The Whipping Boy

How did class size limits become the symbol of an unnecessary luxury in our schools?

Former Texas governor Mark White wants to know, if class size in public schools isn't important, "then why does every private school in America brag on 'we have a small class size?' "

Texas politicians and education administrators (note, not teachers) have upped the drumbeat in recent days, saying Texas can no longer afford its caps on class sizes, and hey, it might be better to educate students in larger classes anyway. The Senate Committee on Education is couching this in terms of "local control," its recommendation: "Modify class size limitations to allow more flexibility to school districts to meet the need of their students."

What they're more than willing to tinker with — some would say destroy — is one of the main parts of White's education legacy, the changes that went through in 1984 when the Legislature, working with the results of the Perot Commission on Education, allowed full-day kindergarten funding (although some members tried to take it back in the next regular session), no-pass, no-play and a 22-1 limit on the number of kids one teacher would have to face in a lower-grades classroom each day.

State Representative Scott Hochberg, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on education and vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, calls the current crop of proposals "budget reduction masquerading as education reform."

As the neo-reformers would have it, creative teachers and administrators have supposedly been crippled by the 22-1 rule for 26 years now. The problems with this worldview are twofold: No. 1, the 22-1 rule only applies to grades K-4, a compromise hammered out in 1984. It doesn't even make it all the way through elementary.

And second, a school district has always been able to apply for waivers to the class size cap — and a check of Texas Education Agency records shows these are pretty freely handed out.

Starting in the 1993-94 school year to the present day, a total of 3,085 waivers have been granted to school districts, according to TEA records. Since 1992, there have been only five waiver requests denied. Not five each year. That's five total.

"If this was something you needed to free up principals to do, you would already see that happening in the grades where there's no class size limits," Hochberg says. "If they wanted that flexibility, they already have it everywhere from high school down to fifth grade."

Nevertheless, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, in her recent FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) report assessing each school district in Texas for its fiscal effectiveness, recommends that the state "relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class."

The word "average" sounds innocuous enough unless you figure out that if you match a small class (say special ed) with a larger one, that second one can get pretty big and still meet the "average" requirement.

Mark White grew up knowing all about these kind of averages.

"The reason for 22-1, and it doesn't use the word 'average,' is because of what my mother told me every day when she came home from teaching in a first-grade classroom in which the state law called for a 28-1 average.

White has a photo of his mother's first-grade class at Briargrove Elementary school during the late '60s, early '70s, when the law was 28-1. "I go around and count the little shining faces in her first-grade class. Somehow or another, she has 34 kids in her class. Where'd those extra six kids come from? 

"The next year she had the same number. So when all the administrators came in and said, 'Make it an average,' they averaged in the custodians and the cooks. That's the game we played."

However accurate White and Hochberg are, they are swimming against a majority tide of Republican state legislators who got into office promising to hold the line on taxes. If that means sticking a few extra kids in a classroom, so be it.

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn't matter till you get down to 15, Hochberg says. So if you can't do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

"It didn't say until you get to 15 there's no difference," Hochberg says. "How you twist that into 'There's no difference till you get down to 15' is pure propaganda."

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

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