Ideal Class Sizes - Feb 28, 2024

Meagan Roy (Superintendent, Washington Central Unified Union School District (U32)) spoke to the House Education Committee on Wednesday. She has held leadership roles at school districts of varying sizes and understands the conversation is “cost containment” and the conversations around education funding issues need to deal with that issue. It is a polarizing subject, she noted.

Roy added that the conversation must be grounded in what is good for students. She is focused on “instruction at scale” which is connected to adult to student ratios.  “When we talk about reducing the number of adults in the building it doesn’t feel good,” she stated. But extremely small class sizes actually hurt education.

Some excerpts from her presentation:

“Multiple age groups are taught together, but not because of an instructional commitment to multi age learning- instead, age groups are combined in different configurations each year based on enrollment. Very small class sizes don’t allow teachers to use flexible grouping and cooperative learning. It limits the instructional experiences students can have. This is not quality instruction.”

“Very small schools make it difficult to offer the robust and quality education we know we want for Vermont students. When you don’t have scale, it limits what we can provide in terms of art, music, world language technology, etc.”

“Vermont is not immune to a need for change. Individuals and organizations are guilty of blind spots when it comes to doing their work, making it difficult to imagine things any other way. I would conclude my comments by reminding the committee to stay student centered in your decisions. Yes, this is about cost containment- but it’s really about doing better by students by focusing on good practice.”

See full written comments.

Conlon asked her what the “ideal size for an elementary school” was, taking into account scale and avoiding partial FTE’s, etc. Roy is currently doing a similar “visioning” exercise within their district where they are considering their scope and ADM etc.

Conlon asked about class size and incentivizing change that voters would support. He wondered how her district is making changes in “right-sizing” their schools and class sizes. Roy noted that they are still “only in the study phase… I don’t want to oversell where we are in the process.” Then she outlined their general community engagement practices, saying that the conversation is changing as they “started to shift it to what could we do if we organized ourselves differently.”

She explained that their tax rates and the overall situation is becoming clear to people.  Recent tax hikes reflect the smaller system and makes “the conversation relevant.” Conlon pressed on that the elementary schools aren’t the only small schools and we should also remember there are junior and high schools also may have limited offerings (and efficiency) due to size.

Representative Austin commented that they are hearing that budgets are under pressure, partly because “there are a lot more ‘Paras’ in classrooms.” Roy didn’t disagree, saying that they are observing (she was a longtime Special Education Director) that there has, over time, been a shift towards heavier utilization of support staff. She noted that there is a limited amount of data she has but would not be surprised if the increase is real and not just perceived.

Austin commented that “Act 173 was supposed to lower the need for Para’s…” Conlon agreed, saying they should be farther ahead on that but Covid sort of delayed the changes.

Conlon wanted to understand what a model class size policy should look like a prescriptive they should be. He wanted to find a model class size policy that would be more effective. Roy said that lack of forceful language in “Act 46 and lots of other things” was lacking and that “we need some stronger guidelines… within the EQS guidelines.”

 

Josh Souliere (Director of Education Quality, Agency of Education) joined the Committee to discuss class size research and background in Vermont.

He explained they are not certain where the Education Quality Standards (EQS) numbers for maximum class sizes came from. The State Board of Education adopted these in 2014 and there is no supporting evidence for them. The current standards set a maximum of 20 for K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12. There are no minimum class size guidelines.

The research is inconsistent on this subject (class ratios) and teacher quality is clearly a more important factor than class size. There is some indication that large reductions in class sizes, in the 7-10 student range, does have a long-term effect on outcomes, but he cautioned that these are long term studies that still under way.

NOTE: This research has little relevance to Vermont where class sizes are approaching 10 students per teacher. Other states that are closer to 30 may see benefits.

Anne Bordonaro (Interim Deputy Secretary, Agency of Education) pointed out that these the studies are national and so the threshold starting sizes are larger than Vermont – so reducing an already small class size will not necessarily yield the same results. Vermont is already under the national average so the studies are incoherent and not tracking with the existing smaller classes already in existence.

NOTE: Vermont is not just below the national average, we have the smallest class sizes by a sizable margin.

Conlon commented that they have “minimal levers available to us in terms of a long range vision of how we get our school costs under control… bluntly if we have fewer schools and fewer adults in them… and if we have more kids under a highly qualified teacher we need fewer teachers and that (both) is a cost savings.”

He continued that “we are at a time when we can actually talk about that without inflicting pain because we are in a period of a teacher shortage.”

He asked Souliere and Bordonaro if they would assist the committee in “coming up with that policy and the numbers that would best fit into that for the various grade ranges?” Souliere responded that they can “definitely can come up with some research to support you with.”

Bordonaro adds the class size is indicative but not determinative as they need to allot for adult to student ratios across a school. These need to be factored or the data would be skewed in all directions and useless for her request.

Bordonaro cautioned that we have never had a class size minimum in Vermont, and they can explore that but the research would likely require academic analysis due to the small samples and scales of Vermont schools. She reiterated that “teacher quality appears to have a stronger impact on student performance than class size.”

 


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