A Bridge Editorial
Bridge Magazine recently conducted an exhaustive analysis of class size in Michigan schools -- poring through reams of academic research, unleashing powerful computer programs on data from every school building in the state and hiring people to conduct telephone interviews.
And we’re pretty sure we know less now than when we started.
Are there more kids packed into classrooms today than a decade ago? We have no idea.
Do students in smaller-than-average classrooms do better academically? How about kids in larger than average? We got nothin’.
The Michigan Department of Education is the Fort Knox of data. With just a few clicks, we can tell the number of children of migrant workers who graduated on-time from high school in 2011-12 (41); we can identify the percentage of Hispanic students from Mason High School in 2007-08 who enrolled in community colleges within 16 months of graduation (67 percent); we can even state unequivocally how many Ewen-Trout Creek Consolidated Schools students enrolled in Watersmeet Township classes last year through school choice (2).
But Michigan does not keep tabs on the number of students in your child’s classroom.
It seems like an awfully big oversight, especially when class size is a common concern – a basic consumer issue -- among parents, students and educators. A belief that class sizes are growing was a common refrain during community conversations on education reform sponsored by The Center for Michigan last year. Among more than 7,500 Michigan residents who took part in community conversations across the state, 71 percent supported reducing class size.
Bridge tries DIY method on class size
So how crowded are classrooms today? It turns out that class size is a lot more difficult to determine than you’d think.
The average class size in U.S. public elementary schools was 20 in 2008, the most recent year available from the National Center for Education Statistics. But those figures are about as factual as “the dog ate my homework” excuses. The data doesn’t take into account special education classes, which are smaller. In addition, some teachers are specialists, teaching art or music to students pulled out of their regular classes.
Confronting inaccurate federal data and a complete absence of Michigan data, we decided on a DIY approach. Armed with a list of schools, a database of students by grade by building and the high hopes of two Central Michigan University students, we attempted to create our own statistics.
But in two out of three schools, there were problems that made the data iffy -- at best. Some schools had combined-grade classes, making them impossible to compare to other schools. One extra kid could force a school to switch from one class of 29 third-graders to two classes of 15.
And even among the schools for which we had complete data, we only had 2012-13 class size; there was no way to determine if class size was growing or shrinking -- or the impact of changing class size on academic results.
How to give parents meaningful information
There is debate over whether class size matters. Some studies don’t show an impact at all. Others show class size has an impact in early grades, particularly among low-income children. No matter the scientific impact on learning, however, big classes, or the perception of big classes, are a consumer issue. And if the state wants to keep those consumers, they should pay attention.
If policy makers make it a priority in the future, parents could truly know their children’s class sizes. Here’s how:
The Michigan Department of Education requires the reporting of dozens of data points from schools each year. MDE could add one more: the number of students in each of its traditional, one-grade classrooms – with the results broken down by individual classrooms in each individual school (rather than district-wide data).
That way, parents could easily compare the size of their children’s classrooms with other schools down the street, across their school district, in neighboring districts and across the state. Pretty quickly, parents could know whether class sizes are truly changing over time, rather than be governed by PTA anecdotes or their own unscientific suspicions.
Before long, someone could examine in much greater detail whether class size has an impact on learning. Someone, say, like Bridge Magazine.
It’s commonplace these days to use our phones to track second-by-second changes in the stock market, or instantly retrieve a favorite player’s batting average.
So, what’s more important? Whether Miguel Cabrera hits .400 this year? Or how many other children your child competes with for a teacher’s attention?