Saturday, December 10, 2016

Small schools and class size

As will come as news to no one, I put a high priority on keeping our existing schools open; among other things, I think it’s a key ingredient in maintaining community support for district initiatives and it plays an important role in maintaining livable, family-friendly neighborhoods in the central core of Iowa City. But I don’t deny that there are costs involved in keeping our smaller schools open, and I think it’s important to think about what those costs are and whether there are ways to mitigate them.

In this post, I want to consider the effect of small schools on class size. When the district sets class size goals, it can give the impression that class sizes can be fine-tuned. For example, the most recent draft of those goals suggests that most elementary schools should have class sizes of no more than 26 from kindergarten through second grade, and no more than 30 in grades three through six. (The class size goals are lower than that in schools with higher levels of academic need, but most schools will not fall into that category.)

But conforming to those goals is easier said than done, especially in our smaller schools. A school with an enrollment of 240 is likely to have about 34 kids per grade. What do you do with that number? A 34-kid kindergarten classroom is much larger than ideal, so the district would almost certainly choose to break it into two 17-kid classes—a lot nicer, but way below what we could afford to staff district-wide. What if 40 sixth-graders show up? Again, 20 is a wonderful class size, but it’s way below the district median for sixth-graders.

In other words, smaller schools tend to produce more outlier class sizes, forcing the district to choose between class sizes that are significantly above the goals or significantly below them. This effect lessens somewhat as you get into enrollments of over three hundred. A 300-kid school will tend to produce class sizes in the twenties, which is at least better than having to choose between 17 or 34. But it would still be subject to year-to-year fluctuations that could generate uncomfortable choices, and class sizes in the low twenties are still below the district median.

By contrast, large schools give the district enough flexibility that they seldom result in outlier class sizes. In a 600-kid school (assuming the kids are spread out evenly over the seven grades), you can have class sizes of about 21 in the lower grades and 29 in the higher grades. Even if a bigger-than-usual group shows up in one grade, it gets spread out over three or four classrooms, so it’s not liable to generate class sizes as high as 34. As a result, the large school may be less likely to get an additional teacher than the small school with the 34-kid cohort.

In particular, smaller schools pose a challenge for the district’s weighted resource allocation model—that is, the effort to allocate smaller class sizes to school with higher academic need. To create smaller class sizes in high-need schools, we need to tolerate larger class sizes in the remaining schools. If that effect is spread out over many schools, the effect on any one school will be smaller and thus the model will be more politically sustainable. But it’s not so easy for smaller schools to take a “fair share” of that effect—again, because the choice will often be between a class size that greatly exceeds the goals and one that is much smaller than average. If the smaller schools get lower-than-average class sizes, even when they are not high-need schools, the burden of the resource reallocation will fall disproportionately on larger schools. If the smaller schools are expected to tolerate class sizes far above the goals, the burden will fall disproportionately on them. Either way, it becomes harder to sustain the reallocation effort.

Again, I’m certainly not trying to make the case for closing smaller schools. But if we’re going to resist the ongoing pressure to consider closing some of them (and not just Hoover), it makes sense to do some problem-solving around the issue of outlier class sizes. I’ll explore some possibilities in an upcoming post.


Anonymous said...


The district can adjust boundaries to keep existing schools open at a reasonable capacity. It costs millions to build shiny new elementary schools. We can't afford to tear down schools to build more new ones especially in corn fields.

Superintendent Murley has had years to get magnet schools going or to pair schools, and nothing has happened. Thank you for voting not to extend his contract.

Anonymous said...

Year and mid yearly boundary adjustments are the most obvious and easy solution to this problem that the community will unquestionably embrace and accept.

Chris said...

Anonymous (8:33) -- I agree that it's a bad idea to tear down existing schools to build new schools elsewhere. But the class size issue in small schools will remain, since there are only so many students you can put in a small school; small schools just aren't big enough to have three classrooms per grade level. If your choice is between one classroom per grade level and two classrooms per grade level, it's hard to avoid ending up with very uncomfortable choices between class sizes that are very high or very low. (Again, I think there are some ways to address this, which I'll write more about.)

Anonymous (9:45) -- I'm not so sure that the community will unquestioningly embrace and accept constant boundary changes, even in mid-year (maybe you're joking?). But in any event, I'm not seeing how boundary changes would address the small school class size problem, since under any set of boundaries, you're likely to have similar-sized cohorts in the lower grades and in the upper grades.

I'd urge both Anonymouses to take a shot at the math problem here.

Anonymous said...

1. Pair smaller schools with another school.

2. Pair grades within the school which was done in the past.

3. Set set boundaries with some flex areas that are subject to being changed every year.

4. Set up magnet schools and cap class sizes.

There are many solutions available.

Anonymous said...

There would be more classrooms if Murley's administration hadn't gotten the past board to cut hundreds of seats in Iowa City promised under the original facilities master plan.

The facilities master plan seems to be more about building resumes with newly built schools and supporting development than kids.

Now it looks like the district will threaten to close older schools like Mann and Lincoln and Hills if voters don't vote yes in the upcoming bond election and turn around and close schools even if voters vote yes.

My question is what about Shimek? Will it survive? It's not threatened like the others.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone in this district ever look for models of success in other districts that have successfully faced similar challenges?

There is a failure of national networking in this district and it is one of the reasons why this district is falling behind. We aren't bringing in grants, we aren't sending board members and administrators on the road to learn from models of success, and we are stuck with a short sighted vision for the district that centers around an us v them mentality. It's time to guarantee east, west, and north representation on the school board.

Anonymous said...

1:15: Your points are certainly valid, but we hire a superintendant to do these things for us. Unfortunately, improving the quality of education provided in this district is not a skill which our superintendant has.

And perhaps we should look in Iowa for an alternative, not nationwide. The district's recent annual report shows that there are many districts and superintendants in Iowa who are doing a better job than we are. This sort of demonstrated success (and knowledge of Iowa's arcane school funding processes) is what we need and should be looking at.