Background: Parents of 3rd grade Hillendale Elementary students have petitioned the UCF School Board to reduce class sizes for Hillendale 3rd grade. The administration has recommended keeping the Hillendale 3rd grade class sizes in its current configuration, which meets the UCFSD class size guidelines. The parents are requesting that the School Board overrule the administration and depart from the district’s class size policy.
Below are my remarks delivered at the November 9 School Board Work Session
I would like to comment on class size optimization, and the specific request for the board (and Administration) to take actions to address the 3rd grade class sizes at Hillendale, where there is one classroom of 25 students, and one classroom of 26 students.
I would first like to address the specific request before us and then I would like to address the larger policy issue of class sizes.
The request before us – using my words— is to make an exception to our class size guidelines and add resources at Hillendale to improve student learning. The objective of improving student learning is one I fully support. And the parents have been well-organized, respectful, thoughtful, and passionate. So I support the ‘end’, and I support the ‘method’ by which the parents are making the request. But I do not support making an exception. Let me explain why.
- Why not make an exception for Hillendale 3rd grade?
Class size guidelines represents a balance between cost and effectiveness. It is a classic tradeoff. Many things could improve learning results in our schools. Longer school days or more school days might help. A brand new middle school facility might help. More high-quality professional development for teachers might help. Additional administrators to coach teachers and lead our schools might help. And smaller class sizes might help. All of these have been suggested to me by our residents. Each has potential benefits, and each comes with a price tag.
Our current class size guidelines are the result of a deliberate process, by the board and administration, to find the right balance between efficiency and effectiveness. That balance is enshrined in two places: the budget, and board policy.
- The board approved a budget in June, after a long debate about many matters, one of which was to ensure the budget maintained our current class sizes. That was important to almost all board members. And we passed a budget that maintained our class size guidelines. Those that voted against the budget did not do so, based on their public remarks, based on any issue with class size.
- The board also sets policy. Board Policy 126 governs class sizes. It was last reviewed and adopted on May 19 2014.
- A few things are worth noting about this approval, a short year and half ago.
- First, Board Policy 126 says that authority to determine class size rests with the Board. And the policy goes on in the next sentence to delegate the responsibility for developing class size guidelines to the administration.
- That administrative policy, 126.1, was included with policy 126 for approval by the board. I would like to read the first section of policy 126.1, since perhaps the board does not recall what the administrative policy says.
K-2: 23 students in a class
3-5: 26 students in a class
Once classes are formed in August and during the school year we will avoid adding additional sections, even if class sizes exceed our guidelines, so that classes can stay intact. Other measures will be considered to support large classes that develop during the school year.
Sections: One student over the guideline does not necessitate the adding of an additional section. Other factors will be considered.
Math classes in 3rd -5th grades can exceed the above guidelines.
- The board minutes show that the motion to approve was seconded by Mrs. Do, and approved by a 9-0 vote, including “yes” votes from all of my colleagues here at the table today.
- So the board approved policy 126 with full knowledge of the class size guidelines. This was only 18 months ago.
- Our current class size guidelines have been in place for several years. There are periodic concerns from our community, but the guidelines have generally served us well.
Class size guidelines should be consistently implemented.
Administration should be transparent on the factors that drive exceptions, and apply them the same way across all buildings. I believe the Administration does this today. Let’s consider how these policies have been applied in recent cases:
This year the Pocopson fifth grade has two of four classrooms with 25 students. No exceptions were made. The policy was followed.
This year Pocopson 3rd grade had 105 enrolled students in August. Four equal classrooms would have put one class up at 27, so a 5th section was added. The policy was followed.
In the 2014-2015 school year, Pocopson elementary had 7 out of 15 classrooms (3rd – 5th grade) with 25 or 26 students. No exceptions were made. The policy was followed.
In 2013-14, 22% of our 3rd-5th grade classrooms had sections of 25 or 26 students, and an additional 7% of our classrooms had 27 students. Classrooms at all four elementary schools experienced these larger class sizes. The policy was followed.
And over the past five years, we have had 29 classrooms with 25 or more students in 3rd-5th grade classroom sections. That is 734 students who have been in the same situation as the case before us. And in those cases, the policy has been followed.
I will note that my own kids are included in 734. The random draw of larger class size has come up for us 60% of the time – out of 5 opportunities, my kids have been in larger classes 3 times.
This is a fundamental question of fairness. Is it fair to make an exception for one group of students, and not for others? What is the message to the families of our 734 students who had larger class sizes? Your kids are not as important? You should have mobilized? You should have come to the board for an exception?
- And that’s why we have policies and guidelines. They exist to ensure fairness to all. All parents want what is best for our kids. Almost every parent would like the district to provide additional resources to their own children. I know I would. So our policies place limits – helpful limits – on what we as parents can demand and expect from our schools. If we don’t have policies – and follow them – then decisions can easily start getting made for the wrong reasons, without proper daylight, and without fairness to everyone in the district.
This process to override the administration, while it has been respectful, is a ‘worst practice’ in school governance. Boards do not make operational decisions for our schools. We set policy. We set a budget. We hire a superintendent. And the administration implements our policy, within the budget, using their expertise and judgment. I think it would be a mistake for the Board to overrule the administration on a matter of routine instructional judgment, where there are no unusual circumstances, where due process has been followed, where there is no evidence of missed information, and where the administration has an excellent track record of making good decisions.
- We specifically delegated responsibility for developing and administering class sizes to the administration. They are doing what we asked them to do.
- We can ask questions. We can ensure the right process is followed. We can make suggestions. But I think it is poor governance to replace our judgment in matters of operations for that of Dr. Sanville, Mr. Batchelor, Mr. Nolen, and Mr. Dissenger. If we don’t trust them, we have a much bigger problem.
CLASS SIZE ——————————————————————————————————————-
I would like to turn now to the issue of class sizes in general. Should we change our Policy 126? Should we reduce class sizes?
- Benefits of smaller class sizes at UCF may not be as great as the studies indicate
- Research is inconclusive on the learning benefits of smaller class sizes.
“Research on class size is decidedly mixed and offers little guidance as to what grades, students, and range of class sizes represent opportunities for cost-effective investments. An advocate with a conclusion in search of a study can surely find one, even just among the set of high-quality studies reviewed here.” (Dr. Matthew Chingos 2013 a Harvard PhD, who presently is a research fellow at the Urban Institute, a liberal Washington DC think tank.)
Class Size – Does it Matter for Student Achievement (Jepsen, 2015) http://wol.iza.org/articles/class-size-does-it-matter-for-student-achievement.pdf
What the Research Says about Class Size” (2014) http://www.k12.wa.us/TitleIIA/EquitableAccess/AppendixE.pdf
Class Size and Student Outcomes: Research and Policy Implications (Chingos, 2013) http://www.mattchingos.com/Chingos_JPAM_prepub.pdf
Small Class Sizes for Improving Student Achievement in Primary and Secondary Schools (2012) http://campbellcollaboration.org/lib/download/2372/Filges_Small_Class_Sizes_Title.pdf
“How does class size vary around the world?” (2012) http://www.oecd.org/edu/skills-beyond-school/EDIF%202012–N9%20FINAL.pdf
Causality, Causality, Causality – The view of Education Inputs and Outputs from Economics (Barrow, Rouse, 2005) http://de.chicagofed.org/~/media/publications/working-papers/2005/wp2005-15-pdf.pdf
Class Size and Student Achievement (Ehrenberg, Brewer, Gamoran, Williams – 2001) class size and student achievement (pdf)
2. Even if the research were conclusive …. results elsewhere may not replicate in UCF due to “heterogenous treatment effects”
- Meaning the mechanisms that result in the better learning outcomes (more motivated teachers, fewer discipline problems, and more individualized instruction) may not be operative to the same degree in our district, if our teachers are already highly motivated, and our kids have fewer discipline problems, and our teachers (and parents) are skilled at individualized instruction. The benefits might be smaller here than elsewhere.
- Some but not all of the class size studies show that benefits of smaller class are higher where there is more poverty, minority populations, ELLs, and other markers of disadvantage … which are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about UCF.
Let’s assume that smaller class sizes are better for student learning, and let’s assume smaller class sizes would still help in our high-achieving, affluent community. I still don’t think we should make smaller class sizes one of our strategic goals. So why not decrease class sizes across UCF?
3. We can’t afford it
- To decrease class sizes, a significant investment is required. In our district a 25% decrease in class size, as one of the parents suggested, would increase instructional costs proportionally (25%), as well as trigger facilities expansion or redistricting among elementary schools, since we cannot accommodate more classrooms at Pocopson Elementary.
- Given the constraints of Act 1, such a move would only be fiscally possible if our community would vote themselves a hefty tax increase
4. Reducing class size is not our best available option to increase student learning.
- Class size may fail the cost benefit test. Increasing class sizes is an expensive intervention. It is not enough to say smaller class sizes are better. We also need to see if the benefits outweigh the costs. Krueger 1999 examines Tennessee STAR, which by the way has the highest estimate of increased learning from smaller class sizes of any of the high-quality studies, and he still finds the costs of implementing smaller class sizes are only break-even to the benefits (future student earnings). In our district, where teacher salaries are high, and current student achievement is high, the payoff is likely much lower than in Tennessee.
- Other policy options have much better returns to students for much lower investment.
- As an example, Douglas Harris, a professor of Economics at Tulane University (2009) finds short-term rates of return for computer-aided instruction, cross-age tutoring, early childhood programs, and increases in instructional time that are all greater than those for class-size reduction. Computer-aided instruction and tutoring are in fact 10-20 times more cost effective! (Harris 2009 paper)
- A very large body of literature indicates improving teacher quality is a generally a much more cost effective policy lever than increasing class size. (However, there is still much to be done to determine which levers to pull to actually impact teacher quality in a school district.)
- We love our kids, and we want nothing but the best for them. This is a great aspect of our parents and a real advantage of Unionville Chadds Ford. But I fear we are suffering from the streetlight effect. Perhaps you know the story:
A policeman sees an intoxicated man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the man has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes of searching the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the man replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the man replies, “the light is better over here”.
We keep gravitating toward class sizes because it is intuitive, simple and easy to understand. But that does not make class size the best place to look to improve student learning. With class size, we are looking for the right thing, which is student learning, but we’re looking in the wrong place.
5. We can do better for our students by investing our dollars and effort in other student-centered initiatives here and now:
- implementing the Canvas LMS and increasing blended learning and on-line coursework;
- finding and hiring the best possible teachers and keeping their pay in the top quartile in the county and the top 10% in the state;
- building a school climate that challenges and supports all students;
- improving our curriculum, especially our STEM and AT offerings.
- Implementing our student wellness initiatives, including (potentially) a later start time for high school students
- We have a class size policy, and we should follow it. The policy ensures all students have the same program, delivered by a capable teacher, in a common teacher-to-student ratio. I empathize with our Hillendale parents who want nothing but the best for their kids. Other parents have the same motivation. I have the same drive for UCF to help my kids reach their potential. And that’s why we must have a common class size policy and follow it.
- Our administration has applied this policy consistently across the district. We should follow the advice and rely on the judgment of our administration. I see nothing that indicates a failure of due process or due care in the decision they have taken.
- As far as changing the policy is concerned, increasing class sizes may be good, but it is not the best alternative we have to improve outcomes for our students.
- We should invest in our students with the best strategies at our disposal, following our 2015-16 goals.