size matters

NYC class size limits could boost learning — but in practice, they often don’t. A new study explains why.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

A contentious debate about how much class size actually matters is getting some new data — and ammunition for both sides.

While former Mayor Michael Bloomberg dreamed of firing half the city’s teachers and paying the remaining superstars twice as much to teach larger classes, Mayor Bill de Blasio has argued that small classes are essential. But as classrooms have become more crowded, how much pressure should there be to reverse that trend?

A new study focusing on New York City offers some evidence for both poles of the debate: Reducing class sizes can significantly increase student learning, but those gains are often canceled out in the short run by the lower-quality teachers who wind up staffing them — and by disruptions linked to their quick hiring.

“My paper is quite supportive of the argument that class size [reduction] boosts student achievement,” explains Michael Gilraine, the study’s author, who will start this fall as a professor at New York University. But “when you reduce class sizes you’re going to have a trade-off because you need to bring in new teachers — and that might have its own independent effect.”

Gilraine’s findings come at an opportune moment for organizations like Class Size Matters and the Alliance for Quality Education, which recently filed a complaint with the State Education Department claiming the city has failed to meet required class size reduction targets.

Using data from 473 city schools, Gilraine isolated the effect of class size reductions by looking at third- through sixth-grade classes that moved just above or below the 32-student cap required for elementary grades. Classes that moved from 32 to 33 students, for instance, would have to reduce class sizes by adding a new teacher, while classes that moved from 33 to 32 students could reduce class sizes without adding a new teacher — isolating the effect of the newly added teacher.

Looking at schools near the cap between 2009 and 2014, Gilraine found that reducing class size by an average of four students produced gains in reading and math scores equivalent to roughly two and a half months of extra learning.

But there’s a big catch: The classes that shrank by bringing in a new teacher saw essentially no boost in student achievement. And since roughly 50 percent of the classes Gilraine examined depended on newly hired teachers, the overall effect of the class size reductions was cut in half.

Though Gilraine did not rigorously assess why half of these class size reductions didn’t boost student learning, he said there are a couple of likely reasons. For one, newly hired teachers may be less experienced or lower quality.

Second, there could be disruptions associated with bringing in new employees. Since class sizes were frequently lowered after the teachers union filed grievances, some reductions happened after the school year had already started — potentially disrupting classes mid-year.

The study has not been published or peer-reviewed, but Thomas Dee, director of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, said it appeared to be rigorous. He said the findings are not entirely surprising but illustrate the importance of understanding how class size policies play out across systems, not just in the context of smaller experiments.

Dee pointed to the gold standard of class size research: a landmark randomized experiment in Tennessee conducted in the 1980s that found significantly reducing class sizes in early grades improved student learning. “That really established in people’s minds that small class sizes — though they’re expensive — are effective,” he said. But “the kinds of things that might work in a small-scale study may not scale well.”

Gilraine’s findings dovetail with research on California’s billion-dollar effort to systemically lower class sizes in the 1990s, which showed reducing class sizes led to gains in reading and math but was dampened by hiring less experienced teachers.

Dee added that one conclusion to draw from Gilraine’s study is that class size reductions may be more effective when they’re targeted — at high-need schools, for example — rather than enforced system-wide.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said the study shows the city must do more to reduce class sizes — and do so more proactively. She emphasized that the city could avoid disruptive hiring practices, and that there’s no reason to assume hiring more teachers would reduce the overall quality of teaching in the long run.

“In a well-crafted class size reduction, you’re going to hire teachers earlier on and those teachers are going to be higher quality and stay longer and become more effective” she said. “If anything, this paper is an indictment of the current system.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.