SALT LAKE CITY — Guillermo Mendoza bumps three kindergarten classmates as he leaps to his feet to stretch his hand as high as he can. Standing, he is barely taller than the kids seated next to him at M. Lynn Bennion Elementary in downtown Salt Lake. His enthusiasm draws the teacher's attention, and she calls on him. The class, 28 in all, huddles together on the carpeted steps of the kindergarten meeting area, vying for a chance to speak.
Their teacher, Jill Newby, smiles warmly at her students, but she worries about them. Her classroom includes English language learners from China, refugees from Myanmar and children who live at the Women in Jeopardy domestic violence shelter a few blocks away.
"In such a large class," she notes, "meeting the unique needs of the individual student becomes difficult."
Among parents and teachers, class size reduction is a popular approach to raising student achievement. Large-scale studies link small classes to improved teacher morale, an 18 percent higher graduation rate for low-income students and a two-thirds reduction in the black-white achievement gap. However, reducing class size from 30 to 20 means hiring 50 percent more teachers at an average cost of $39,000 — an expensive measure anytime, but especially challenging during a recession.
Public school enrollment has increased steadily for three decades, with state and local financing keeping pace until 2009, when school funding declined for the first time in half a century of record-keeping. With no money for new buildings, some schools squeeze kids into temporary trailers on playgrounds once used for kickball. Overcrowding presents myriad challenges, but new evidence points to a few inexpensive innovations that actually have a bigger impact on student success than reducing class size.
Overcrowding takes two forms.
Some schools, including Bennion, have the physical space to accommodate more classes, but lack the money to hire more teachers. In overcrowded classrooms, students compete for desks and teacher attention. Inexperienced teachers struggle to maintain order in overcrowded classrooms, but even Newby, a career teacher who is rated highly effective by the district, struggles to meet each student's academic needs. "With a large number of students who enter kindergarten lacking important skills, even the best teacher is spread too thin and cannot adequately give the children the time they need on a weekly basis," she said.
In the last three decades, many states have tried to prevent these problems by limiting class sizes. According to a 2010 report from Education Week, 38 states have at some point enacted laws restricting class size or incentivizing small classes for general education. Since the beginning of the recession in 2008, half those states have relaxed their policies.
In states where class size caps remain, school systems that lack money for new buildings must find ways to accommodate more classes within already-full schools. In Pelham, N.Y., groups of students must traipse through another classroom just to access their own. In New York City, kids are scheduled to eat lunch as early as 9 a.m. or as late as 2 p.m. each day. In Pasco County, Fla., school began in August, but as of October, administrators are still moving students and teachers within the system in an attempt to comply with Florida's class size limits. They are also considering hiring more teachers for the remainder of the school year.
As efforts to reduce class size gained momentum in the last 30 years, the demand for teachers grew. Forty-eight states created alternative routes to certification, including programs that allow education students to teach full time while earning teaching credentials. According to the National Center for Education Information, approximately 500,000 teachers — enough to fill the largest high school football stadium in Texas 22 times — have become certified through alternative routes since the mid-1980s.
Skeptics of class size reduction think the money and space could be used more effectively. Matthew M. Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, has written extensively about costs and benefits of class size reduction. He agrees class size impacts student achievement but argues the effects are too small to merit the expense.
Chingos advocates shifting funds toward raising starting salaries and investing in professional development in order to improve teacher quality. According to a comprehensive 2007 report by McKinsey & Company, similar measures have proven extremely effective in boosting student achievement in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, countries that now boast the highest performing students in the world.
Chingos suggests school systems that are committed to class size reduction focus those efforts on populations where data show class size matters most: low-income and minority students in the early grades.
For now, small classes are not an option at Bennion, even though the student population is ideal for reaping the benefits. However, school principal James Yapias is trying other, less expensive interventions, including providing one-to-one support and extended school hours for students who are struggling. Both measures are considered highly effective by the U.S. Department of Education.
Yapias is meticulous about tracking student performance in order to target interventions. According to his records of data from the district, more than two-thirds of students tested proficient in language arts last year, compared with just over half in 2010. This is especially meaningful given the fact that enrollment at Bennion has grown 65 percent in that time.
"It all depends on how knowledgeable school administrators are about funding sources and community partnerships," Yapias said.
To provide one-to-one attention to young students, Bennion partners with two local colleges that send tutors to work with students who are struggling during the school day. Grant money funds additional help for students after school and during school holidays.
Educators at Bennion also hope the high kindergarten enrollment will qualify the school for a small chunk of state and district funding specifically set aside for class size reduction in the early grades. If so, Yapias will hire a part-time teacher to teach English language arts and math to one-third of the almost 60 kindergarten students. That teacher will meet with the students for two hours a day in one of the two classrooms that, for now, sit empty at the end of the kindergarten hall.
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