Class Size: A Key Reform

By Bob Peterson

When class sizes get smaller, teacher-student contact is increased, classroom management improves, individualization is more likely to occur, student and teacher attitudes improve, teacher stress decreases, and teachers are more likely to try innovative techniques.

The issue of class size is receiving renewed attention this spring in Milwaukee. A new coalition of parents, teachers and community activists has decided to make reduction of class size one of its main goals.

The new group is called the Coalition for Quality in Education. At its first meeting at the United Community Center the group of thirty people decided to focus initially on two issues: reduction of class size and an increase in the number of art, music, physical education and library specialists in the schools.

In addition, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) has proposed significant reductions in class size and has requested that the administration discuss the issue in the current round of contract negotiations.

Most Milwaukee Public School teachers work in classrooms that have more children than their suburban counterparts. Surveys conducted between 1983 and 1988 by the MTEA show that the typical Milwaukee class averaged between 26-28 students, three to seven more children than its counterpart in the surrounding districts. “This is ridiculous,” stated one 3rd grade teacher at a meeting of the newly formed Coalition for Quality in Education, “If anything, the city schools should have smaller classes. I just don’t have time to give to my students what they really deserve.”

A variety of people at the Coalition meeting spoke about the importance of smaller classes. One teacher spoke of preventing problems rather than solving them later. An experienced intermediate teacher, Celín Perez, added that by a fluke one year she only had seventeen students in her class. “That was the best year of my career,” she explained, “I could reach every single student and give them personal attention. They achieved both academically and socially.”

Over Crowded Classes

Sometimes statistics about the “average” class size are misleading because they are ratios of the total number of children to the number of all certified personnel, not just classroom teachers. For example, the Public Policy Forum, in its report entitled Urban Teacher spoke of an “MPS elementary pupil teacher ratio of 19:1.”

Even when the ratios given are the number of students to classroom teachers, they can still be inaccurate. Some exceptional education students are not counted on the teacher’s roster even though they may be mainstreamed for part of the day into the classroom. Moreover the average citizen does not necessarily realize that an average is just that, an average. For every class that has a below average ratio there is one that has an above average ratio. In some Milwaukee high schools that means the honors classes that may often have only a dozen students are averaged out by having lower level classes with 35 kids. Similarly, a smaller sized class in one grade in an elementary school may mean a much larger class in another grade.

The MTEA/MPS report on teacher professionalism pointed out that the number of new students a teacher encounters in his/her classes during the course of the school year offers a “more realistic reflection of the actual work situation of Milwaukee teachers.” The high mobility rates (up to 70% in some schools) of many MPS students means that a teacher may lose one third of her students and gain another third in a given school year.

Elementary specialists have a particularly burdensome class load. In Milwaukee during the 1987-88 school year there was an average of 333 students per art, music and physical education teacher, as compared with 128 students per specialist in the suburban schools around Milwaukee. Since students are seen by more than one specialist, many art, music and physical education teachers are responsible for teaching anywhere from 600 to 1200 students. Kate Fontanazza, a Milwaukee art teacher, said having so many students is overwhelming. “Art teachers don’t have adequate time with the kids to teach art. Creativity is lost when you only see a student every other week for art class.

High School Classes

Often discussions of class size center on the overcrowded elementary classrooms. Secondary school teachers are also concerned about the issue. Last fall at a meeting of the Riverside High School faculty with SDA IV Community Superintendent Santos the issue of class size dominated the discussions. Riverside social studies teacher Mark Guardalabene said, “This is a unified concern of our staff. There are numerous classes here with over 30 students. Class size is an important issue for high school teachers too!”

Other high school teachers say that the large number of students they are forced to see each day prevents them from developing sufficiently close personal ties with them. If high school teachers’ class loads were cut from five to four this would reduce the number of students they see, give them more time to do quality planning and confer with students. A music specialist who attended the first Coalition meeting expressed frustration about having to travel to five different high schools each week.

The Joint MBSD/MTEA Committee recommended that both groups “explore the recommendations of the Essential Schools project at middle/high school level for guidelines on teacher load.” Ted Sizer, leader of the Coalition for Essential Schools, advocates that high school teachers see a maximum of 80 students a day instead of the usual number of 120-150. Teachers recognize that smaller classes produce conditions that are necessary, though not sufficient, for quality learning and teaching.

Exceptional Education Students

Large class sizes are particularly damaging to mainstreamed exceptional education students who need special attention. The MTEA Exceptional Education Committee recently surveyed their members and found that “Mainstreaming /integration of exceptional students into regular classes becomes increasingly difficult each year because of the high class size in regular education .” Tom Spellman, Director of the Westside Housing Cooperative, said that he was working with the new coalition because he didn’t want to see his daughter who has exceptional needs either segregated in a group of children who have similar needs or integrated into a classroom that has so many children his child can’t get what she deserves.

Ironically, because of poor long range planning on the part of MPS some exceptional education children are being placed in classes that have even more students than the maximum allowed by MPS. In many schools classrooms are at maximum capacity, but there are a few seats left in the school’s exceptional education program. When a child needs to be placed, concern is continued on page 4 only given to whether the exceptional education room has space, not whether the regular classroom where the child will be mainstreamed has any space. Robbie McLoud, a 1st grade MPS teacher, was frustrated when she received an exceptional education student as her twenty-eighth—one more than the maximum allowed by school board policy. She exclaimed, “Such a student with special needs should be mainstreamed into a class with less than average class size, not one more than the maximum. To think I can give this student the individual attention she needs is ludicrous.”

MTEA Proposes Significant Reductions

In contract proposals made public in February the MTEA proposed to the Administration that class sizes be reduced dramatically. They recommended sizes of 15 for kindergarten through 3rd grade, 18 in grades 4th and 5th, between 18-20 in grades 6th -8th, and 15 for laboratory classes in high school and 22 for the other high school classes.

In a telephone interview with Rethinking Schools MTEA Executive Director Jim Colter commented on the expense of such far reaching proposals. He stated that for years various leaders in the country — from the President, to the Governor, to local business leaders — have been making statements about dramatically improving education. “They talk about what to do but never fund their speeches,” Colter continued. “Society has to agree to fund what is ever necessary to take care of our children. There is really no alternative.”

Past Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded

Reducing class size has been suggested by two prestigious commissions on education in Milwaukee. In its October 1985 report the Study Commission on the Quality of Education in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Public Schools recommended that “elementary class sizes should be reduced to a maximum of 25 students” [p.14] and that MPS set up early education centers for four-year-olds through second graders with a “maximum class size of 20.” [p.21] They endorsed the state P-5 legislation, particularly the section that limited class size to 25.

The Marshall Plan Task Force recommended in November of 1988 “[t]hat average class sizes at the building level be reduced city wide in regular classrooms with a goal of: K- 3rd grade at 18:1; 4th – 8th at 20:1; and 9th -12th at 25:1.” The task force stated that “With reduced class size, teachers would have the ability to provide individualized instruction to all students regardless of their varied abilities and learning styles.”

The Public Policy Forum’s 1989 report Urban Teachers found that the number one concern of teachers was class size.

Unfortunately, despite the recommendations of these commissions the school administration has been notably silent on the issue. Mention of this issue was absent from the Five-Year Plan for Improvement of the Milwaukee Public Schools which MPS submitted to the State Superintendent of Schools at the beginning of 1989. Likewise, despite MPS agreement with the MBSD/MTEA Joint Study Committee’s recommendations on class size the bargaining proposal of MPS that was given to the MTEA contained no mention of class size issues. Dr. Peterkin did recently mention to the press the idea of putting a few extra teachers in some classes and aides in first grade classrooms as a way to deal with overcrowding.

National Reports

On a national level the issue has also received widespread attention among educators. For example, Standards for Quality Elementary Schools, issued in 1984 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals states that one “quality indicator” for elementary schools is “classroom teachers are assigned to the school on a maximum 20:1 pupil/classroom teacher ratio.” It explained, “While class size alone is not the determining factor [educational excellence] research shows that more learning takes place when classes are small and are combined with the use of varied teaching styles. Despite the financial implications demanded by lower class sizes, the practical experience of principals strongly supports efforts to encourage maximum class sizes that are even lower than the recommended 20 students to one classroom teacher.”

Tennessee Gets Serious

In Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter has made a major commitment to smaller class size. In 1985 the Tennessee legislature mandated a unique program called Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) which monitored the performance of students in 75 schools as they moved from kindergarten to 3rd grade. Students were randomly assigned to a small class (13-17 students), a regular class (22-25 students), or a regular class with a full time aide. The students remained in the same type of classroom during the four years.

After the first two years, monitoring results show that “large and educationally important” gains were made by those students in the small classes as measured by standardized achievement test scores. This result held true for all types of school districts, for all races and for both genders. But the effects were particularly strong in inner-city schools with large minority enrollments. First grade teacher Maria Caruso told Teacher Magazine (Dec. 1989), “Before when I taught [in larger classes], I would get home and think, ‘I didn’t get a chance to talk to Bobby today.’ But, in the small class, I always knew how the students were doing academically, and as people.”

After getting the results Gov. McWherter announced that $2.8 million of state money and $1.3 million in federal Chapter I money would be used to reduce class size to 15 in 44 schools. The money pays for kindergarten through 3rd grade classes that have 15 students in schools where at least 60% of the student population are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches.

Helen Bain, past president of the National Education Association, and a key organizer of efforts to get the initial legislation passed, stated that she has always known that reducing class size would help children academically. “For years, people have said to us, ‘You can’t prove it.’ Every time they don’t want to put money into reducing class size, they say, ‘You can’t prove it.’ But now we have proven it. At last, we have results that no school board or legislature can put down.”

Teacher Aides as Alternatives?

The Tennessee study is particularly important in light of the fact that individual school board members and administration officials have publicly stated their support for more teacher aides in the classrooms as an alternative way to deal with over crowded classrooms. Certainly in some classes an assistant can be a big help. For example, early childhood educators have called for adherence to state day care guidelines for years. Public schools are exempt from these guidelines but all other agencies that wish to get a day care license must adhere to them. The guidelines call for ratios of 1:10 for three year olds, 1:13 for four year olds, 1: 17 for five year olds, and 1:18 for six year olds. If day care centers hold classes larger than that they must have additional adults.

Gloria Thomas, President of the Milwaukee Kindergarten Association, told Rethinking Schools, “While early childhood classrooms would certainly benefit from having qualified teaching assistants, what we really need are smaller class sizes. Research has shown that at the Early Childhood level, class size definitely makes a difference in the long term success of the students.”

Intermediate teachers appear to be skeptical of such solutions. Adding another adult to the classroom does not address the issue of space in the classroom. As one teacher stated, “The four walls are still in the same place. In fact with another adult in the room, administrators would be tempted to add more kids to the class.” Other teachers expressed concern about the lack of training and staff development for aides and the fact that there is not time during the course of the day for collaboration and planning between teacher and aide. “Even with an aide,” stated a fifth grade teacher, “I still have responsibility for all 30 students. On top of that I would have to plan for another adult too. Adding an aide is not reducing class size!”

Indiana Prime Time

Indiana has also come into the national spot light for its attempts to deal with this issue. From 1984-1986 the Indiana state legislature spent over $100 million dollars to reduce class size to 18 in first grade and to 22 in second and third grade. According to researchers from the University of Indiana in the primary classrooms with smaller teacher-student ratios the atmosphere is less hectic, teacher morale is better, instruction is more individualized, and students, particularly those who are performing poorly, achieve better.

Wisconsin Legislation

There has been some motion on the class size issue in the Wisconsin Legislature. The P-5 legislation passed in 1986 places a 25 student cap on classes at all fifteen P-5 schools in the state. Representative Loftus from Sun Prairie has introduced legislation (AB125) in the legislature which would substantially reduce class size if passed. Loftus’s bill calls for the state to provide money to local school districts to pay for additional teachers to reduce kindergarten classes in Wisconsin to 15 and 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade classes to 18. The fiscal estimate is that the bill would cost 165.6 million dollars during the four year phase in and then an annual expense to the state of $67.6 million dollars.

Fiscal impact

The principal criticisms raised of Loftus’s and other class size reduction plans are financial. Marshall Plan Task Force had administration officials give approximate costs. They estimated that 521 new teachers and classrooms would have to be established to reduce all kindergarten through 3rd grades to a class size of 18:1 with an estimated cost of $130 million in construction and $35 million in operating costs.

To reduce class size to 20:1 in grades 4th through 8th it was estimated that 405 more teachers would be needed with construction at $102 million and operating costs at $27 million.

These figures are confirmed by a consultant’s report MPS issued in July of 1988 entitled An Investment in our Children’s Future: A Long Range Plan for the 21st Century. The report stated that MPS “is faced with tremendous needs for school facilities.” It estimated that by 1993 Milwaukee will need an additional 1,685 classrooms: 761 to handle enrollment increases and to account for programs already planned and 924 to replace obsolete classrooms, reduce class size and provide for new programs such as all day kindergarten. The cost of the 761 classrooms is estimated to be $212 million dollars, while the 924 classrooms would require an additional $288 million. Unfortunately this report was filed without much fanfare. Superintendent Peterkin managed to get $27 million dollars in negotiations with the state and Mayor Norquist, an inadequate amount to deal with this shortage.

Teachers and Parents to Continue Battle

Members of the newly formed Coalition for Quality in Education have established a work committee to come up with long and short range goals on the class size issue. “I came to this coalition because it promises to be an action coalition,” said Iris Riley , a parent at the Frederick Douglass elementary school. “We knowe it [lowering class sizes] can’t be done tomorrow,” said one teacher who is a member of the Coalition. “But if we want the quality education that smaller class sizes would mean — even five years from now — we must begin working for that today.” Teacher Ruth Le Mere from Douglass School added, “The community gets the schools that they work for. Only if we teachers and parents work together an speak out will this situation improve.” Coalition members are expected to let their feelings be known at the upcoming school budget hearings.

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney Street School in Milwaukee.