The questions we should ask when it comes to class size in N.J. schools

Mitt Romney visited a charter school in West Philadelphia last Thursday and, either brazenly or cluelessly, addressed that third rail of education politics, class size.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Mitt Romney visited a charter school in West Philadelphia last Thursday and, either brazenly or cluelessly, addressed that third rail of education politics, class size.

“In schools that are the highest-performing in the world,” he said, “their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems.”

An opportunity for a rational discussion of the costs and benefits of small class size?

More like a greedy Democratic pounce on Romney’s education street cred. President Obama’s spokeswoman sneered, “What planet does he live on?”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter emoted, “I’m not sure what universe he’s operating in, but we certainly know in Pennsylvania, every parent knows, every second-grader knows, that smaller class sizes are preferable.”

Never mind that President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that class size “has been a sacred cow and we need to take it on.” Never mind that, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of pupils per teacher has declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 15.6 in 2010 without meaningful increases in student achievement.  

In N.J. and elsewhere, low class size is an inviolable mantra, the bedrock of your friendly functional public education system.

Parents love it. Teachers (and their union representatives: Read the NJEA policy statement here) love it. Administrators and school boards love it. We try to apply this tenet indiscriminately across the Garden State. So, what’s it worth? Does it help kids learn?

The research most often cited by advocates of statewide low class size comes from a study in Tennessee called Project STAR, or Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, which found that Tennessee students benefit from low class size, particularly poor African-American students. Another study, SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) concluded that children living in poverty demonstrate years of increased achievement after three years of small class size.

In addition, research from the Brookings Institute shows that “it appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have significant long-term effects on student achievement and other meaningful outcomes. These effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds.”

So small class size — the STAR study used classes of 13-17 students — makes a big difference in future achievement, particularly for poor kids.  But it’s a big jump from that reasonable and data-driven conclusion to “all kids, regardless of socio-economic profile, need small classes.”

Indeed, until recently class size in  New Jersey’s 31 poorest Abbott districts was supposed to be capped at 15 kids. But hard times and scarce dollars have pushed those numbers upward. In fact, there’s no statewide consistency, and certainly no correlation with all the data-driven conclusions that it’s really poor kids who benefit from lower student-teacher ratios.

Here’s a few examples.

In Camden County, Thomas Paine Elementary School in Cherry Hill (one of our richer districts) has an average 1st grade class size of 13.2. (This data comes the 2010 NJ DOE database.)

At Dudley Elementary School in Camden City (an Abbott district, one of our poorest) the average class size is 24. 

In Mercer County, the average class size in first grade at Luis Munoz-Rivera Elementary School in Trenton (an Abbott) is 28.5. At wealthy Maurice Hawk Elementary School in West Windsor-Plainsboro, on the other side of Mercer, the average first grade class size is 19.2.

 In Atlantic County, Sea View Elementary School in Linwood City (a middle-class town) has an average first grade size of 18.2.

At South Main St. Elementary School in Pleasantville City, an Abbott in Atlantic County, average first grade class size is listed at a startling 29.3.

Are there poor districts that have low class sizes in N.J.? Sure.

Are there wealthy communities that have high class size? Probably.

Does a child’s consistent exposure to great teachers mitigate the need for small class size? Maybe.

Should we pay great teachers more? (Duh.)

These questions are worth asking as N.J. continues to struggle with school matters of policy, politics, and funding. Poor kids need small class sizes. Wealthier children may learn just as well with a few more kids in the room. Great teachers make a difference. That’s a discussion worth having.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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