What is being done about class sizes?


What is being done about class sizes?

2:09 p.m. PDT October 17, 2015

Tim McFarland witnesses the negative effects of large class sizes every day.

As a special education teacher at Englewood Elementary School in Salem, he works with students with disabilities, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

And when it comes to large class sizes, he said, “I’m so tired of this.”

Over the nine years McFarland has taught at Englewood, he has seen the class sizes fluctuate, but continuously grow, and he says that little to nothing is being done about it.

“Every year, there is at least one grade at Englewood that has 65 or more students in it,” he said. “The district’s answer is to provide extra instructional assistant time, but what we really need is another teacher.”

There have been some improvements with solutions such as blended classrooms, where more than one grade level is in one class, but, McFarland said, it “results in one or more teachers having to teach two sets of standards. This is far from ‘best practices’ as we implement the Common Core standards.”

Some Salem-Keizer class sizes are reportedly as high as 44 students per teacher, said Eric Miller, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association.

“Large class sizes effect student learning,” he said. “They make it very difficult for teachers to provide individual attention to their students.”

This is particularly damaging for the younger grades that are working to build students’ basic understanding of core subjects, such as reading, writing and beginning math.

To address this, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill that aims to alleviate the issue of large class sizes across the state. It was scheduled for its first reading on July 2.

Months later, people in the Salem-Keizer School District, the second largest district in the state, are still wondering what is being done to reduce class sizes.

According to a statement by the House Majority Office, Oregon is among the states with the largest class sizes in the nation. A 2013 report compiled by the National Education Association ranked Oregon third for largest class sizes.

In Salem-Keizer, the district has budgeted for classes of 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, 30 for fourth and fifth grades, 31 for grades six through eight, and 36 for high school because of the move to a block schedule, according to Mary Paulson, a spokeswoman for the district.

Paulson said that the district has the money to support staff for the budgeted class sizes. However, she added, the numbers are not quite where they want them.

“It’s not ideal,” she said. “But it’s what we can do right now based on the space we have available.”

With a new block schedule for the high schools and full-day kindergarten, any previously available space in the district is being used. Even with academic trailers and partnership with local community centers, there still isn’t enough room.

However, should a teacher have more students than what is budgeted and feels overwhelmed, they can request an instructional assistant. The K-3 classes automatically have an instructional assistant. Though this does not decrease the number of students in a classroom, it does help reduce the ratio of students to instructor in each class.

In response, House Bill 2928 was created.

The bill was geared toward giving voices to individuals who are most affected by large classes, including teachers. It passed the House with 42 votes in favor and 18 votes against.

Additionally, the bill was passed by the Senate later in July. This bill establishes a task force to study and report appropriate and effective class sizes, come up with ways to reduce class sizes and determine the potential cost of making classes smaller.

Research suggests that such reduction could benefit the students in the long run as teachers are able to dedicate more time per student.

“Most of the research shows that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented in the primary grades (K-3), student achievement rises as class size drops,” according to the Center for Public Education.

Results from a student the Center for Public Education conducted with 19 schools suggested that classes of no more than 18 students are the most successful and must be implemented in the younger grade levels, such as K-3.

The challenging this is that there have to be highly qualified teachers and a place to put them. This means funding for rooms, salaries, materials and more.

Such research and dialogue as the task force plans to achieve will inevitably take some time, so the Oregon public is now playing the waiting game.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Portland, said she and others have been working to put the task force into effect.

“Since passing HB 2928, I’ve been talking to teachers, parents, school board members, educational organizations, and community members about the effects of class sizes,” McLain said. “I have passed my recommendations along to the governor, who will appoint the members of the task force.”

Gov. Kate Brown is in the process of nominating the final 10 members of the 15-person task force.

McLain said the task force will meet two to three times a month, beginning after the appointments are made. The Department of Education is currently gathering statewide data on class sizes, which the task force will discuss. She added that the task force will generate recommendations based on key factors such as curriculum type and age group that can be utilized across the state by school districts and teachers.

As the task force will not create any policy or take any action, but is simply meeting to research and discuss the subject and update the government’s understanding, little to no money is required. It has not been determined when the commission is due to finish the research and discussion on the subject.

There will be two state representatives and two state senators, who will also sit on the task force, according to McLain.

“Class size is an important factor in student outcomes and thanks to improvement in the economy, we are starting to address this in Salem-Keizer but we have a long way to go,” Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry said in an interview last year.

Jay Remy, a spokesman for the district, said this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“Fewer kids per class means that you need more classrooms,” he said. “But the main difficulty in reducing class size is in paying for the the additional teachers that are required to bring class size down significantly.”

The district recently added 11 middle school teachers to reduce the average class size in the middle schools by two students, which cost the district $865,000 for salaries and benefits, according to Remy.

He said that does not include any expenses for new classroom space. Additionally, he estimated that it will take $5.5 million to reduce the average class size by one student district-wide.

In the 2014-2015 district budget report, the district allocated $2.66 million toward reducing K-3 average class sizes by two students. This money goes towards hiring more teachers and supplying these teachers with the space and materials needed to teach.

“It would be great if all students in Oregon could have smaller average class sizes,” he said. “When the economy declined several years ago, that forced reductions in teaching staff and that drove class sizes higher in many districts.”

Remy added that the district is happy about the new task force.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” he said.

npate@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6745, or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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