different lens.

Randy said...

I recently read about a non-traditional approach to education called KIPP. I think they have larger than normal class size (not sure). They have children from low income families and achieve higher than average results. I'm interested in any teacher's opinions of it...