Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Larger class sizes ahead as teachers collect pink slips

Larger class sizes ahead as teachers collect pink slips
Effect on students may be minimal as the academic benefits of small class sizes remain unclear

Larger class sizes ahead as teachers collect pink slips

Effect on students may be minimal as the academic benefits of small class sizes remain unclear

By Lisa Black, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah and Lolly Bowean, Tribune reporters

March 28, 2010

As thousands of Illinois teachers receive pink slips in this spring's brutal budget season, parents can do the math: Fewer teachers equals higher class sizes.

Administrators have assured them that the modest increases being proposed at many schools won't make a significant difference — and research largely backs them up. Still, parents across the region are venting frustration at school board meetings and pleading for teachers to negotiate lower salaries to save jobs.

Case in point: In Highland Park, school officials thought they could trim $300,000 off a growing deficit by adding one or two students to elementary classrooms. They quickly backed off the proposal after running into a storm of opposition.

"I really feel class size is an issue," Linda Karmin of Highland Park told her school board. Her daughter was in a first-grade class of 24 with a solid, respected teacher, and yet, "the teacher didn't even know her. She was too busy focusing on discipline rather than teaching," she said.

North Shore School District 112 was fortunate to have other options and will maintain its traditionally low class sizes — which in 2009 averaged 19 in elementary grades and 21 in middle school. But other districts will see class sizes rise as they carry out painful cuts for the 2010-11 school year.

The cuts vary by district, but most call for firing teachers, classroom aides and support workers in response to the recession's toll on state funding and property taxes. With 70 to 80 percent of their budget committed to personnel costs, districts say, they must cut staff in order to reap a significant savings.

While it might seem obvious that large class sizes put greater demands on teachers, and thus detract from learning, research over the past 35 years offers little evidence to support the sentiment. Studies do show that small class sizes bring small academic gains in kindergarten and first grade, with some reports maintaining that those early educational benefits carry through eighth grade.

But there are no "optimal" class sizes by grade level, and even if there were, those numbers would vary by the type of students, the level of teachers' skill and other factors, according to Brian Stecher, associate director of RAND Education, a Santa Monica, Calif. -based research group.

David Figlio, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, summarized it this way: "There's very little evidence that a class size of 22 is that much better than a class size of 25 or 27. But just try to increase class sizes from 22 to 27, and parents will scream bloody murder."

Smaller class sizes do allow teachers to spend more time with individual students and parents, but the quality of the teacher is a better predictor of academic success, experts say.

"It's much better to have a large class with a good teacher than a small class with a mediocre teacher," said Eric Hanushek, education researcher at Stanford University, who said research even took into account classes as large as 37.

Yet research "is not saying that all classes should be large," he said. For instance, smaller class sizes might benefit low-income, minority students, but only if the teacher changes instructional methods and procedures.

Regardless of the research, parents instinctively grow alarmed at the thought of their child getting less attention. They draw on their personal experience of supervising groups of children, and worry that in an ever more competitive world, any educational compromise could harm their child's chances of getting into the right college.

They also are aware that students with behavioral problems, special needs or limited English skills are increasingly integrated into the mainstream classrooms and demand more of the teachers' time.

"I'm more worried about middle-of-the-road students getting lost," said Stephanie Powell. Her district, Wheaton Warrenville School District 200, has proposed eliminating up to 71 teachers next year, part of $6.4 million in cuts.

"Without aides, teachers won't be able to give one-on-one time to these students," Powell said. "As long as they're quiet and not disruptive, they're not going to get noticed at all."

In Highland Park, parents persuaded school officials to back off its proposal that called for increasing class sizes by an average of one or two.

"I think the learning experience of the kids would really suffer," said parent Michael Cohn, 43, who has children in first and fifth grades. "I know that in a lot of districts and the city, there are more kids, but the bottom line is — a lot of people move to the North Shore because of the schools."

Instead, the District 112 board is considering a smorgasbord of cuts that include dismissing five newly hired technology coaches who help teachers use recently installed interactive white boards and high-resolution digital cameras.

Volunteers will be asked to replace library aides who usually help with clerical and circulation chores.

The district encompasses affluent Highland Park but also includes lower-income pockets of immigrants and military families based at Fort Sheridan, with 19 percent of its 4,400 students receiving free or reduced lunches.

Its problems seem minor compared with the Chicago Public Schools, which is preparing for a $700 million deficit next year, according to district chief Ron Huberman.

Huberman recently told principals that if there are no pension changes or restoration in state cuts, class sizes could balloon to 37 students from about 30 now. That grim scenario suggested layoffs of up to 3,200 teachers and 600 nonteaching staff.

The state's second largest district, Elgin's U-46, announced this month it will lay off nearly 1,100 employees, including 732 teachers as well as guidance counselors, librarians and special education supervisors. Elgin officials approved $30 million of budget cuts toward a $44 million deficit.

"Without these people in our elementary schools, we will not be able to address the individual needs of all the children including academic, athletics and emotional," said Mary Fedor, a teacher at McKinley Elementary in Elgin.

Although many administrators counsel parents not to worry about modest changes in class sizes, teachers often say the opposite — adding to the dissonance around the issue.

Val Dranias, union president for teachers in Indian Prairie School District 204, said large class sizes make it harder for teachers to target low-achieving or high-achieving students for individual help. The district, which includes parts of Naperville and Aurora, may increase class sizes to 31 students per teacher, Dranias said.

"It will be much more difficult to differentiate learning in a classroom," Dranias said.

Some districts will see class sizes grow in high school, but officials say the effect will be minimal since classes there are already specialized, and thus smaller.

Barrington Community Unit School District 220, for instance, announced that it will lay off about 15 teachers, all in their first, second or third year of teaching. Most will come from Barrington High School, where some class sizes will rise to 30 students per class next fall.

The average class size will remain about 25, which is "still within what our board considers to be an acceptable range," district spokesman Jeffrey Arnett said. "Across the district, there are only 6 percent of classrooms that will exceed what our Board of Education believes is optimal."

As school officials put their budget cuts in final form within the next few weeks, some must take into account contractual agreements with teacher unions that cap class sizes.

"Right now it is a terrifying time for teachers and education support professionals, and for parents who have kids in school," said Charles McBarron, spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, based in Springfield. "The things that make school special are all at risk."

Officials also must adhere to federal laws regarding special education programs, where students have legal recourse if school districts fail to meet their needs. Special education advocates are already hearing complaints about districts that are laying off classroom aides who help modify curriculum and assist students with physical tasks.

Special education aides "make a huge difference to help kids function," said Matthew Cohen, a Chicago-based lawyer who represents families who fight for services.

If stretched too thin, teachers will be forced to attend only to the neediest students, he said.

"There is a matter of fairness to the teacher and the kids without a disability, too," he said. "It makes it harder for everybody."

Tribune reporter Azam Ahmed and freelance reporters Amanda Marrazzo and Jack McCarthy contributed to this report.

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