By Sarah D. Sparks | Ed Week
December 1, 2010
After dropping for decades, average class sizes in American schools may be growing again as schools cope with budget shortfalls.
Although some educators see the rising numbers as a worrisome trend, others see an opportunity for innovation.
“Yes, small class sizes do help, but it’s not the only way. What we need to focus on is how schools are becoming more flexible to meet the different needs of kids,” said Thomas Starratt, the principal of Boynton Middle School in New Ipswich, N.H., where the average class size at the school has crept up from 18 to 22 since the recent economic recession took its toll.
The national ratio of students to their teachers fell between 1980 and 2008, from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Because the statistics count special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular teachers do, the U.S. Department of Education estimates the current average class size at more like 25 students. That number is likely to rise, given states’ and districts’ financial constraints, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last month at a Washington forum.
Nearly all the states that have changed their class-size laws since 2008 have relaxed restrictions, in many cases specifically to ease districts’ budget burdens, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
“I anticipate that a number of districts may be asked next year to weigh targeted class-size increases against the loss of music, arts, and after-school programming,” Mr. Duncan said at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute meeting. “It’s difficult to talk about class size, … but we owe it to the country’s children to have those conversations. … We support shifting away from class-size-based reduction that is not evidence-based.”