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Class Size is “An Interesting Number”

Jenny Medina, in her Sunday New York Times article on class size, quotes Mayor Mike Bloomberg as calling class size “an interesting number.” “It’s the teacher looking a child in the eye, and teachers can look lots of children in the eye,” he said. “If you have to have smaller class size or better teachers, go with the better teachers every time.”

skoolboy thinks this is idiotic. “It’s the teacher looking a child in the eye”? What does that even mean? How much time has Mayor Mike spent looking children in the eye in real classrooms? Is looking children in the eye the key to good teaching? Somehow, I thought it was more complicated than that.

No, Mayor Mike will go with “better teachers” over smaller classes every time—as if it’s all that easy to identify these better teachers. Then there’s the thorny problem that who is identified as a “better teacher” may depend on a teacher’s access to adequate resources—and a smaller class with fewer disruptive students may be such a resource.

skoolboy has written a fair amount about class size, here, here, here, and here. A quick summary: we should reduce class sizes because it’s the right thing to provide teachers and students with adequate and equitable settings for teaching and learning. But there also is persuasive evidence that class size reduction in the early grades can improve student achievement. There has never been a rigorous test of the effect of a well-designed class size reduction initiative on student outcomes in New York City, so all of the claims of New York City officials that reducing class size won’t make a difference are pure speculation.

A special skoolboy shout-out to Chris Cerf, deputy chancellor, for a particularly disingenuous claim. Cerf blamed the increase in class sizes in New York City this year on principals. The district had nothing to do with it, apparently. Nah—principals just determined that their money was better spent elsewhere and that the focus on class size was wrong-headed, he said.

One of the truisms about class size reduction is that, if the student population stays constant, the only way to reduce class size is to increase the number of classes, which requires more classroom space. A school that has no slack space will find it extremely difficult to reduce class size. New York City publishes an annual report on enrollment, capacity and utilization which assesses whether school buildings and the organizations within them are operating below, at or above their capacity—the difference between an organization’s actual enrollment, and the number of students that the organization’s space has the capacity to serve. (Some buildings house multiple schools or programs, each of which has an enrollment and a capacity.)

How many organizations in New York City elementary, middle and high schools are operating at or above their rated capacity? skoolboy’s tally from the 2007-08 enrollment, capacity and utilization report is 751. That’s 751 schools or programs for which the New York City Department of Education has not provided sufficient space to serve the number of students enrolled. It takes some chutzpah on the part of Chris Cerf to claim that principals have “chosen” not to reduce class size when the DOE has deprived so many of them of the space that would have enabled them to do so.

751. Now there’s an interesting number.

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