Thursday, November 18, 2010
Class Sizes Grew in New York City Despite '07 Deal to Cut Them - NYTimes.com
Three years after a landmark agreement to cut class sizes in New York City’s public schools, classrooms are swelling across the city, a result of budget cuts and spending decisions that have reduced the teaching force.
According to the city’s Department of Education, elementary schools this year had the largest increases, with average class sizes growing to 23.7 students per class from 22.9 last year. In middle schools, class sizes climbed to 27 from 26.1; high school class sizes held at about 27.
Small classes are increasingly rare. Excluding special education classes, 22.4 percent of elementary and middle school students were in classes of 20 or fewer children two years ago. Now, only 13.7 percent are. Meanwhile, the percentage packed into classrooms with 28 students or more has jumped to 31 percent from 23 percent, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
The increases come despite a city commitment since 2007 to reduce class sizes across all grades in exchange for state money earmarked for that purpose. In January, the teachers union, along with civic organizations and local officials, filed a lawsuit to get the city to account for how the money, totaling $740 million, was being used. The city has argued that questions about the funds belong before the state commissioner of education, David M. Steiner, not in a court.
But the class size reduction plan assumed there would be much more additional money than ever materialized, which is one reason its targets have faded from reach.
According to the agreement, by 2012, the city’s kindergartens, for example, were to average less than 20 students. They averaged 20.7 students per class in 2007; this year, they had 22.
Over all, aid to schools across the state has been dropping. In the past year alone, city schools have had to absorb cuts of 4 percent.
State spending reductions are one of the largest challenges awaitingCathleen P. Black, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s choice to be the next chancellor, and given that the state faces another large deficit, it is possible that class sizes will continue to rise.
City officials said Wednesday that given the cuts, class sizes actually rose less than they could have.
In February, the city appealed to the state to excuse it from its class size reduction targets due to the economic downturn. Mr. Steiner agreed to allow the city to focus its class size reduction plans on just 75 of its 1,600 schools, chosen because they were both crowded and low performing.
Advocates fighting for smaller class sizes said Wednesday that it was disingenuous of the city to blame the economy alone for the swelling classes, because the city never mandated that principals use the extra funds to reduce class sizes. The lawsuit charges that the city has at times used the money to plug other holes in the budget.
In general, the city permits principals to use the class size reduction funds for other purposes, including to pay for specialized teachers and for team-teaching. But the city also officially ended a separate class size reduction program in the early grades, with principals receiving a memorandum in June telling them they could now spend those funds as they wished.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers union, said that class sizes rose even when the economy was strong. “It’s clear that their intention was never to lower class size,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “They don’t believe in it.”
Overall student enrollment has remained relatively flat, at just over one million, but according to the union, there are 4,000 fewer teachers than there were two years ago, because many recent retirees have not been replaced.
At Public School 138 on Lafayette Avenue in the South Bronx, where class sizes now average 29 in fourth grade and 31 in third grade, Michelle Viera, a fourth-grade teacher, said that it was hard to even get the basics done. “Sometimes there’s just not enough materials,” she said. “We constantly have to copy things. There’s also a problem with discipline.”
Mildred Rivera, 39, said that her daughter Julianne, a second grader at P.S. 138, sometimes “doesn’t get attention from the teacher because she’s too busy with other kids.”
Other parents said they did not think the crowding was a problem, because their children’s teachers were good.
Perhaps the most influential study on class size, conducted in Tennessee in the 1980s, pointed to the benefits of small classes, particularly for poor and minority students. That study found that in kindergarten through third grade, students in small classes outperformed those in larger classes. But in the study, small classes were defined as those with 13 to 17 children — unthinkably small for most school districts.
Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton University professor who studies the economics of education, said he believed that there was evidence to support the benefits of small classes, even when those classes have more than 18 students. Plus, he said, class size reduction “is one of the few education reforms that I think we know what to do about.”
“The thing that’s in vogue now is to say, ‘We just need better teachers,’ yet no one knows how to screen to determine if someone’s a better teacher. No one knows how to train people to be better teachers.”
But Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, sees it differently, as do some other experts. “The effects of class size, if they exist, are small, and class size is really expensive,” he said.
When California embarked on a costly class size reduction effort in the mid-90s, Mr. Goldhaber pointed out, studies showed “marginal, if any, impact, and possibly some harm,” as many sub-par teachers were quickly hired to fulfill the mandate, and many well-qualified teachers left poorer urban schools for new slots elsewhere.
Part of the issue in New York is transparency in how the funds for class size reduction are being used, said Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the organization that brought the lawsuit that led to the landmark agreement three years ago. While her organization has repeatedly asked the city for information about how much was spent each year on class size reduction, so far, she said, the organization has only been told what the city plans to spend at the start of each school year.
“We are concerned that there was money allocated for that purpose that was not used for that purpose,” she said.