ST. PAUL, Minn. – Does time stand still in the St. Paul school district?
If it does, that would explain why its teachers union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, is using contract negotiations to insist on a hard cap on class sizes.
For nearly a decade, there has been a consensus among education experts that when it comes to student achievement, teacher quality is far more important than class size. The research has so consistently downplayed the value of smaller class sizes that most scholars consider it a settled matter.
Assuming that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers is not stuck in some bizarre time warp, why is the union ignoring the research and insisting that strict class size limits be written into its new teachers’ contract?
According to SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker, capping class sizes is a way to guarantee St. Paul families that their children will receive personalized attention from their teachers, which she says is a necessary ingredient for a student’s success.
“This proposal is about meeting the needs of our students so that we can … quickly close this achievement gap,” Ricker told TwinCities.com.
Eric Hanushek, a leading scholar in the field of class sizes and teacher quality, offers a different theory.
“It’s employment protection,” Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, told EAG. Hanushek explained that caps are a way of ensuring that a district is required to employ a certain number of teachers, even when tough financial times require schools to cut their budgets.
“And it makes a teacher’s job easier,” he said. “Fewer kids mean fewer papers to grade. There’s less work to do.”
Declining enrollment should mean fewer teachers
Over the past six years, the St. Paul school district has seen enrollment decline by 2,000 students, reports the Star Tribune. That is partly due to the state’s overall decrease in population, which has left fewer school-age children to educate.
The decline is also due to competition for students from the 29 charter schools located within the St. Paul school district.
“There’s been a significant shift in enrollment to charter schools over the last 10 years,” said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the MN Association of Charter Schools.
Nine thousand students attended St. Paul area charter schools during the 2009-10 school year, up from 3,800 students in 2001-02, Piccolo said.
Sliding student enrollment led the St. Paul district to lay off 300 employees last summer, in addition to the 100 staffers who opted for an early retirement, reports Minnesota Public Radio.
So as a job protection plan, the union’s class size cap makes perfect sense. But the truth is that the union is trying to address a problem that clearly doesn’t exist.
The St. Paul district already has target ranges for class sizes – no more than 32-35 students in a high school classroom, for instance – and fewer than five percent of classrooms are surpassing those targets this year, according to the district.
“While there are individual classrooms where a range has been exceeded, we are in very strong compliance,” school board member Jean O’Connell told TwinCities.com. Current class sizes are comparable to those of a decade ago, she said.
The boomerang effect
Although class size restrictions are usually decided at the local level, Hanushek said roughly one-third of states have placed tough limits on school class sizes, sometimes with disastrous effects.
“Strict limits on individual class sizes are written into Florida’s state constitution,” he said. “That’s quite a burden on Florida’s school. They have to pour money into meeting class size requirements, which means there’s little left over for other things.”
Between caps and expensive labor agreements with school employee unions, many Florida public schools are facing huge deficits.
As a result, Florida’s Marion County school district recently announced that it is switching to a four-day school week next fall. Florida’s Pasco County school district is considering a similar move.
Hanushek said research into the benefits of small class sizes “stopped because the findings have been very consistent.”
Data showed small class sizes offer modest gains for kindergarteners, but almost no gains for older students.
“It’s much better to worry about the quality of teachers than class size,” he said.
That’s the philosophy of Pittsburgh Public Schools, which is softening the blow of mass teacher layoffs by ensuring that each class is led by an effective educator.
“I think we should give better teachers more students and give poorer teachers fewer students, so they can do less damage,” Hanushek said.