For Your Reference: Education and Class Size

April 29, 2003

As Chicago school teachers prepare for their upcoming contract struggle, class size is one of the most important issues.

Since 1995, the Chicago Teachers Union has been restrained, under special state legislation, from bargaining over class size as well as other vital working conditions, such as privatization, layoffs, staff assignments, class schedules, hours of work, pupil assessment, charter schools, etc.

The results of this legislation have been disastrous for teachers and students alike. The Board of Education, even while boasting to the world about its "reform model," has callously increased class sizes. Today class sizes are officially capped at 28 in elementary school and 31 in high school although in many schools there are more than 35 students per class. So too, special needs teachers, including bilingual teachers, art and music teachers, counselors, speech therapists, librarians, nurses, etc., have impossible numbers of students assigned to them.

The vital importance of class size is not only common sense but supported by voluminous research conducted by independent investigators as well as by the state and federal government.

For example, the "Student/Teacher Ratio" (STAR), an authoritative study by the state of Tennessee concluded that class size for grades 3-12 should be no greater than 17 or 18. The study, which tracked student achievement over time, proved that students in small classes consistently scored higher on achievement and basic skills tests. This study also revealed that smaller classes produced better high-school graduation rates and students who were more likely to attend college. There were significant improvements in grades and test scores for inner-city, minority children especially.

In Wisconsin, the state-sponsored "Student Achievement Guarantee in Education" (SAGE) program, after following the performance of nearly 10,000 students for three years, concluded that 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classes should be limited to no more than 15 pupils.

Similarly, a largescale project in Indiana found that children in small classes as compared to those in larger classes "obtained higher test scores, participated more in school, demonstrated improved behavior and retained many benefits of early class-size reductions in their later years of schooling."

Even the U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) report: "Reducing Class Size. What Do We Know?," shows that reducing class size from substantially above 20 students per class to below 20 students increased the average student's performance levels from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile."

In fact, the DOE officially recommends that class size be limited to no more than 20 students and 21 states have passed laws mandating that classes in early elementary school be kept under 20 pupils.

But, flying in the face of this scientific research and even the law itself, the government refuses to make the investments needed to reduce class size.

As a result, millions of students across the country, are literally stuffed into overcrowded classrooms and schools. In Chicago, some classes meet in hallways or closets because there are not enough classrooms. Special needs teachers often have no place to meet with their students or even store their materials. Thousands of students attend class in trailers in parking lots.

Teachers, in turn, simply cannot keep up with their day-to-day workload (grading, paper work, report cards, etc.) much less provide students with needed individual and group instruction.

Nothing could be more hypocritical than to hear government officials, at all levels, complain about "low student achievement" or condemn teachers as "unprofessional," when it is the government and school authorities who are systematically underfunding the public schools and herding students and teachers into overcrowded, rundown buildings with impossibly high class sizes.

Thus, the struggle of Chicago teachers to reduce class size is not only a necessary part of their struggle against overwork, it is vital to the education of our children.

This struggle deserves the support of all the working people.