Strapped Schools May Boost Class Sizes

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

Worsening budget conditions are pressing school officials in the Washington area and across the country to consider backing away from what has become a mantra of education: Kids learn best in smaller classes.

Area school systems are moving into the difficult part of their budget seasons, and many of them say that trimming spending by increasing class size is a real possibility.

Montgomery County seems to have avoided the prospect this week, when teachers agreed to give up a 5 percent raise to help the school system save tens of millions of dollars. But the size of the raise in that contract was unusual. Elsewhere, school officials say they will have to get by with fewer teachers to find such savings.

In Fairfax County, the region's other premier public school system, bleak fiscal forecasts point to a potential increase of as many as 2 1/2 children a class next school year, a bump of more than 10 percent in elementary classrooms. That would come on top of a half-student per class increase in September. Larger classes are also being considered in Loudoun and Prince George's counties.

"You go to it as the last resort," Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said. "Class size matters. As a teacher, you end up using the same amount of time with more kids, and kids lose." Dale, who is also pondering a scenario without teacher raises, expects to present his budget next month as administrators regionwide confront hard fiscal choices.

If dire predictions hold true for the highly regarded Fairfax system, students at Spring Hill Elementary in McLean could have four or five fewer teachers next year than the roster of 59, and one assistant principal instead of two, said Principal Roger Vanderhye.

But the climb in class sizes means more than a few additional classmates. Spring Hill would continue to have art, music and physical education classes, but some or all of those subjects' teachers would spend less time in the school, Vanderhye said. Hands-on science experiments would be conducted less often because the school's science specialist would become a regular classroom teacher. Some classes, especially those with older children, would be a little cramped.

"We'd be starting the year with at least 30 students in most classes," Vanderhye said. "Thirty is the absolute tipping point because then, instead of facilitating learning, you are managing learning. We just know that it is going to be very difficult to deliver the same level of services that our parents demand and our children deserve."

For more than a decade, billions in federal and state dollars were targeted to whittle classes so that teachers can devote more time and attention to each student, crafting lessons to fit the needs of struggling students, high-achievers and everyone in between. Nationwide, the average number of students in elementary classes dropped from 29 in 1961 to 24 in 1996, according to the National Education Association. In 2004, the average elementary class nationwide had 20 children, the U.S. Education Department says, with about 25 in the average secondary class.

But this smaller-is-better trend is in jeopardy. A survey of more than 800 districts released last month by the American Association of School Administrators found that 36 percent have moved to larger classes in response to the economic downturn. Many are also putting off maintenance, buying fewer textbooks and lowering thermostats.

With upwards of 80 percent of a system's budget devoted to salaries and benefits, hiring fewer employees offers one of the surest ways for schools to net big savings. (Another is reducing pay raises.) In Fairfax, each time average class size grows by one student, the system saves $22 million a year. In Loudoun, the per-student savings for larger classes would be $7.3 million a year.

Research has shown that the smallest class sizes, those hovering around 15 or 16 children, benefit students. For instance, researchers studying 15-student elementary classes in Wisconsin reported in a 2003 study that those students made greater academic gains than peers in bigger classes. Teachers were better able to tailor lessons to each student, and fewer discipline problems occurred.

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