The combination of schedule inflexibility, high enrollment variability, and stressful economic times renders elementary class size decisions a frustrating exercise for all parties. Reasonable and rationale standards, consistently enforced, present the best means of navigating these rough waters.
I’ve written about class size before and as a primer I’d recommend interested parties read this blog entry again. My summary view is that the quantifiable benefits of (economically reasonable) class sizes is questionable. Nevertheless, smaller class sizes are preferred by all stakeholders.
The class size challenge will vary from district to district. A universal truth about class size is that the more flexibility available, the lesser the challenge. Flexibility is enhanced by scheduling options combined with a higher concentration of students per building.
Flexibility scales with both and has a smoothing impact on class size – eliminating over-reliance on extreme highs and lows. This is one of the factors that encourages districts to close schools. It increases student concentration allowing for the reduction of teaching staff by enhancing flexibility.
When reading the frequent articles on school closings you will see that the grade levels are often reconfigured as well. This further increases student density by grade and geography.
Our high school schedule of 7 period days at only two high schools is more flexible than three middle schools in a 6 period day schedule, and far more flexible than 9 geographically bound elementary schools with block schedules.
The focus here is elementary school. In Grosse Pointe Public Schools, one of our greatest assets is the neighborhood school with no busing required and essentially closed enrollment. (Parents can’t just send students wherever they want.) Elementary classes are characterized by grades and sections. Class size is a function of the number of sections per grade at each school.
Even small variations of student gain or loss can trigger significant shifts in staff, and therefore section, allocations.
Grade level enrollment in relation to section counts reaches different tipping points that can trigger a need for a new sections or the prospective loss of a section based on the gain or loss of just a few students.
The table below looks at prospective class size per grade level at an individual school based on having 2, 3, 4, or 5 sections. Each section would require a full time teacher. (Two sections requires two teachers and so on.)
Table 1: Class Size Projections Based on Various Levels of Enrollment per School for Varying Different Sections
The projections at the extremes of the scale are not very realistic. For example, we would not run 5 sections of 10 students per class nor two sections of 50 students per class. But as you wade toward the center, you can how the decisions can get more difficult.
For example, in a grade with 75 students, is three sections of 25 too high? Is 4 sections of 18-20 students affordable across the district? Remember, what is afforded to one school would be desired/expected by 8 others. Also remember that the table above examines increments of 5 students. This is abnormal and the gray areas in between make the “cut off line” decisions even more difficult.
So let’s look at some real world examples from our current school year.
Table 2: Largest GPPSS Elementary Class Sizes Currently: 2009-10 School Years
Note that Trombly had only 1 kindergarten section. Running two of 13 students was not affordable last year (nor would it be for most districts in any year.)
In 2009-10 we had a total of 68 student sections in grades K through 5. These 6 sections therefore represented less than 9% of all sections in the district. The average class size in 2009-10 in grades 1 through 5 was 21.5 students. The point being, these higher sections were the exceptions rather than the norm. Some people wrongly assume that what is happening in one grade level at one school is what’s happening everywhere. This is not the case.
Now let’s look at the preliminary class size projections of the highest class sizes in elementary for 2010-11. Note that the table also projects what the class size would be if we were to add a section to the grade level.
Table 3: Analysis of Class Size Projections and Options for 2010-11 School Year
This is a constructive manner of analyzing the challenge. Viewed through the lens of what is both desirable AND affordable, most reasonable people would identify with the challenge this presents.
No decision has a greater impact on district finances than class size. Class size standards decisions need to balance quantifiable benefit, intangible benefit, and hard costs.
Next year our average total teacher compensation would have been about $119,000. The recent retirement incentive and new teacher contract will reduce this amount substantially. But to keep the math simple, let’s just call it $100,000 per teacher.
To add a section at all of these grade levels it would incur approximately $1,200,000 of new expense to the district. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you know that, like all school districts in the state, we’ve had to overcome reductions in revenue and other traditional cost escalations to bridge a $7,300,000 projected shortfall for the 2010-11 school year.
But let’s say, for sake of argument, that we DID have the wherewithal to add all twelve of the sections/teachers. How might this decision be evaluated against the prospect of such other options as returning the middle school schedule to its previous 7 period day? With some moderation in class size averages there, the staffing requirements are not that different.
Or how about the option to staff the high school schedule to an extent that would allow us to give more credit opportunities to students who today average 1 semester per year taking only 6 classes? As the state graduation requirements ramp up more double blocking and like programs may be necessary. We’d need more staff to accommodate that.
Perhaps we want to create new course offerings and create new capacity, not draw down enrollment in other classes, to enable that. Most of these scenarios would require fewer than 12 teachers.
These are heavy issues – and the prospect of even considering which path to take is not a place where we were before the new contracts and before the early retirement incentive and frankly not a place where most other districts are today. Many, if not most, won’t be there anytime soon either.
Consider that we are debating whether we may have a half dozen class sections averaging 26 or 20 students while other districts debated this year which schools to close. We need to keep things in perspective.
For our budget development this year, the standard measure recommended by the administration on class sizes have been that they were not to exceed 30 students per class in grades 4 and 5 and not to exceed 27 in grades 1 through 3. The current projections has 100% of projected sections within those standards.
The vast majority of our sections are well below those levels with an average class size of 22.1. In all it is not accurate to say that we have a class size problem across the district. We have isolated instances of higher class sizes that require careful consideration of alternatives. That is where we are right now.
Enrollment can fluctuate substantially over the summer – per school, per grade, both up and down. This is particularly true now as Michigan residents often leave the area with little warning. In all we project the majority of our enrollment reductions to come from the elementary level. (Some silver lining: Our new policy on no fee All Day Kindergarten is already showing signs of counteracting some of these losses.)
Class size standards need to be clearly defined, realistic, and consistently enforced.
The smartest path to take is to establish and adhere to an absolute standard for class size. The basis for the adoption of the standard should be fair, realistic, and consistently enforced.
The Board may choose now, based on new developments, that the maximum of 30 students in grades 4-5 and 27 in grades 1 through 3 is too high. But when looking to ratchet that number down, we need to measure the implication. For example:
- An adjustment down in grades 4 and 5 to the same 27 as grades 1 through 3 would require, at current projections, just 2 more teachers.
- An adjustment down in grades 1 through 3 by just 1 student per class (from a maximum of 27 to 26 students) would require at least 5 more teachers or roughly $500,000.
- Enrollment fluctuations after budget adoption may require us to add staff in places we least anticipated.
We have a very dynamic set of variables that influence all of our budget and staffing decisions. This past week has brought many new developments. What I expect to happen is for the administration to comb through enrollment projections yet again and evaluate class size maximums based on recent development.
A revised budget should be presented to the Board for our consideration and a decision should be reached using a fair, equitable, and realistic standard that we are prepared to adhere to given inevitable variability over the summer.