Class sizes increase as funds drop

Student limits dependent on grade, subject
Richmond Academy's Ken Johnson talks in his history class. County school board members recently kept maximum class sizes unchanged, though some would like to see reductions.

Debates about classroom sizes are nothing new, but the issue has taken on greater prominence in the past two years as school districts face tightened budgets.

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the nonprofit group Class Size Matters, says class sizes have grown nationwide "because of state and city budget cuts," and she says more work should be done to track the change.

"It's one of the areas we need better data on, and we're not getting it," she said.

In an e-mail, Haimson said the optimal number of students in a classroom has not been determined, but most people believe it is no more than 15.

Richmond County school board members recently decided to keep maximum classroom sizes unchanged from last year, but their cap is still two students greater than two years ago, and some members say they wish the numbers could be reduced.

"I would really like to see the days where we're below 20 in the elementary classrooms," board member Venus Cain said at a recent meeting.

Kenneth Johnson Jr., a social studies teacher, said he feels the optimum student-to-teacher ratio is about 15 to 18 students.

"Generally, students and teachers alike feel the pressure to perform even more than they usually would when there is a large enough audience," he said.

However, he also sees some benefit from a larger class.

"Because of increased numbers, there is a greater likelihood that (students) would come into contact with more students where they must learn to compromise, adapt or stand their ground," Johnson said.

The student limit per class in Richmond County depends on grade level, with kindergarten at 20, grades 1-3 at 23, grades 4-5 at 30 and high school between 28 and 35 depending on the subject. Last school year, a few elementary classes and English as a Second Language classes exceeded their state-approved limit by one, causing officials to request an exemption. This year, limits no longer need state approval and can be set by districts as enrollments increase.

Richmond County school officials have said most of their classes fall below the maximum level, though the district doesn't track its average classroom size. Only individual schools conduct such tracking.

In Columbia County, the maximum class sizes also depend on grade level, with the cap at 20 in kindergarten, 21 in first through third grades, 28 in fourth through eighth grades and as many as 30 in high school.

A call to Michele Conner, Aiken County's director of elementary education, seeking the district's maximum class sizes wasn't immediately returned.

The U.S. Department of Education has said keeping classes below 20 students is better for learning. This year's candidates for Georgia school superintendent -- Democrat Joe Martin and Republican John Barge -- have weighed in on the issue.

At a Georgia Public Broadcasting debate this summer where The Chronicle asked candidates about class sizes, Barge said the smallest numbers should be at the elementary level, with maximums reaching no higher than 23 students per class.

He said that at the high school level, larger class sizes "are a more manageable entity, especially when you consider students going off to college. If they're going to the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, they may be sitting in a classroom with 400 students. So a classroom size in high school of somewhere of 30- to 32-to-1 would be probably a top point there."

Martin didn't give a preferred student number at the debate but did say class sizes are a problem statewide.

"We have a double problem," he said. "We're expanding class sizes and shortening the school year. I've never seen it this difficult to provide the education that our youngsters need."

Haimson said that in 2007 -- the most recent data available -- the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted that average U.S. elementary class sizes were 23.1 and middle schools were at 24.3.

The National Center for Education Statistics has shown high school class size averages at 23.3. Georgia's 2007 elementary average class size was 17.6, according to the NCES. The state's average high school class size was 23.

Despite such figures, statistics have shown student-to-teacher ratios have declined compared with several decades ago. A July Educational Testing Service report notes that the nationwide pupil-to-teacher ratio for kindergarten through 12th grade was 24.7 in 1965. That figure dropped to 17.9 by 1985, 17.2 by 1990 and 16 in 2000.

Haimson said the ratio has since leveled off and is not a good measure of class numbers.

"That does not translate to what your average student experiences," she said, noting that ratios become skewed partly because special education classes are included and have much smaller classes.

She said schools also now have such positions as counselors, speech therapists and reading and math coaches that in some cases aren't assigned to a regular class.

The bottom line, Haimson says, is that smaller classes produce greater student learning.

"There is nothing more important that policymakers can do to improve learning conditions in our schools than to keep classes small," she said.

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