Class Size Inches Higher. Does it Matter?November 18th, 2011
By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger Peter Murphy
For every claim that class size matters, there are plenty of reputable studies that say it doesn’t, at least within a certain variance of students. A quality instructor that is able to provide differentiated instruction for various learning levels within a relatively large classroom of students often is more likely to generate better academic results than an average teacher using unwavering direct-instruction techniques in a smaller class of students.
Teacher unions’ efforts to push for smaller class sizes, essentially lobbying for more funding to hire more staff, is analogous to some self-interested corporation sponsoring research that in the end does little to advance its institutional interest (cigarette manufacturers claiming tobacco use is not injurious, oil companies claiming that drilling has no negative effects on the environment, etc.). Research funded by a party such as a union or a corporation does not necessarily indicate the research is faulty, but the bias of the source should be understood.
This week the union-supported group Class Size Matters released a PowerPoint showing that class sizes have been increasing annually in New York City since 2007, even when state school aid was still on an upward trajectory (that is, before the cuts of the past two years). For example, Class Size Matters notes that K-3 classrooms increased from 21 students to more than 23, and from 26 to 26.6 for grades 4-8.
To have a shred of respectability, any discussion about the number of students per classrooms also should include a trend analysis of student-to-teacher ratios, which is the number of students per teacher. If plenty of adult instructors remain in the classroom providing instruction and assistance to students, class size may not matter at all.
In New York City, there were 14.4 students per classroom teacher in 2010-11. While class sizes have indeed been inching upward, the student-teacher ratio for New York City has been declining in the last decade, from 15.8 in 2001-02, to 14.6 in 2004-05 to the current leveling off number of 14.4. Statistically, slightly higher class sizes in the last four years have not resulted in more students per teacher. This is an important point, but one that often goes unmentioned by those hammering away on the class-size issue.
There is cause for concern about New York City’s schools, however, even when looking at student-teacher ratio figures. The city’s ratio of 14.4 students per teacher remains higher than the state average of 12.9, and the state average is lower because the average ratio outside of New York City is lower still, at 12.2 students per classroom teacher. With a greater concentration of high-needs students in New York City compared to the rest of the state, the regional discrepancy in student-teacher ratios lends support to the argument to shift funding from lower-need districts to the city.
But even student-teacher ratio data should not be viewed as the ultimate force on funding decisions. More appropriate is the quality of instructor and the school’s instructional model being used. The KIPP network of public charter schools, for example, average 27 to 35 students per class – a far greater number than those being whined about by the teachers unions – and yet on average KIPP charter schools regularly out-perform district schools. So before policy makers get too caught-up in any class-size debate, let’s make sure the right person is teaching the right stuff in the right way before giving further credence to limiting the number of students that go into that classroom. Without the academic focus, the class-size debate is revealed to be more about the wants of adults rather than needs of schoolchildren.
Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.