To Save Money, Some Schools In Region Plan Bigger Classes

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Under heavy pressure to contain spending, some Washington area school systems are planning to increase class size in the coming year to save money on teachers.

Fairfax County, with the region's largest school system, expects to save $11 million by inching up staffing formulas half a student per classroom teacher. Loudoun County's School Board has approved giving each teacher one additional student, for a savings of $7.3 million. Montgomery and Prince George's county schools are seeking to combine smaller classes or cut support staff and teaching specialists.

The changes would force schools to get by with fewer teachers. In elementary classes, where research shows that smaller class size has the greatest benefit, the average this school year is 19 students in Prince George's, 20 in Montgomery, and 21 in Fairfax and Loudoun.

Tight budgets across the region are pushing school officials to choose between raising salaries or maintaining small class sizes, although no school systems are contemplating teacher layoffs. Parents said they want top-quality teachers, but they also carefully monitor class size. Many consider a low student-teacher ratio the gold standard of quality education.

Janice Peterson said she might transfer her son from Little Run Elementary School near Burke, in Fairfax, to a private school. "I feel like it's the only alternative because he is a middle-of-the-road kid who is not getting any attention," she said. The second-grader has 27 classmates, an unusually high number for the county. Some have disabilities, and several are striving to learn English. His teacher has "to deal with every issue under the sun," she said.

For a generation, class-size reduction has been popular with parents and politicians. More than 30 states, including Virginia and Maryland, have launched initiatives to reduce or limit class size, according to the National Education Association, a teachers union. The federal government also has spent billions of dollars in the past decade to help schools reduce class size.

Nationally, the average number of students in elementary classes declined from 29 in 1961 to 24 in 1996, the NEA reported. By the 2003-04 school year, elementary classes had about 20 students, the U.S. Education Department found. Locally, the average this school year ranged from 17 students per class in Alexandria to about 22 in Prince William County and Falls Church, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education. D.C. public schools reported an average of 18 elementary students per class.

Despite the popularity of class-size reduction, many experts question whether it is the best use of scarce public funds. To cut the staffing formula one student per teacher in Fairfax would cost more than $20 million for additional personnel, with more potential expense for adding classrooms. Some economists say schools can do more to raise student achievement with less-expensive initiatives, such as raising teacher salaries or expanding public preschool.

"If you think about it as an investment, [reducing class size] is a good thing, but it's not Microsoft," said Clive Belfield, an assistant professor at City University of New York. He co-authored a cost-benefit analysis that showed reducing class size cost more and had relatively less impact on graduation rates than some other school improvement measures.

Many researchers say classes have to shrink to 17 students or fewer to have a significant effect on achievement.

Size is just one of many variables affecting the chemistry of a class. The student population is more diverse than ever, and students with disabilities are included more often in mainstream classrooms. Expectations have also changed now that tracking by academic ability is out of vogue and all students are held to the same standards.

Some teachers handle the demands of large classes well, keeping rooms calm and finding ways to engage every student. Other teachers struggle to manage disruptive students and tailor lessons. Many parents and educators view smaller classes as a safeguard to reduce the chances that a student will become lost.

In the 1980s, the influential Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio study tracked more than 7,000 students in 79 schools who were randomly assigned from kindergarten through third grade into one of three types of classes: small, with 13 to 17 students; regular, with 22 to 25 students; or regular, with a teacher and a teacher's aide. The study found that students who are taught in small classes in early grades were more successful in later years and that poor and African American students made larger gains.

The study drove class-size reduction efforts in many places. In 1996, California gave schools incentives to limit classes to 20 students for the earliest grades, although many schools, especially in poor areas, resorted to hiring uncertified teachers. Florida is struggling to implement the nation's strictest class-size law, which limits classes to 18 students in early years and 25 in high school. Schools that do not comply face financial penalties.

Douglas D. Ready, an assistant professor at Columbia University Teachers College, said reducing the number of students in a class is not a panacea. Schools also need enough qualified teachers, the right training, and political and financial support, he said. Although most researchers say that teacher quality is more important than class size to student achievement, Ready said, no one knows a surefire way to evaluate good teachers or to draw them into the classroom.

In Fairfax, teachers faced the "bitter choice" this year of whether to lobby for a 3 percent cost-of-living salary increase or for maintaining class size, said Leonard Bumbaca, president of the 6,500-member Fairfax Education Association. Teachers chose to rally behind higher pay.

"The extra half-student won't sink the program," Bumbaca said. "We still think the priorities should be holding onto our quality people." But it's a delicate balance, he said, because smaller class sizes are important for retaining teachers.

Many experts say that, given the high cost of small classes, the best policy is to reduce class size for the children who need them most, namely those who are young and from families in poverty.

Beginning in the 2004-05 school year, Fairfax adopted a formula that shifted more teachers to elementary and middle schools with higher rates of students living in poverty or learning English as a second language. Among the county's 137 elementary schools, the average class size in grades one to three ranged from 15 to 26. Any class-size increase this year, which the School Board has yet to approve, would affect all grades but would be felt differently across the county.

School officials said smaller schools, with smaller staffs and therefore less flexibility, are likely to be hit harder. At Little Run Elementary, with fewer than 400 students, Janice Peterson and other parents say they worry that fewer teachers could mean that some classes have combined grade levels.

A Fairfax proposal to reduce the number of instructional assistants, at a savings of almost $2 million, also would limit the amount of help available for larger classes.

Peterson recently visited a private school, where she was impressed to see classes of 14 students. Teachers in small classes "have time to give individual attention to students," she said. In much larger classes, "I don't think it's physically possible."

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