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Despite spending infusion, city is not meeting class size targets

In the battle over whether to make class sizes smaller, the city appears to be scoring a win against the state. That’s the picture painted in a report school officials sent to the City Council Friday. The report shows that, two years after the state poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the city with the aim of lowering class sizes, public school classes are on average larger than the target values in most grades. (View all recent class size data reported by the city here.)

The figures are a relative win for the Department of Education, which has repeatedly dismissed the goal of reducing class sizes as a pipe dream that will not improve education. The state, meanwhile, has categorized class-size reduction as a priority, putting it on a menu of about half a dozen programs it says research shows can improve schools and on which the city school system must spend a pot of state funding called Contracts for Excellence. The pot included more than $300 million this year.

The state also forced the city to draw up a plan showing how it will reduce class sizes over five years. The city has duly set targets, but the figures released Friday suggest that so far schools are failing to meet almost all of them for the elementary and middle school grades. (See graph above.) The figures also suggest that on average class sizes have risen across almost every grade since last year. (See graph below.) High school class sizes are not averaged into a single number, but in every general-education subject area, the average class size for high schools is above 25, compared to a target of just under 24. (Special education classes are much smaller.)

School officials say the figures released Friday cannot be compared to last year’s figures because the two snapshots were taken at different times and by different methods. The data the department provided to the City Council last year was from December; this year, it’s from October, a spokesman, Will Havemann, said. He said the City Council requested that this year’s numbers come from earlier in the year.

In between October and December, school officials estimate that about 1.5% of students will leave the system, whether by dropping out or confirming that they have moved away. The change that could make this year’s figures drop substantially. But the students who drop off of lists are most likely to be in high school or middle school, so lower grades are unlikely to be affected, Havemann said.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, analyzed the figures over the weekend and concluded that they were “disturbing.” She said this year is the first time since 1998 that class sizes have risen both at the lower grade levels, between kindergarten and third grade, and at higher levels, fourth through eighth grade.

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