Last month, students from around the state made their way back to school. But this year, the kids aren’t the only ones doing math in the classroom. Over the past few months, a grassroots group of 3,000 parents, teachers, students, and community members across the state are doing some counting of their own. The group is called “Class Size Counts,” and they’ve come together to count how many kids are in our classrooms.
Their math might startle you.
Lately, much of the education debate has focused either on testing or funding. With testing, the key questions are when, how often, what to do with the results. With funding, the key question is how the State will fully fund education in a long term and sustainable manner, to comply with the State Supreme Court’s ruling in McCleary. Those are important conversations that we need to have.
Their math might startle you ... Seattle's Whitman Middle has a class with 35-students. But since schools opened last month, Class Size Counts has been in classrooms across the State, asking teachers, parents, and students to tell us about what it is like to have too many kids in a classroom. They’ve submitted thousands of stories from around the state—from Clark County, where Dorothy Elementary has a class with 39 students, to Thurston County, where Tumwater High School has a 68-student class, and from King County too, where Whitman Middle has a class with 35-students.
What we’ve found is that there is a crisis coming to Washington’s schools that will change, fundamentally, how we approach testing and funding. And in some ways, the crisis is already at our doorstep.
Compared to the rest of the country, Washington ranks 47in class size—meaning our kids’ classes are more crowded than those of 46 other states. For instance, during the 2012-13 school year, the average class size in Washington public schools for grades K-3 was 25.3—over 30 percent higher than the legislature’s recommended size.
Admittedly, like many issues in the education arena, there is much we still don’t know about how class size affects student achievement, especially in middle school and high school, where students go in and out of multiple classrooms every day. But we do know that lower class sizes can produce lasting gains for younger students in grades K-3, and for economically disadvantaged students.
The most comprehensive study conducted on class size was Project STAR, in Tennessee, which randomly assigned students entering kindergarten into small classrooms (13-17), and regular classrooms (22-26), to determine whether class size matters. The students remained in these pairings for four years—from kindergarten through the 3rd grade. The study then tracked the students’ progress through grades 4-6. What the evaluators found confirmed what many of us already believe: class size counts.
Specifically, while students of all races saw improved reading and math scores, the gains for minority students doubled the gains for white students—significantly narrowing the achievement gap. But that’s not all. The study also revealed that the benefits persisted over time: by the 8th grade, the students who had been placed in smaller classes during their K-3 years continued to outperform their peers who had been placed in larger classes during those formative years.
Most parents don’t need a study like this to confirm what they already understand instinctively: Put one adult in charge of fifteen 10-year olds, and then ask that adult to take five more, or ten more. We all know what happens from there. That’s why private schools tout their small classes as a reason to enroll. Many charter schools and private colleges do the same because smaller classes mean more one-on-one time for students, better focus for teachers, and fewer chances that any given student will fall through the cracks.
So why make noise about this now? Because the calendar moves fast. Enrollment for next school year starts in February, which means thousands of Seattle parents are working through important decisions right now: do they commit to community schools and become part of the public school system, or do they spend thousands to send their kids to private schools? It’s not an easy choice.
These questions often take years to answer. My wife and I will be having our first child in March, and we’re already talking about where we will send our kids to school—especially during those crucial years between kindergarten and 3rd grade. These are sensitive and personal choices that each family must make on its own. But we need to make sure that those who choose to send their kids to public school—either by choice, or financial necessity—are on equal footing with everyone else. Recognizing that Class Size Counts is an important step in that direction.
That’s why Class Size Counts’ ten community-based committees—including the one I’m part of here in Seattle—will be urging legislators to use this coming session to fully fund education in a sustainable and long term fashion, and in a manner that also reduces class sizes.
Hopefully by the time my son or daughter is ready for kindergarten, they can enter a classroom that gives them the best opportunity to succeed, because ultimately that’s what every parent wants for their children. And that’s what every child deserves.
David A. Perez is an attorney in Seattle, and a member of the Seattle Committee of “Class Size Counts.”