Gotham Gazette

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Far Too Many Classrooms are Overcrowded, It’s Time for City Leaders to Act

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DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza visits a classroom (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

In the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, the state’s Court of Appeals concluded in 2003 that class sizes were too large in New York City schools to provide our students with their constitutional right to a sound basic education, writing that “[T]ens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms… The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.”

And yet despite this decision, and the fact that when Bill de Blasio promised that, if elected mayor, he would lower class sizes in all grades to far lower levels, class sizes have stagnated during his time in office and remain on average 15-30 percent larger than in the rest of the state. In the early grades, they are substantially larger (by 10 percent) than in 2003 when that CFE decision was issued. More than 325,000 students are in classes of 30 or more this year. Let that number sink in.

The research on the benefits of class size is clear, especially for children in the early grades. Project STAR, a large-scale experiment carried out in Tennessee in the 1980s, showed that those students who were randomly placed in smaller classes in K-3 did better in every single way that could be measured. They earned better grades, better test scores, and were less likely to be held back and less likely to have disciplinary problems. 

After they reached high school, they were more likely to graduate on time, head for college and graduate with a STEM degree, and own their own home more than 20 years later. 

Though no large-scale experiment of a similar kind has been done on class size in the middle and upper grades, there are many studies that show a strong correlation between smaller classes in these grades and students earning better test scores, exhibiting improved non-cognitive skills, and having higher graduation rates, while controlling for other observable factors. 

Most importantly, all these gains that result from smaller classes are twice as large for disadvantaged students and students of color, who make up the majority of kids in the New York City public schools.  That is why class size reduction is one of only a handful of reforms proven to narrow the achievement and opportunity gap.

Since Mayor de Blasio took office, test score levels have been flat or declining, as measured on the national exams called the NAEPs, the most reliable assessments. And the gap in results between students of different economic and racial groups has widened.

None of this is particularly surprising of course.

In smaller classes, all students, but especially those who are struggling, have their academic and social-emotional needs better met, are able to receive more feedback from their teachers, and feel like their teachers care about them more. This motivates them to show effort and stay on track.  It is the personal, human connection that inspires them to learn.

What’s sad is how many New York City teachers say they don’t even have time to answer all their students’ questions because their classes are too large. As a result, too many students are confused and lose interest, become passive and disengaged, or act out in order to obtain the attention they crave.

This is why New York City teachers overwhelmingly say that class size reduction would be the best way to improve our schools, and why New York City parents put smaller classes among their top priorities every year on Department of Education surveys. Most principals agree – and believe that to be able to provide a quality education, class sizes should be no more than 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 in grades 4-5, and 24 in all other grades.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is the first DOE Chancellor in many years who, when asked, admits that he realizes how important class size is. As a teacher, he says, he knew that he could reach his students better in a class of 24 than 30. And yet when questioned by the City Council at hearings or by parents at town hall meetings what he intends to do about it, his response is almost exactly the same as previous chancellors who had little or no interest in reducing class size: He will wait until the state provides more Foundation Aid funding and then he will allow principals do what they want with the extra funding. This is not an acceptable answer. Why?

First, New York City students should not have to wait for the state to fully fund Foundation Aid, when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by the Department of Education on less effective, unproven programs and other expenses — including a substantial increase in bureaucracy and more standardized testing — and the city continues to enjoy a surplus.

Second, the “Fair Student Funding” system, into which the additional Foundation Aid would flow, incentivizes principals to keep class sizes as large as possible, because their funding is tied to the number of students they enroll.

Lastly, class size reduction won’t happen in any systematic and rational fashion unless the New York City Department of Education has a plan to make it happen, by providing the staff and the space where it’s most needed, as they did when they expanded pre-kindergarten programs.

That’s why we are calling on the Mayor and the City Council to step up to the plate, and allocate $100 million in next year’s budget to be allocated specifically towards class size reduction, starting first in the early grades and in struggling schools.

This amount represents less than .3 percent of DOE’s total budget of $34 billion. It would represent the first step in a necessary process of beginning to provide New York City children with the truly equitable and excellent education they deserve, and which parents and educators have long known is badly needed for our schools to succeed.

Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On Twitter @leoniehaimson.

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