NY teacher cuts would raise class sizes still more

March 6, 2011 10:18:01 AM PST
First Brigette Smith had to take her little boy on a daily commute to another neighborhood, after the schools near her Manhattan home became too crowded to place her son. Now she's being told that when he starts kindergarten next year, he'll be in a classroom with about 24 other kids, and she worries that her son could get lost in the crowd.

Several miles north, principal Brett Kimmel worries what will happen to his students at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School if class sizes grow following proposed teacher layoffs.

It "would definitely have a negative effect on student achievement, student outcome, and potentially community and morale in the school," the 37-year-old said in his orderly office at the middle and high school. He went on to say: "The smaller the class size the more opportunities there are for teachers to meet students' individual needs."

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to take more than 6,000 teachers off the payroll to help balance a strained budget, some parent advocates are questioning what the layoffs will do to New York public school class sizes.

Across the country, some policymakers have turned their focus away from class size reduction, arguing that it's too expensive and significant improvements are unattainable in the current budget climate, which already has school districts nationwide slashing jobs. But others argue that smaller classes improve students' experience and academic performance.

The proposed New York City cuts, combined with attrition over the last two years, would take roughly one in eight teachers out of the city's public schools and could swell classes to an average of 24 to 29 kids, depending on grade level -far outstripping the national public school average.

City officials blame the drop on the loss of billions of dollars in state and federal aid. Parent advocates say the city is ignoring an already-broken agreement made in 2007 that was supposed to reduce class sizes across the board.

New York City education officials say they don't yet know how the layoffs, first announced by the mayor in November, would impact class sizes. Estimating that "is a complicated undertaking due to the intricacies of the state law," Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said in an e-mail.

But if the new cuts take a similar pattern as the attrition losses of the last two years, kindergarten classes could rise to an average of 24 children per class, and first- through third-grade classes could reach 26 kids - surpassing the goal of 19.9 the city and state established for next school year in a 2007 deal. The Contract for Excellence agreement was part of the settlement of a yearslong lawsuit that accused the state of shortchanging the city's kids.

Middle school classes could reach an average of 29 pupils and high school classes could grow to 27 students, on average - surpassing the initial goal of 22.9.

Nationally, U.S. public elementary school class size averages range from 20.3 to 23.7. Secondary school averages, which include mostly middle and high schools, range from 18.6 to 23.3. The numbers, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, cover the 2007-2008 school year, the most recent for which data is available.

If the New York teacher layoffs go forward and class sizes are increased, "it would mean a violation of their constitutional rights to an adequate education," said Leonie Haimson, executive director of advocacy group Class Size Matters, which has joined a lawsuit by advocates and the teacher's union challenging the issue.

On Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued guidance directing education officials around the country to consider "modest, smartly targeted increases in class size" combined with increased pay for the most effective teachers.

The city says laying off 4,666 teachers and losing roughly 1,500 more through attrition translates into a $350 million cut.

Bloomberg says the city has already used $1.86 billion of its own funds to cover as much lost state and federal money as possible.

Some analysts question whether the mayor's layoff plan - part of a budget that must still be revised and negotiated with the City Council - might really be an empty threat. Teacher firings have been floated in city budget discussions many times over the years, but the last time a New York City teacher received a pink slip was more than 30 years ago, during the budget crisis of the 1970s.

"It seems unusually targeted, so that makes me think that it's a negotiating strategy," said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College.

But the mayor insists he's serious, saying after his budget announcement earlier this month that he'd only consider dropping the size of the reduction if the state comes up with money and rule changes worth more than $600 million to the city next fiscal year.

Removing seniority protections in order to dismiss ineffective teachers - a goal Bloomberg is pursuing in Albany - is a cause dear to the heart of some academics who say class-size reduction isn't as effective as other education reforms.

"The one thing that really matters for student achievement is teacher quality and teacher effectiveness," said Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. If the city was to lay off the worst teachers, it would likely have a positive effect on student performance even if class sizes went up, he argued.

But other education advocates insist the number of students in the classroom is an essential concern. Princeton University economics professor Alan Krueger argues research shows a steady improvement for students when their class roster is decreased - no matter the starting size.

As classes shrink, "students get more individual attention. The instruction can be more tailored to their levels. Teachers can devote more time," said Krueger, a former assistant secretary of the treasury under President Barack Obama.

For every dollar spent on reducing class size, Krueger said students can expect to eventually earn two more than they would have otherwise. Even adding a few kids to classes the size of those in New York will have an impact, he said.

"It will have an effect - particularly on the performance of the weaker students," he said.