Class sizes cross the ‘tipping point’

After five rounds of budget cuts and a reduction in force of more than 5,000 teachers over the last three years, class sizes may have reached a tipping point. Teachers surveyed by the UFT last fall said their classes were so packed that students were suffering.

Now, the latest class size report from the Department of Education confirms that class sizes have been climbing every year, in every grade, since 2007-08, and this year elementary school classes are the highest they’ve been since at least 1999.

Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t seem worried. If he could redesign the system, he told an MIT audience in December, he would cut the current number of teachers in half. “Double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students,” he proclaimed.

DOE brass is also unfazed. “It is preferable from a parent’s perspective to have smaller classes. It doesn’t necessarily correlate to achievement, though,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky testified at the City Council budget hearing on March 27.

The DOE slipped the new class size report onto its website with, if possible, even less fanfare than it did in 2011. An accompanying PowerPoint presentation showed the average class size citywide increased just 0.7 percent. This fraction doesn’t tell the story. The DOE buried the important numbers.

Big gets bigger

A simple analysis shows that 331,173 students this year are in classes above the maximums prescribed by research, common sense, experience and even the law — sizes where teachers cannot possibly give their students the necessary individual attention.

The chart below, based on recent DOE class-size data, shows 14 percent of kindergartners this year are in classes of 26 or more, exceeding the contract limit. Forty-six percent of 1st- through 3rd-graders are in classes that large. In 6th through 8th grade, between 40 and 47 percent of students are in classes of 30 or more. In high schools, 30 percent of students are in classes of 33 or more. (The union has filed grievances in all cases where class size exceeds the contractual limit, using more arbitration dates for class-size cases than ever.)

All these figures are up from 2011. But for some inexplicable reason, the DOE has allowed elementary school classes to grow the most.

Councilman Brad Lander just issued a report showing the number of elementary school students in very large classes has skyrocketed since 2008. There are now 31,079 1st- through 5th-graders in classrooms with 30 or more students. That is three times the number three years ago, his report found.

Should we refrain from mentioning here that Mayor Bloomberg’s own children went to the Spence School, where class sizes average 15?

Teacher voices

In “Primary Sources: 2012,” a survey of 10,000 teachers nationwide sponsored by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 62 percent said that having fewer students in a class can have a “very strong” impact on student achievement. An additional 28 percent said it has a “strong” impact.

The ideal class size is 20, the teachers said. But pushed to consider budget realities, they coalesced around a class size of 27 as the “tipping point,” where student achievement really begins to suffer. That broke down into 25.2 among pre-K through 5th-grade teachers, 27.7 for middle school teachers and 28.1 for high schools. These are below the break points used in our chart.

An elementary school teacher told the surveyors: “Class size is very important. Students benefit from immediate feedback from their teacher, and teachers can take time to re-teach the things that kids miss.”

A middle school teacher wrote: “We know that differentiation makes the difference. But how am I supposed to differentiate to 30 different students in less than one hour a day?”

A high school teacher said: “I can teach large numbers of students. But which class would you prefer to have your kid in?”

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of New York City’s Class Size Matters, took on Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Republicans revising federal education law, in the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet blog on March 25. She wrote that Republicans want to cap the federal funds that districts can use to reduce class size at 10 percent from the current 40 percent. Duncan, she said, wants to divert a quarter of the funding to competitive grants and for charter schools, merit pay and online learning. Sound like any mayor you know?

Teacher voice in education spending — federal and local — would bring some sense to the country’s leaders, but what they say on class size, as on much else, is ignored. No wonder that the most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found teacher job satisfaction is at the lowest level in more than two decades.

Large classes are growing
  Number of students
in large classes
% of students
in large classes
Number of students
in large classes
% of students
in large classes
Class sizes by groups 77,916 Kindergarten: 9%
Grades 1-3: 34%
95,535 Kindergarten: 14%
Grades 1‑3: 46%
26 or more in Grades K‑3 49,432 Grade 4: 34%
Grade 5: 41%
55,981 Grade 4: 40%
Grade 5: 46%
30 or more Grades in 6‑8 78,778 Grade 6: 34%
Grade 7: 42%
Grade 8: 45%
83,501 Grade 6: 40%
Grade 7: 42%
Grade 8: 47%
33 or more in four core HS classes 97,401 average 29% average 96,156 average 30% average
Total Students 303,527   331,173  
Source: DOE class-size report, February 2012
Includes all general ed, CTT and gifted and talented classes.
User login
Enter the email address you used to sign up at
If you don't have a profile, please sign up.
Forgot your password?