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.”

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year