unintended benefit

Can lowering class size help integrate schools? Maybe, according to new research

PHOTO: (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
At Foxborough Elementary School, in 1996, 1st grade teacher Linda Kiefer uses a projector to show her students the formation of numbers. The Capistrano Unified School District was one of the first in Orange County, California to implement a class-size reduction plan after a state funding bill was signed.

Efforts to racially integrate schools in big city districts often face a basic dilemma: There simply aren’t many white students in the system, as families have opted for private school or left for the suburbs.   

But a recent study suggests a concrete way that schools can attract and keep white families, while also boosting student achievement: lower class sizes. That approach drew in tens of thousands of students from California’s private schools into the public system, according to the research.

It’s an extremely expensive move, since it means hiring more teachers for more classrooms. And it’s far from clear to what extent lower class sizes can combat how racism and beliefs about local schools drive enrollment decisions, particularly in racially segregated areas.

Still, the California results suggests that lower class sizes can be one tool to help integrate schools.

“Class size is a measure of school quality that is easily observable [and] parents care about it a lot,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who has studied class size reduction efforts. It’s “completely reasonable,” she said, to think that lower class sizes could help make integration efforts work.

The research, released earlier this year through the National Bureau of Economic Research, focuses on California’s massive effort to slash elementary school class sizes by several students in the late 1990s. (The program began to unravel in the wake of the Great Recession, when budget cuts caused many districts to rapidly raise class sizes.)

Previous research had focused on how the effort affected student achievement and teacher quality. This study asks an additional question: Did the reforms make public schools more attractive to families sending their kids to private schools?

Researchers Michael Gilraine, Hugh Macartney, and Robert McMillan find that’s exactly what seemed to happen. In grades that saw class sizes drop, private school enrollment fell compared to other grades without the class-size cuts.

The drop was fairly large, with private school enrollment falling from nearly 12 percent to 10 percent of students in certain grades across the state. At the same time, public schools with a nearby private school saw their enrollment of white students jump.

As students transitioned to middle school, which was not a focus of the class size reductions, many students appeared to return to private school.

Conventional wisdom in some circles has been that the California class size reduction was a disappointment because districts had to go on a hiring spree to fill new classrooms, ending up with less qualified and less experienced teachers.

The latest study shows there’s something to that: teacher qualifications fell, which cancelled out some, but not all, of the benefits of smaller classes. That’s in line with other research from California and New York City.

The paper also shows that test scores likely rose simply because schools drew in higher-performing students from private schools.

But there was another result of the changes: the new public school students seemed to boost other kids’ test scores. Although the exact explanation is unclear, this might be an effect of integration — an example of how bringing new students into the public system can improve education across the board.

Still, before policymakers use this study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, to justify reducing class sizes, they should consider a few caveats.

For one thing, the paper focuses on a policy change in one state from about two decades ago. While it shows how the changes affected the demographics of the public school system as a whole, it doesn’t examine the makeup of individual schools. And the study doesn’t have ideal or extensive data for examining test scores, so those academic findings should be interpreted cautiously.

It’s also just one analysis, in an area where there’s not much research. Another recent study on New York City found that increasing public school funding drew in more students who previously attended private school, though the students were primarily black and Hispanic, not white.

More generally, research has often found that smaller class sizes have positive short- and long-term benefits, but results have varied from place to place.

The policy could mean schools districts are spending a lot, perhaps even more than they expect. If lower class sizes cause students to leave private schools, it will also come with an ever bigger price tag, because public dollars would need to go to educating students who had been at private school on their families’ dime.

In other words, the study shows smaller class sizes may be both more beneficial and more costly than previously thought.

“Without any doubt, [class-size reduction] is immensely costly,” the researchers write. “That said, parents and teachers routinely and actively lobby for smaller classes, pressuring politicians to implement class size reduction initiatives.”

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.