Gotham Gazette

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The Big, Bold Idea of Smaller Class Sizes

Gotham Gazette The Big, Bold Idea of Smaller Class Sizes

Students (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

This week, the City Council heard debate about a bill that would require the New York City Department of Education to cap how many people it can squeeze into our classrooms. The purpose is to ensure better ventilation and reduce the possibility of viral spread — a health safeguard in the era of COVID-19.

The end result would be fewer students in each classroom — a reduction in class size that New York City students, families, and educators have been promised for years.

The DOE doesn’t want to do it. Officials spent the first three hours of the City Council hearing explaining why New York City can’t possibly make this happen.

Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee and a former high school teacher, noted that the DOE is capable of doing big things — like creating pre-K and 3-K grades — when it wants to.

“Why are we not applying the same big thinking, bold ideas, ambitious energy, towards the issue of class size reduction?” Treyger asked.

Good question!

I have been a teacher in the South Bronx for 18 years. I speak from experience when I say my students receive better instruction when classes are smaller.

Teaching is a profession that requires more than just a quick data touchpoint for success.  Understanding your students is more than the answer on a multiple-choice test.  

I can think of a time when one of my students came in and clearly wasn't his normal self. It was a small class, so after I finished teaching, it was much easier to take a moment to speak with him one-on-one. It was in that exchange that he shared what was happening to his family, and I was able to get them the individualized support they needed to make sure they had enough food on the table and a safe place to sleep. When that was done, the child could better focus on what was going on in class.  

If there had been just one or two more students in the room, I cannot guarantee I would have had the ability to have that conversation. In the end, having a smaller class that year helped more than just my students' academics — it helped a family get the services it needed. This is just one example of how smaller classes allow for individualized attention.

New York City classes are larger than the classes in surrounding communities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average class size for an elementary school classroom is just 20 students. Yet New York City Department of Education lawyers would cram 28 students in a kindergarten classroom, and up to 32 in grades 1-5.

Middle school and high school classes are more overcrowded. The statewide average for middle school is just 17, while in New York City, our classrooms are packed with up to 33 students. In high schools, statewide the average is 22, while the DOE lawyers would have our students in classes of 34.

And the DOE lawyers and some politicians have proposed even larger class sizes going forward, sometimes claiming there could be as many as 400 students in the same online class using technology.

So why do the districts that are outperforming city schools invest in smaller class sizes? Well, if you have 45-minute periods five days a week with 30 students in the class, you do the math. Fewer students means more individualized attention.

Research across the country has shown that the number of students in a class impacts the quality of education a student receives. Smaller class sizes directly correlate with increased student performance and everyone can have a better school experience.

What DOE officials don’t seem to understand is that our students are more than just test scores and data points. They are more than just an expenditure to be reduced. They are humans who deserve a quality education.  

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has been the driving force behind reducing class sizes and increasing all students' access to a quality education. In 1964, the union forwent raises in order to get contractual class-size caps. These caps were designed to give each and every student in the New York City public schools the foundation for success. It was an agreement between the city and the UFT with the well-being of students at its heart. Before these class-size caps were in place, classes could balloon to more than 40 children with one teacher.

But we need more. We need the City Council’s proposed legislation, especially in a time when the health and safety of our city’s children rely on the ability to socially distance in a classroom.

This legislation would raise the minimum per person classroom space to 35-square-feet per student from the current 20-square-feet for grades 1–12. Pre-K and kindergarten classes already have a 35-square-foot standard.

Under the new guidelines, the maximum number of students in a 500-square-foot classroom would be 14; in a 750-square-foot room, the total would be 21, bringing the city in line with the levels of safe staffing that the rest of New York State has already recognized.

The DOE would have three school years to implement these changes. The Independent Budget Office estimated that 58% of the city’s schools could implement the change immediately. In other schools, it would obviously take time and an investment in building or leasing additional space. Other tools can also be used.

 As Council Member Treyger stressed: the DOE can take on big jobs when it has to.

We need the City Council to pass this legislation. We have waited many years for a series of mayors and schools chancellors to make good on the promise of smaller class sizes. We cannot wait for an administration with a moral compass to do the right thing.

Bill Woodruff has been teaching in the South Bronx for 18 years. In addition, he serves as the District 7 Representative for the United Federation of Teachers and is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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