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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bigger classes save money, but impacts are worrisome

Some research suggests students achieve less as class size increases

Third-grade teacher Cindy Simonson looks up from her digital overhead projector and questions her students about fractions during a math lesson Monday at Westview Elementary School in north Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley)

When the Spokane Public Schools board of directors last week voted to increase class sizes as a possible way to deal with a budget crisis, it gave many teachers and parents cause for concern.

Because while taxpayers may envision classrooms filled with well-behaved children who come to school every day ready to learn, teachers paint a different picture.

Nestled among those who exceed grade-level expectations are a few who “act out” several times a day, some who need a little extra attention for learning or emotional reasons, others who come to school hungry, hair uncombed and clothes unwashed; and a few who are considered “special needs.”

“We do character education, but we were trained to teach academic material. It’s sort of incomprehensible about how you are going to do it (with more kids),” said Cindy Simonson, a third-grade teacher at Westview Elementary School on the North Side. “You want to be there for those kids, that’s the thing. That’s the job. There’s no way you’re going to give up, but sometimes you are just tired.”

The Spokane district wants the option to increase class size as a way to save between $9 million and $12 million. Other districts in the Inland Northwest may consider doing the same if the economy continues to worsen. Idaho teachers no longer have a say about class sizes because of legislation passed earlier this year.

Class size is a commonly debated and controversial topic. Some research studies say it’s not the size of the class it’s the quality of the teacher that matters. Others contend a lower student-to-teacher ratio leads to higher achievement.

“Reducing class size below 20 students leads to higher student achievement. However, class size reduction represents a considerable commitment of funds, and its implementation can have a sizable impact on the availability of qualified teachers,” a U.S. Department of Education report about classroom sizes concludes. But it continues, “Strengthening teacher quality also leads to higher student achievement.” The current bargained class sizes for Spokane Public Schools are 25 for K-3; 28 for grades 4-6; and 30 for grades 7-12. The Spokane school board’s decision could increase those by up to three more kids.

Already, Simonson has six reading groups in her class because of the range in learning abilities; adding more kids would mean one more reading group, she said.

“As it is right now, I cannot get around to each kid every day to listen to them read. You maybe get to read with five kids per day. I won’t be able to get around to every kid in a week,” Simonson said. “When I look at math, I won’t be able to get around to as many groups, or work on as much remediation with students.”

She added, “It’s not just three more bodies, it’s three more math papers, three more tests to give, three more parent conferences to have; it’s amazing how much more work it adds.”

Washington has the third highest average class size in the nation, according the National Education Association. Washington’s average class size is 19.3.

But most of the bargained class size limits throughout the Inland Northwest are nowhere near that level, and vary by district.

Central Valley School District’s limits are 22 for kindergarten; 25 for 1-3; 26 for fourth, 28 for fifth, 29 for sixth and 32 for 9-12 with the exception of physical education and music classes. Mixed-grade classes are 21. Mead’s bargained limits are 20 for kindergarten, 24 in 1-2, 26 in 3-4, 30 in 5-6, 31 in grades 7-12.

“We have been at 32 in high school students for 25 years before that it was 33, said Steve Lalonde, Central Valley Education Association president. “We would like to drop class sizes more than that (current levels) but I just don’t think that’s possible. The smaller the classroom, the more effective the learning, but you have to find a fiscal balance, we obviously can’t afford to teach one-on-one.”

Two recent studies on class sizes reached differing conclusions.

A Florida study conducted by a Harvard University fellow released last year found larger class sizes did not significantly impact student achievement: “Students attending schools that were required to reduce class size did not do better on state math and reading tests than students attending schools that were given funding to spend as they saw fit.”

But according to the National Education Association, “Reducing class sizes can improve classroom behavior and give students more individualized attention. In turn, teachers can spend more time on instruction.” Also, “Students who are in small classrooms in the early elementary grades are significantly more likely to graduate from high school.”

Exercising the option to increase class size is in the hands of school board members and administrators. Teachers throughout the district hope they understand the concerns.

Said Simonson, “I want to give these kids the same education I’d expect for my own.”