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Teachers tell us class sizes are getting bigger in Michigan

Dec 3, 2015

We're going to go out on a limb here and say most parents want to know how their child's school measures up in terms of standardized test scores, graduation rates, demographics and so on. 

Another big question parents ask when looking at a school: 

“How many kids are in a typical classroom?”

When you hear people talk about ineffective school systems, you’ll often hear something like, “there aren’t enough desks or books,” or “there are more than 30 kids in that classroom.”

It seems like common sense, kids do better and learn more in smaller classes. And it’s not just common sense, as my colleague Jennifer Guerra points out in her story on class sizes. She spoke to Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University:

She says the research is clear: kids in small classes, especially in grades K through 3, do better than their peers – not just on standardized tests, but later in life too.

"Kids who were randomly assigned to the small classes were more likely to go on to attend college," explains Schanzenbach. "They’re less likely to be involved in crime, they’re less likely to be a teenage parent, they’re more likely to save for retirement." And the positive outcomes are most pronounced in African American children and kids from low-income families.

So how do Michigan schools fare in this category?

The answer can be surprisingly hard to find.

If you go to Governor Snyder’s “Education Dashboard” – a series of measurements that are supposed to give you a snapshot for how the overall school system is doing – you see a mix of thumbs ups and thumbs downs:

Credit State of Michigan

But you find no information on average class sizes in Michigan.

If you dig a little deeper, you can find a “pupil teacher ratio” on the state’s “Fast Facts” sheet on Michigan’s schools.

They list the ratio in Michigan as 23:1.

Sounds pretty decent, right? A manageable average class size?

Ask a few more questions, and you’ll discover that the ratio isn’t what it appears to be.

In a state report on school data, you’ll find this warning:

Due to the teacher FTE reporting methods, some Pupil-Teacher Ratios and Average Teacher Salaries may be misleading.

Each school district reports a pupil teacher ratio – so there’s some acknowledgment that this number is important.

But in Michigan, that number can be calculated using employees at a school who are something other than full-time teachers -- think reading resource teachers, or school psychologists – people who are not involved in full-time instruction.

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools Superintendent Ken Gutman says the ratio makes things look better than they really are.

"Student teacher ratios make districts look better."

"Student teacher ratios make districts look better,” said Gutman. “Really, I mean, when you add our support staff, our psychologists, our social workers, our ancillary staff, our counselors … add those into the ratio, it really denies the fact that there are 36 students in the class."

Research on pupil teacher ratios nationwide shows that these ratios are not the same thing as “average class size.”

More from a National Education Association “Rankings & Estimates” report:

According to recent studies, the difference between student teacher ratio and average class size in K–3 is 9 or 10 students (Sharp 2002). Therefore, an elementary school with a schoolwide student teacher ratio of 16:1 in kindergarten through third grade would typically have an average class size of 25 or 26 students in those same grades.

So add nine to 10 students to Michigan’s ratio of 23:1, and you get an average class size of 32 or 33 kids in a class in Michigan.

Credit Michigan Radio

We ask teachers about class size

Since the state doesn’t really provide a clear answer to this question, we decided to ask teachers ourselves.

We sent out a survey asking Michigan elementary school teachers about their experiences. We first simply asked them to tell us how many students they have in their classroom. 

We found a wide range of answers, from 10 students to 43 students in the classroom. The average from these 680 responses turned out to be 27.

We then asked teachers if they've seen class sizes increase or decrease over time. The message was clear (as the chart at the top of this story shows). The vast majority of class sizes in Michigan have been increasing over time.

When we asked them how class sizes affect their experience as a teacher, another clear pattern emerged – the size of a class is hugely important to how well they can teach.

Here’s what some of them said:

"It greatly affects writing and reading. It takes me forever to meet with students individually for writing and reading conferences. I should be meeting with each student at least once a week and that is impossible with 31 students. That is not okay." - Teacher from the Hopkins Public School District

"As lower grades (K-3) get larger, I have more children coming to me in fourth grade without basic math facts, more difficulty with reading and more behavior problems." - Teacher from the Hart Public School District

I was lucky to have a class of 21 one year and the dynamic was completely different. With 30 kids there is no room, they are harder to manage. There aren't enough materials for all. It is next to impossible to be creative due to lack of space and materials. - Teacher from the Swartz Creek Community School District

"It's exhausting and limiting." - Teacher from the Detroit Public School District

These are not outlier quotes. We could fill this whole blog post with similar quotes from our survey; quotes by elementary school teachers who express frustration over their inability to connect with students on a deep and meaningful level when there are more than, say, 25 students in a class. 

And it's not just teachers who are affected by large class sizes. Research shows small class size, especially in grades K - 3, has a real, quantifiable impact on learning.

Perhaps the most famous study - often called the "gold standard" - is Tennessee's Project STAR. Nearly 12,000 students from more than 300 classrooms participated in the initial study, and they were able to follow close to 6,000 of those students through their academic careers. Here's a summary of what the researchers found:

Conclusions:

• A significant small class advantage was found in inner-city, urban, suburban, and rural schools alike and the advantage of small classes was found both for males and females.

• In each year of the study, some of the benefits of small classes were found to be greater for minority students than for non-minorities, or greater for students attending inner-city schools.

• This research leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes in student performance in the early primary grades.

The follow-up: the Lasting Benefits Study

• Students who had been in smaller classes had higher achievement in all academic areas compared to students in regular or teacher-aide classes.

• Pupils who had been in small classes were rated as expending more effort in the classroom, taking greater initiative with regard to learning activities, and displaying less disruptive or inattentive behaviour compared to their peers who had been in regular-size classes.

There are, of course, more studies on class size highlighting its impact on student learning. This site has a nice roundup.

There is one researcher who disputes those findings...up to a point. His name is John Hattie and he directs the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. In an interview with Education Week, Hattie says reducing class size "had a small but positive effect on achievement" but that it's not as big an effect as others would argue. His reasoning? Teachers don't change how they teach when they move from larger to smaller classes.

Hattie says if they did retool how they taught smaller classes, achievement scores would improve even more.

So where does Michigan fit into this discussion? 

Michigan is one of 15 states that doesn’t have a limit on class sizes. Most other states do.

Michigan districts can apply for class size reduction grants, but as Michael Radke with the Michigan Department of Education points out, districts have a lot of different reforms to choose from and a limited pot of money to access, so instead of shrinking class sizes, districts will opt to use the money on other interventions like "electronic hardware or instructional software, specific programs to improve the culture and climate of a school,[or] teacher or principal professional development and training" among many others.

Michigan is among the states with the highest teacher student ratios. (Michigan has the 6th highest ratio according to this NEA report – see page 17). Which could be why if you were to do a Google search on the “best and worst” public school systems, Michigan falls under a link that says, “Click here to see the states with the worst school systems.”

Michigan’s new superintendent of schools has a goal to “make Michigan a ‘Top 10’ education state within 10 years.” If this is a real goal for the state, lawmakers and leaders might want to take a closer look at what's going on in the classroom.