Tuesday, April 8, 2008

True Class Sizes and Utah’s Writing Scores

The article earlier today on Utah’s continued status as the state spending the least per student used a common statistic. This is a statistic that every citizen, educator, and legislator with any experience in our schools knows to be false, but is still frequently cited both by education and legislative leaders.

Still, he said, Utah faces the challenge of the nation's largest student to teacher ratio: 22.6 students per teacher. And that impacts retention.

"We have about seven more students per teacher than the national average," he said. "It makes us very economically efficient. ... It also tends to stress the system."

If we are even coming close to those class sizes, it would only be in the lower elementary grades. I am admittedly not very familiar with our elementary schools as our daughter is not yet 5, but I understand that even Kindergarten classes rarely hit that ratio. The true statistic for secondary classes would read something like:

Utah faces the challenge of the nation's largest secondary student to teacher ratio: 30 or 40 students per “core” teacher (math, science, English), and 35 to 40+ for “non-core” teachers. And that has an enormous impact on every single aspect of teaching, from planning to classroom behavior to one-on-one opportunities to grading. That additional workload and stress causes too many teachers to burnout and quit.

"In our public fairytale where we count counselors, speech pathologists, media specialists, and other necessary, but non-classroom personnel as counting towards class size, we have about seven more students per teacher than the national average figured from numbers the other states presumably lie about too. So that’s OK," he said. "It makes us very, very, very economically efficient. ... It also tends to cause a teeny-weeny bit of stress to the system when teachers provide for 200+ students. (And don’t even ask about teacher ratios at Willowcreek Junior High in Lehi or other schools in growth areas waiting for new buildings to be finished.)"

The public and legislative debate on education needs to be based on facts. True class sizes need to be admitted and discussed, by education officials as well as legislators. Are those sizes acceptable? What are the ramifications for struggling students as well as gifted students?

And those class sizes are not the result of district mismanagement or waste; growth has simply outstripped the legislature’s ability or will to fund class size reduction.

Also, the Tribune published an excellent editorial (The entire text is in my previous post.) about Utah’s scores on a national writing test comparing 8th grade students. It was justly critical of the rationalizations and explanations for the poor scores. I am not personally familiar with the test (It is apparently given to random schools within each state. Another teacher told me today that it was given at our school 6 or 7 years ago.) and cannot explain what exactly the students wrote about or the scoring out of 300 points.

I agree with the Tribune’s concluding statement:

As NAEP states, "To become good writers students need expert
instruction, frequent practice and constructive feedback."
Utah students, whose score of 152 is below the national average of
154, obviously need more of that than they're getting.

And the absolute best, most effective way to achieve that goal is to reduce class size. The same results can not be achieved by any other means. Writing software, teacher aides, professional development, and other plans help and are appreciated. But they can’t be touted as lower cost alternatives to actual smaller classes. Complaining about the very real cost of more teachers, rationalizing that class room reduction is pointless if we don’t hit the magic ratio of 15 to 1, or blaming the teachers union and claiming it just wants more teachers to boost its non-existent power are silly avoidance techniques.

We may not have the resources to reduce classrooms to the ideal size and make everyone happy, but we have money being proposed and wasted on unproven pet projects. Any poll, even of Republicans, would put classroom size as a higher priority than laptops for preschoolers and tax-cuts for Delta Airlines and Skoal Tobacco. Do the right thing legislators. If we don’t have enough money for class size reduction or you want another tax cut, tell the public and make your case. Don’t falsely accuse the districts of mismanagement or spend the money on side projects. And don’t talk down to us about how we don’t really want smaller classes. Teachers, parents, and students know better.


Anonymous said...

The tax cuts for Delta and Skoal would reduce class sizes by less than 0.01 students per teacher.

To get the class size reductions you are talking about, you would to increase taxes on everyone substantially, not just on Delta and Skoal.

The nation has substantially reduced class sizes over the past four decades yet we ahve not seen the performance improvement you've promised.

Anonymous said...

Education is the only part of our economy to experience a *reduction* in productivity.

While the rest of the economy has dramatically increased productivity, productivity in education has been reduced since spending per student has increased substantially but performance has not.

We need new approaches that work.

Jesse Harris said...

There's quite a few problems with making reduced class sizes a goal. For starters, the data is at best inconclusive concerning the benefits of smaller classes. At worst, class size reduction appears to have little or no effect on actual student achievement. What makes more sense is to identify the self-starters, the kids who learn fine on their own and ask questions or need direct instruction only when needed, and place them in their own classes of significantly larger sizes. You're then free to identify the students who need more focused help and get them into smaller groups. Rolling them all together does not use our resources efficiently. Colleges seem to do a fine job with up to 150 students per class, so it seems unlikely that students a few years from that experience couldn't flourish under the same conditions.

Another side effect of classroom size reduction is an artificial shortage of teachers. This puts strain on a system already doing double-time to retain new teachers, much less produce additional ones. This forces us to accept less-qualified teachers in order to just get a position filled. The same thing hit India during their IT boom; everyone, with aptitude or not, flocked to CS degrees because that's where the jobs were.

The state also has a sketchy record on classroom size reduction. All reports I've read are that the funding we've already spent on it has failed to make a dent. Before arguing that it has to do with the legislature's other funding efforts, I would note that there have been record increases during the last several years above and beyond the classroom reduction funds and there has still been no difference.

Anonymous said...

Reducing class sizes across the board is inefficient because not every student needs a lot of individual instruction. Some students need a lot of individualized instruction, some need less, and some need very little.

Further along with Jesse's proposal, most or all of the self-starters could learn a lot more if we used more technology. A lot of instructional material is available online. These students would learn on their own and would get individual instruction only when they need it.

We could actually INCREASE class sizes and focus MORE on instruction on those students that need it and only when they need it (which is not 100% of the time). The savings should be used to pay teachers more.

The biggest beneficiaries of smaller class sizes are not students, families, taxpayers or even the teachers themselves. The union and the candidates supported by the union are the biggest winners.

Cameron said...

I read the Class Size Reduction audit that the Legislature put out last December, and I wrote a little about it. I also read the Utah Taxpayer's Association newsletter argument against significant CSR funding efforts. They would rather put that money towards increased teacher pay.

There are a number of studies out there that show that CSR efforts can and do work. Most of those studies were for elementary schools. I am not aware of anything for middle and high schools. I would be interested in learning more about Jesse's argument comparing college's high class sizes with high schools'.

The studies I have read show that if class sizes for k-3 grade are reduced to anything below 20 (and not just the best-case-scenario of 15) there is significant improvement, and that that improvement remains even after the student is put back in larger classrooms. The effect is by far greater with low income and minority students.

Because of this, I think a targeted CSR program can be worthwhile. We should focus on those students who see the greatest benefit from smaller class sizes - minorities and those with low incomes.

Utah's efforts at class size reduction have been futile so far. We have indeed allocated very large amounts of money for class size reduction and have seen little benefit. The reason is because spending has not kept pace with population. The audit found that all of the money was used correctly in that it was spent to reduce class sizes, with 99% of the money going towards hiring teachers. However, as the blog owner points out, "teacher" can have a broad definition. Because of crummy accounting (which wasn't necessarily the school districts' fault) we don't know how much of the money went to actual teachers and how much went towards others sharing the "teacher" label. That is something that should be changed going forward.

Also of note is what Jesse brought up regarding having enough teachers. California had a big CSR initiative and one unintended consequence was the hiring of bad teachers. There just weren't enough teachers out there to supply what the CSR program required. Considering Utah's population and current teacher shortages, it's likely that we'd find ourselves in the same place should we increase our CSR efforts considerably.

Jesse wrote:

What makes more sense is to identify the self-starters, the kids who learn fine on their own and ask questions or need direct instruction only when needed, and place them in their own classes of significantly larger sizes.

As a parent of a "smart" student, I would be ticked if he was put into a larger class simply because he was deemed too smart for more individualized instruction. I would have to be really convinced that his teacher and his school experience weren't going to be adversely affected because of it. Now, my son is in elementary school, and Jesse's proposal may have been for high school students, but I'm not sure that my feelings would change all that much even were that the case.

Also, in regards to college class sizes being very large - to be blunt, those classes sucked. They were the gen ed classes that everyone had to take and that everyone was bored with. I really liked my philosophy 101 class, but it could have been much cooler with a smaller class size. As it was, they used 4 teacher aides with "labs" between classes in order to get that individualized attention. (On a side note, Anthropology 101 was the dumbest class I was ever required to take, and I don't think a smaller class size could have helped. The course work was lame, and the professor was lamer. /End rant.)

As I progressed into my major's core classes, the class sizes got smaller and there was much more individualized teaching.

The question is, how realistic is that for Utah? The Utah Taxpayer Association argues that the cost to reduce class sizes to "respectable" levels, including hiring new teachers and building new buildings, is too exorbitant. The numbers they throw out there are ginormous. If that is the case, I don't see how significant improvement can be achieved.

UtahTeacher said...

anon 1 at 6:11 and 6:16,

I agree those tax cuts were small in the overall scheme of things, but the 5 million bucks for Delta would still pay quite a few new teachers. The point is that they are not prioritizing the same as the public. I didn't advocate a specific number and agree with you that we have to evaluate the pro's and con's of spending the money required.

Utah has not reduced class size, and I would like to see any numbers you have on the nation's class sizes. The reduction in productivity you speak of is an illusion of statistics. We are paying teachers more, building new schools, paying for technology, and getting hit with inflation in all aspects, and educating a more diverse group of students than any education system in history. There is no magical, cheaper approach that "works."

As my earlier post discussed, it is not easy to find or agree on the best methods of education. But knee-jerk opposition to smaller classes because they are expensive is not discussion.

UtahTeacher said...

Jesse and Cameron,

You have hit what I also agree is the biggest obstacle to effective class room size reduction: the lack of enough good teachers and the difficulty in paying higher numbers of teachers. You also have to factor in increased capital costs to build more classrooms to house these teachers and their classes. I am also unsure about how much we can realistically achieve towards class room size reduction.

But I disagree with a way you both are looking at the previous efforts. The previous classroom reduction money did have an effect in terms of maintaining class sizes. The population growth that surpassed the state funding would have swelled our classrooms even further without those millions. I am in favor of continuing to chip away at the sizes, maybe in a more focused way as Cameron has proposed on his blog.

Meeting the need for higher salaries and reducing class size is a tough balance to find. Classroom management issues and workload, which are absolutely and directly related to class size, drive out more beginning teachers than salary issues. But salary hits harder and harder as the teacher starts a family and tries to establish him/herself, i.e. buy a house, etc.

UtahTeacher said...

Jesse and anon 12:02,

You proposals are interesting and a good start as we try to meet the most needs within our funding reality. I think that may work to a point with some high school students. My AP US History course in high school was a double class of 60-70 students. We had two teachers, but they both just lectured like a college course. In that class which required that we cover a lot of facts and knowledge, it worked for me. But I had siblings and friends who struggled to learn in such an impersonal environment, and the teacher's personalities were crucial to making the history relevant and interesting to my immature self at that age. I would love an online or software-assisted history course now, but I don't think a large percentage of high school students would get a quality history education from a computer or in such a large class with only one teacher. We wrote a limited amount of papers and they took a long time to get them back to us with feedback because there were just so many of us. One teacher couldn't handle the grading load of a bunch of huge classes. University education models of huge lecture halls work because of the maturity and motivation of the students, not because university classes are a shining example of good teaching. And they get to pay TA's to do all of the grunt work as Cameron said. Maybe a self-directed model for motivated students would work best with math?

And we also have to discuss what is the definition of "education?" Is it just facts and a base of knowledge? Where and how do students learn real critical thinking and curiosity--what I see as the real "meat" of any content area? What about challenging classroom discussion and debate, effective group projects, independent research (which requires students being taught how to find and evaluate sources, to prioritize, to write an effectively organized paper presenting the information, etc.) and hands-on skills in some classes? I think those highly-motivated students still need to learn some lessons from participating in class with different personalities and having their ideas challenged. I agree with Cameron and wouldn't send my daughter to a class where she received less instruction and attention as a reward for being motivated and behaving well in class.

I have tried online education and found it lacking in every significant area I enjoy in taking classes now with teachers form various districts and grades. The feedback, opinions, and perspective of the other teachers are as valuable to me as the content of the class.

And anon, I appreciate your proposal to effectively streamline education and increase teacher pay. However, this familiar claim is just ridiculous:

The biggest beneficiaries of smaller class sizes are not students, families, taxpayers or even the teachers themselves. The union and the candidates supported by the union are the biggest winners.

My students and I live classes of 30+ students everyday. Find a parent who thinks their student benefits as much from a class of 35 as a class of 25. The actual families and teachers in the schools nearly unanimously support reduced class sizes because they live with the reality, rather than condescending theories on how their students don't really benefit from an obvious, common sense improvement. The union punching bag is a distraction from the real difficulties in achieving smaller classes with the funds and teachers available in Utah.

"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.

Anonymous said...

If my claim is ridiculous and insulting, why don't you directly address the issue of significant class size reduction over the past four decades while student performance (graduation rates and test scores) has remained virtually stagnant.

You proprose doing more of the same thing we've been doing for the past 40 years but you won't promise improved performance and that's because you can't.

Talk about insulting and ridiculous.

Cameron said...

The previous classroom reduction money did have an effect in terms of maintaining class sizes. The population growth that surpassed the state funding would have swelled our classrooms even further without those millions.

That's a good point. The Legislature put a lot of money into the CSR program, and the State Board of Education asked every year for a lot more, but neither one of them asked for enough to cover the growth. But at least we didn't lose ground.

UtahTeacher said...

Anon 6:24 am,

What significant class room size reduction are you talking about? When and where have we significantly reduced class sizes in the last 40 years?

A good source would be best, but I'd even like to hear your anecdotal evidence. My anecdotal public education experience goes back to my schooling in the 80's and 90's. I attended classes of 30+ students just like I teach now. There might have been some ebb in a particular year in a school with declining population, but teacher positions are quickly reduced when student numbers drop, leaving class sizes the same.

I can absolutely promise you increased performance if you would significantly reduce my class sizes. If you dropped my class size to about 25 each, that would eliminate 30-40 students that I am individually responsible for. My ability to adapt to each individual and give one-on-one time would shoot up, and I would be able to assign more writing assignments and give quicker feedback as my grading burden would be lightened by 1/6.

The "reduced class sizes are unimportant" theories are nothing more than crappy theory.

Anonymous said...

NCES data clearly show that pupil-teacher ratios have been significantly reduced.


Now, you may say that pupil-teacher ratios are not the same as class sizes, but there is a clear correlation between the two. If pupil-teacher ratios decrease, class sizes also decrease.

Anonymous said...

Even if you somehow dispute the PTR-class size connection, you have to admit that taxpayers have been spending an increasing amount of money on education over the years.

Even if the PTR includes non-classroom teachers, unless you can demonstrate that the definition of "teacher" is broader now than it was in the past, the correlation between PTR and class size is valid.

Anonymous said...

The Utah PTA would like to invite you to sign their recently created class size petition at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/giveourutahkidsachance/ The Utah PTA is also working to help parents have their voices heard by the policy and decision makers. Please contact your state school board member and consider speaking at the USOE meetings during their public comment time. You can make arrangements on your own or we can help you if you sign up on this link: http://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?key=pxoxP9a1Ks5CK8LUeB6AvaA

Education research has confirmed that small classes yield many benefits. The PTA understands that we must strike a practical balance between making classes smaller and breaking the bank in these budget-conscious times. But we realize that if we have to wait for a time of greater prosperity to begin in earnest the process of reducing the number of students in our classrooms, our students will always attend the largest classrooms in the nation.

Class size continues to be at the forefront of the educational and political agenda for Utah parents. Now it's time for schools, school districts, school boards, superintendents, legislators and other elected officials to take the action parents are asking for. Please sign this petition and forward it on to friends and family.

Achieving the goal of quality public education for every child in Utah will require every one of us to take action. Take the time to ACT on behalf of quality public education. Together, we can give kids better schools.

Contact the Utah PTA here for additional information on the class size reduction effort. http://utahpta.org/education.htm