Counting Class Size

Quietly, UFT reports that classroom overcrowding is getting worse

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
To deal with school overcrowding, the city has installed classroom trailers outside buildings that are over capacity. A teacher survey shows more classes are overcrowded than last year, but the United Federation of Teachers has played down the results so far.

More than 6,300 overcrowded classrooms were enough to prompt a press conference by the teachers union last September decrying the city’s inattention to class sizes. This year, 6,447 overcrowded classrooms weren’t.

In a shift indicative of the new working relationship between city government and the United Federation of Teachers, the number of overcrowded classes was noted only in an article in the union’s internal newspaper, New York Teacher. And rather than report overcrowded classes at their peak, the story says 3,500 classes exceeded limits — a number from after the city had already begun to reduce overcrowding.

The numbers come from class counts done by teachers during a two-week period at the start of every school year. When the class sizes exceed the limit agreed to in the union’s contract, the union can file grievances to get classes reduced in size. In high school grades, for instance, the contract says class sizes can’t exceed 34 students. (The UFT provided this year’s peak figure in response to requests from Chalkbeat.)

For years, class sizes stayed flat or decreased during the Bloomberg years. But they began to increase in 2009, especially in elementary grades, following budget cuts caused by the economic recession. That trend has continued over the last five years, with early grades reaching a 14-year high in 2013, according to the UFT.

The average first-grade class, for instance, had 24 students last year, up from 22 in 2010, according to a city report released earlier this month. Citywide, average class sizes are still below the contract’s limits.

Class sizes are intensely debated in New York City, where school overcrowding is a top concern among both parents and teachers. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was dismissive of growing class sizes, often saying that he’d prefer to have great teachers serving more students than smaller classes with inferior teachers.

As a candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio said he would establish class size reduction goals that would be achieved by the end of his first term. In a speech to principals in January, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said reducing class sizes were a priority, but more of a long-term goal.

Since taking office, de Blasio has targeted new school construction toward perennially overcrowded areas. And education department officials also said that a space-sharing working group, whose recommendations are expected to be released this fall, will also be working on reducing class sizes.

But advocates say that, so far, the new administration’s efforts have not amounted to a serious plan. On Sept. 22, a group of 73 university professors signed a letter urging de Blasio to implement a plan to reduce class sizes, arguing the reductions would especially help at-risk students and that large classes in older grades could undermine the benefits of his efforts to expand pre-kindergarten.

“There’s no evidence that I see that either the city or the UFT has this on their agenda as an issue that needs to be addressed,” Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson said.

Before de Blasio was elected, the UFT went to great lengths to slam the city when it released class size reports at September press conferences and rallies in recent years. To maximize the impact of their analysis, the union calculated the total number of overcrowded classes by adding up the most-crowded days, even if numbers decreased throughout during the survey period.

In addition to the union’s reports, the city issues its own class size tallies each November, after schools set their official registers for the year, often confirming trends noted by the union.

Haimson said the contractual violations, while important to address, were only “the tip of the iceberg.” She said the city should use funds to lower class sizes so that they are more in line with goals set forth in the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement, which required the state to earmark money specifically for six different purposes, including reducing class size.

Privately, the union is still taking action. Earlier this month, the United Federation of Teachers filed demands for arbitration for oversized classes at 537 schools where the overcrowding is concentrated. Three Queens high schools—Hillcrest, Forest Hills, and Benjamin Cardozo—alone housed 605 of the oversized classes, according to New York Teacher.

UFT Michael Mulgrew told the union publication that he was optimistic that the new administration was open to lowering class sizes quickly.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.