Haldane discusses optimal number of students
Is reducing class size always the right thing to do?
That’s been a topic of discussion for the Haldane school board this month, spurred by parents who lobbied for smaller classes for their rising first graders.
The district will have 38 first graders in 2023-24 and planned to divide them into two classes of 19, according to Superintendent Philip Benante. “Generally, 20 students [or less] is considered a low class size,” he said.
However, at Haldane that would be a significant increase for the first graders. This year there were three kindergarten classes, each with no more than 13 students.
The parents argued that this particular group needed smaller classes because of what the children missed in preschool due to the pandemic shutdown.
“These are kids who need as much opportunity as possible for early intervention,” said Liesel Vink, a parent who lobbied the board. “How can a quality teacher give their best to an elementary classroom of over 20 students who are still navigating their social and emotional needs?”
Benante relented last week, saying that he planned to add a teacher to the elementary staff. He said the plan was to keep the three first-grade teachers and shuffle other teachers to cover growth in the fifth grade, which is expected to rise from 40 to 60 students. Without a third teacher at that level, he said, the fifth grade would have 30 students per class.
He said that Haldane anticipates, based on past experience, that four new first-grade students will enroll over the summer, which would give the district 42 students in that class and require three teachers to keep class sizes at 20 or less. (If that occurs, each class will have 14 students.)
Benante agreed that the youngest children were uniquely impacted by the pandemic. “Those are the students that were potentially at greatest risk of not meeting certain developmental milestones, especially as it relates to speech and language,” he said.
But the decision to add a third class came only after two board meetings where trustees and Benante discussed the pros and cons of reducing class sizes and how to pay for an additional teacher.
Do smaller classes matter?
Benante said there are studies that suggest smaller class sizes contribute to student achievement, “but typically that is geared toward lower-income communities,” which Haldane is not.
“What matters most is the quality of the teacher,” he added. “Just having low class sizes does not ensure that quality instruction is occurring.”
Peggy Clements, one of the five members of the Haldane school board, wondered if classes could get too small. Developing social and emotional skills might be more likely in a class of 20 than a smaller one, she said, as long as it was “well managed by a skilled teacher.”
Maggie Valentine, another school board member, said she was concerned about class sizes that were consistently lower than the de facto standard of 20. “Are we setting a precedent of class sizes of 14 and 15?” she asked.
Benante said splitting the first grade next year into three classes would not set a precedent. He said the recent discussion had prompted the administration, after discussions with faculty, to establish guidelines for the elementary school of 18 to 20 for K-2 and 20 to 22 for grades 3-5.
Is there an optimal size?
Leonie Haimson, the founder of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based advocacy group, says there is no ideal class size, although smaller is usually better.
“Every teacher is more effective with a smaller class,” she said. “Most elite private schools have class sizes of 15.”
Haimson, among others, lobbied for a state law enacted last year that will lower class sizes in New York City to 20 students for K-3, 23 students for 4-8 and 25 students for high school. The new sizes must be in place by 2028. Current class sizes in New York City often exceed 30 students, Haimson said.
Across the U.S., elementary schools average 19 students per class, according to the most recent data, and New York state averages 17. The highest elementary average in the U.S. is California, with 23, and the lowest is Maine, with 14.
Local schools align with these averages. In Beacon, elementary classes average 18 students, Superintendent Matt Landahl said during a recent budget presentation. In higher grades, most classes range from 15 to 20, although some reach 22, according to the most recent data provided by the district to the state Department of Education.
In Garrison, elementary classes this year ranged from 16 students in the first grade to 25 in the second grade, according to the district.
Finding the money
Benante said he expected to fund the $95,000 elementary teaching position with small budget cuts and adjustments. He also said the district would rely on new revenue from an additional tuition-paying student.
In addition to the budget impact, hiring a teacher for one class can impact the district’s long-term planning. “I can’t make that teacher a psychologist if you feel like we need a psychologist five years from now,” Benante said.
In addition, the new elementary teacher will need to be certified in special education or reading instruction. “There is a high likelihood that the new staff member is going to be redeployed to one of those two areas,” Benante said.
It was refreshing to read that the Haldane school budget discussions about the number of classes in the primary grades considered the argument that small is not necessarily better. In terms of student achievement, research suggests that the difference between 17 and 30 students is negligible. Yet stakeholders regularly go to the mat over changing class size by three or four students.
Of course, achievement is not the only measure that matters: Culture and climate and how students’ individual needs are taken into consideration are important, too. But teacher quality outweighs class size in terms of importance every time. The most qualified and experienced teacher is hard-pressed to provide the highest-quality learning experience and environment for students if she lacks the time to develop her knowledge and skills and if she lacks regular, substantive opportunities to collaborate with her colleagues on keeping abreast of research on pedagogy, diagnosing individual student needs, monitoring students’ progress and building lessons in which they deeply learn essential concepts.
While we focus on class size, we overlook the fact that teachers in the U.S. have more face-to-face time with students than teachers in other countries, particularly teachers in the highest-performing systems in the world. Our teachers are often tethered to their classrooms, with barely a break for lunch.
Your article referred to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report comparing class size internationally. Other OECD reports show that U.S. teachers spend on average 27 hours on face-to-face teaching each week while the average internationally is 19 hours, and that figure is lower in the highest-performing systems. The students in those countries spend as much or more time in school as ours do and those systems do not have more teachers than we do. Rather, they have made quality teaching their priority and organized to achieve that; in some cases, it has meant having larger class sizes.
High-quality teaching and learning has been the focus of my life’s work in the U.S. and in my native Australia. It’s refreshing to work with a school system that sets its sights on high-quality teaching and begins to think outside the box to make that happen.
Borthwick is a learning-systems analyst with the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.