Teachers, researchers disagree on payoff for lowering class sizes
This story has been updated from its original version.
Class sizes are a big political football in education — and for good reason.
Reducing class sizes means hiring more teachers, which, with the exception of lengthening the school year, is the most expensive tool in the tool box to improve education.
Class size is also an easy number to calculate and track.
But does class size really matter?
The Oregon Department of Education is more focused on reducing chronic absenteeism — the percentage of students who miss school 10 percent or more of the time, which translates to about a day every two weeks. Despite reports and statewide funding to address this problem, the state found that the percent of chronically absent students actually got worse, increasing one percentage point last year.
Today, about one in five Oregon school children is chronically absent. Students who are chronically absent are at much higher risk of not meeting state standards and of dropping out.
The Oregon Education Association — the state's largest K-12 teacher's union — points the finger at large class sizes for why chronic absenteeism is such a problem.
"It's come down to crowd control as opposed to making a positive difference in their students' lives," said OEA President John Larson. "This crisis is going to continue unless we start really looking at how we provide the resources (to ensure that) every public school student, regardless of their income, has a great public school."
Researchers don't concur
But researchers aren't as certain that class size is the barrier to universally great public schools.
There doesn't appear to be a correlation between class size and the regular attendance rate among 139 schools analyzed by the Portland Tribune from data recently released by the Oregon Department of Education. But that could be because school administrators allocate more teachers to classes where students struggle most with attendance — such as at Roosevelt High School, which has both very low class sizes (about 19 students across subject areas) but also very poor attendance rates.
Field research, however, doesn't seem to find a lot of benefit in reducing class sizes. A 2011 report from The Brookings Institution says that while dramatically reducing class sizes — such as by 30 percent — has been shown to improve outcomes, particularly for at-risk populations, there are more effective ways to spend public education dollars.
Oregon's Quality Education Commission seems to agree. The state commission's Quality Education Model calls for teachers to meet students' needs better not through lowering class sizes per se, but through funding time outside of the class room for teachers to collaborate and plan for individual students' needs.
"The commission hasn't really dug deep into the questions of class size for a number of years," says Brian Reeder, assistant superintendent in the office of research and data analysis at ODE. Reeder, who staffs the Quality Education Commission, explains that classes can be structured so that information is conveyed to large numbers of students who then break out in smaller groups to dig into the concepts.
"The class size issue is relatively complicated," Reeder says. "You can still teach effectively with relatively large classes. The research is not very conclusive on the benefits of smaller class sizes."
That's not how it feels to many of the teachers on the ground that the Portland Tribune talked to. They all said that large classes make it very difficult to have the personalized attention and relationships that keep kids coming back.
"When a student is absent a lot, what I do is I call the parents," says Portland Public Schools teacher Erika Schneider. "It makes it significantly harder to do that if you have a big class."
"It's about our students having the appropriate supports," argues OEA President Larson. "You can't do that when you're packing 50 in a classroom."
Portland classes not the largest
Data from across the state reveals that in 2016-17 there were 3,525 classes with more than 36 students. None of those were reported in Portland, however. Elementary school classes in Portland Public Schools have stayed steady for at least five years, at an average of 24, fewer than most of the other districts in the area. The Gresham-Barlow School District and North Clackamas School District had the highest average: 27 for their self-contained elementary school classes.
At the middle and high school level, average class sizes are higher. But since older children tend to take subject-area classes, those reports are broken out by course type.
West Sylvan Middle School in Portland's West Hills reported the highest class sizes of any school in the city in English — 29.5 students per teacher. The packed middle school is also near the top for class sizes in math, science and social studies courses.
And yet, few West Sylvan students are chronically absent. The school has one of the best attendance rates in the city, at close to 91 percent.
Principal Cherie Kinnersley says she doesn't feel like she is doing much different than her colleagues at other schools but her attendance team is always pushing for better attendance.
"I'm not sure that in the search for improving attendance that there's one variable," Kinnersley says, noting an array of factors that can keep children from wanting or being able to come to school. She does mention that research shows a familiarity with the person calling to check up on the student — the teacher, rather than administrative staff — is more effective.
Kinnersley doesn't mention this as a factor, but just 8 percent of students in West Sylvan are economically disadvantaged, according to the state definition. That is far lower than other schools and means many students at West Sylvan have resources to overcome many barriers to getting to school.
Schneider, a second grade teacher at Penninsula Elementary School in North Portland, says her school is desperate to get kids in the door. There, 62 percent are economically disadvantaged. Peninsula has small class sizes, 22 children per teacher, but the school has a 22.1 percent rate of chronically absent students — worse than the statewide average.
Schneider says she often hears that students or even just their caregivers were sick, or that they missed the bus and couldn't make it that day.
"A lot of times," she adds, "a parent will give a reason that I just wonder if that's really what's going on."
Schneider says she doesn't think it would be effective to punish those who miss school. From her perspective, the best way to keep kids coming in the door is to tell them how much they are missed.
"They do so good when they are here," she says.
See the data yourself in our class size and attendance spreadsheets.
Update (11/2/17): This story has corrected the spelling of Brian Reeder's last name.