There has been ongoing discussion in our district about the fact that some schools have a much higher percentage of “high need” kids than other schools do. People have advocated for various ways to help the higher-need kids: some say we should redistrict to avoid high concentrations of high-need kids in any one school; some want to use magnet schools or paired schools to achieve the same end; some want to direct disproportionate resources toward schools with disproportionate need. These are not mutually exclusive ideas; the district could use redistricting, magnets, or paired schools to some extent and then try to address remaining disparities with resource allocation.
Our district has already begun a “weighted resource allocation” plan. So far, the plan has involved allocating certain types of staff support (such as School Administration Managers) toward schools with more high-need kids. As I understand it, the plan has not (yet?) progressed to reallocating classroom teachers (though some ad hoc recognition of high-need schools may have occurred to a limited extent). Since the bulk of our operating budget is spent on classroom teachers, applying the plan to classroom teachers would greatly increase how much resource reallocation we could do.
That said, it’s easy to say that we should reallocate resources, and harder to know what that would actually entail. The goal of this post is to imagine what it might look like if we deliberately tilted the allocation of classroom teachers toward schools with more high-need kids. So I did an elaborate mathematical experiment. To begin, I defined “high need” simply by using the percentage of kids who receive free or reduced-price lunch at each school. This is not a perfect proxy for “high need,” but it’s a pretty good one; we’ve seen big disparities between FRL and non-FRL kids on statewide assessments of reading and math proficiency. (Our district has begun to use a more complex indicator that also takes into account the number of kids in special education and in the English-language learning program. I hope to write more on the measurement of “high need” in a future post.)
Then, I decided to assign a greater “weight” to high-need students, on the theory that the kids with more need should get more teachers. To keep it straightforward, I decided to give each high-need kid the weight of two students and then reallocate teachers accordingly. That means that class sizes in a 100% high-need school would, on average, be half the size of those in a 0% high-need school. And since we don’t have any schools that are 100% or 0% high need, the actual class size differences would not be that large on average.
How would that system change the allocation of teachers in our elementary schools? Here’s what happened when I ran the numbers:
What would the resulting class sizes look like? First, let’s see what they look like now. Here is a chart showing the class sizes in our elementary schools as of October 2015. Green squares indicate class sizes that are below-median for that grade; red squares are above median. I’ve listed the schools in decreasing order of FRL percentage, so the higher-need schools are at the top. (Click to enlarge.)
As you can see, there is a little more green toward the top of the chart than at the bottom, but the pattern is inconsistent and not very strong. (Caveat: I used the class size numbers from the district’s October 2015 report; there have almost certainly been changes since that time, both in the number of students and possibly in assignment of teachers.) Now here’s what it would look like if we reallocated that same number of teachers based strictly on giving high-need students the weight of two students (click to enlarge):
On the one hand, you can see that the pattern is much stronger and more consistent: schools with more high-need kids would get consistently smaller class sizes. On the other hand, you can see just how much it would come at the expense of the schools with the fewest high-need kids. Class sizes would be significantly larger there. In fact, toward the bottom of the chart, I had to start combining grades (that is, having mixed classes of first- and second-graders, or third- and fourth-graders, or fifth- and sixth-graders), in order to avoid class sizes in the forties or worse. Even then some of the class sizes were pretty steep.
There are many, many possible critiques of the method I used here to determine reallocation. FRL is not a perfect proxy for need, for example. Two is not necessarily the right multiplier. “Need” is not a binary concept, but varies on a spectrum. Academic need is not the only kind of need. Maybe what high-FRL schools need is not more classroom teachers but more reading specialists. And so on. There are certainly other ways to conceive of how resources might best be directed toward needs. But any attempt to reallocate resources, no matter what the details, will have to recognize that there are consequences, and that the greater the benefit to high-need kids, the more uncomfortable some of those consequences are at the other end.
Seeing a concrete illustration of resource reallocation raises lot of questions. What is the “ceiling” on how high a class size we can tolerate, even at a low-FRL school? Could any plan like this one ever get the buy-in it would need to become a reality—from the public, the board, and the teachers and administrators? Would this approach to addressing disparities be more or less politically sustainable than a purely redistricting-based approach (keeping in mind that a redistricting approach would entail some additional busing expenses that would also affect class size)? Would it be more or less effective at reducing the proficiency gaps? How big would the benefit actually be?
Is it possible that some families would transfer their kids from schools with the higher class sizes to schools with the lower class sizes, taking some of the edge off of the disparities in both class size and FRL? In other words, could it work as a kind of Small Class Size Magnet School plan? On the other hand, to what extent would better-off families simply opt out of the public schools altogether (which costs the district money in per-pupil state aid) if they felt like class sizes at their elementary school were too high?
How would resource reallocation work in the junior highs and high schools? I assume it would have to operate at the classroom level—that is, courses that enroll lots of high-need students would have smaller class sizes, while class sizes would increase in courses that enroll fewer high-need students. (I’m looking at you, AP courses.) Notice that there is an argument for doing this even if our boundary plan equalizes the FRL percentages at each school, since the FRL percentages might still vary widely from classroom to classroom.
Again, this particular approach to resource reallocation is just one of many that are imaginable. But it’s useful because it provides a concrete sense of how resource reallocation could really hash out in practice. One thing you notice right away is how class sizes change not gradually but in quantum leaps: often adding just one teacher to a particular grade in one school changes that grade’s squares from very red to very green. Since you can’t just add a fraction of a classroom teacher to a school, class sizes are not easily fine-tuned or smoothed out.
I know there are limits to what the school district can do to bring up test scores. It is not within our power to erase all the effects of poverty (and other challenges) on our students’ lives. Though I’ll never agree that “educational achievement” can be reduced to a score on a standardized test, the proficiency gaps we’re seeing are clearly telling us something real about how well we’re serving our high-need kids. In my view, some form of resource reallocation toward schools with more high-need kids (not necessarily this particular variation!) ought to be a part of the discussion of how to address those gaps. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not an easy fix and that it might be hard to achieve significant benefits without tolerating some significant costs.
Finally, I’ll be a broken record: The painful trade-offs that you see when you think about class size would be reduced and even eliminated if our governor and state legislature would provide better school funding. I’m not meaning to excuse the school board from using its funding as wisely as possible, but state funding is the primary factor driving class size. Even just bringing Iowa back up to the national median for per-pupil funding would provide our district with millions of dollars of additional operating funds—enough to turn many red squares green and still have something left over to address other needs. Neither political party is perfect on this score, but in practice, increasing school funding requires electing a Democratic legislature this year and a Democratic governor in 2018.
I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts in the comments. How do you think resource reallocation compares to other possible ways to address the proficiency gaps we’re seeing among our high-need kids?