The Efficiency of School Closures: Are Super-sized Classrooms More Effective?

Raise Your Hand, founded by parents who mobilized in response to warnings in 2010 that class sizes might be increased to resolve budget deficits, finds itself again revisiting the classroom size problem in Chicago as CPS lists 54 schools for closure by the end of this year. These school closures reflect the CPS goal to fill classrooms with 30 students, as has been pointed out in the recent Tribune article. The new CPS utilization formula allows for as many 36 students in classrooms.

In addition to what schools closures mean for their neighborhoods, there is the question of how the schools remaining open and receiving the displaced students will function. When schools close, displaced students are placed into the classrooms of other neighborhood schools. Those classrooms then experience a sudden swell in their student body. On top of whatever current struggles these receiving schools already face, they will now also have to acclimate and nurture an estimated 30,000 students who could be reassigned to their schools. Class sizes will be larger both for students moving and students in receiving schools.

For many, the closings signal more upheaval after more than a decade of upheaval. Many of the schools dealing with these changes reside in areas of the city that were affected by the closure of 10% of CPS schools between 2001 and 2009 as part of the Ren2010 project. These areas have been through a lot of disruption. For example, the Bunche school was closed in 2005 and now those displaced students- many of whom attend Earle and Goodlow- could again see upheaval. There are a myriad of educational challenges that accompany these changes with uncertain educational implications, but studies that have measured the effects of high student mobility (transfers) in Philadelphia and Chicago classrooms suggest that serious educational lags result for all students involved.

CLASS SIZE ASSUMPTIONS IN THE CPS UTILIZATION MODEL

Research suggests that the assumptions used by CPS modelers to assess whether or not a school is “fully utilized” are not based on the findings of policy experts regarding optimal class sizes for best educational out comes.

The CPS utilization model assumes an average class size of 30 but also quietly allows for a 20% margin, meaning that a class size can be as large as 36 and be called “fully utilized” rather than overcrowded.  Additionally, CPS has no standard policy on how to address large class sizes once schools run out of classroom space, now often relying on ad hoc measures like the removal of libraries, art and music classrooms.

NATIONAL RESEARCH ON CLASS SIZE DATA

National research assessing the importance of class size on learning generally relies on data for classes with fewer than 30 students. The Brookings Institute report, “Optimal Elementary School Size for Effectiveness and Equity,” surveyed many studies including the well regarded STAR experiment, a randomized study in which 7000 students from diverse backgrounds over four years were tracked as class sizes were adjusted. The STAR experiment tracked students in three types of classes:

(1) small, 13 to 17 pupils;

(2) regular size, 22 to 25 pupils; and

(3) regular size with a teacher’s aide.

Note that any class over 25 was not considered regular; it was categorized as large. References to large classes included average sizes of 26.  While analysts from Brookings to Hanushek hammer out the quantifiable benefits of small classes (under 17), they all consistently refer to classes with more than 25 as large. Meanwhile - and in stark contrast to this national norm- Chicago continues to talk about 30 as a goal class size and 36 as acceptable. Put another way, Chicago’s definition of an acceptable class size of 30-36 is off the charts. 

Analysts from Brookings suggests there are benefits to smaller classrooms as measured in the STAR study:

Our results support findings from the Tennessee and Wisconsin class-size experiments. With literacy and mathematics in both kindergarten and first grade, children learned more in small compared to large classrooms.

While Brookings cautiously avoids supporting the quantified benefits of small classrooms (<17) in all circumstances, it clearly warns against large classrooms (>25). The final words in the report are these:

‘Rather than the constant mantra of "small is good," our results lead us to a different proclamation: "large is bad." ‘

The Brookings report also addresses the question of optimal school size, finding that larger schools are often not most effective, especially for less-advantaged students:

·   [School size] had stronger effects on student learning in schools educating less-advantaged populations.

·   [W]e explored how the size of Chicago's K-8 elementary schools influenced achievement gains for 7th and 8th graders…That study found favorable effects for smaller Chicago elementary schools (below 400 students)

CLASSROOM SIZES COMPARED

If large (>25) is considered “bad” by think tanks, one has to wonder how Chicago’s super-sized classroom goal of 30 or more ranks. The average size across the city is almost 24 in 2nd grade and 25 in 6th grade. Yet the average does not tell the full story. Class sizes vary dramatically, as the Ashe school example cited by theTribune illustrates; the 1st grade had only 18.5 students but had 47 students per class in the 5th grade.

In contrast, the average class size in Illinois in the 2011-12 school year was roughly 21 (kindergarten) and 23 (5th grade), numbers closer to the national average class size for public schools at 23.6. (The national average for private schools is 19.4). For comparison, New York City, facing budget problems in 2011, had to increase the average class size in 2011 from 21.8 to 23.7.  Summary: 30 is not the norm.

As the national policy debate on benefits of learning in classes under 17 versus 25 plods on, CPS supports a shift in policy to promote classrooms sized at 30+ is in its utilization model. Furthermore, the Tribune article reported that CPS documents define the number 30 as "ideal." In the same article, the CPS spokesperson noted that class size matters less than teaching quality: "You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed."

DEFINITION OF EFFICIENCY

The closure policy is marketed as improving efficiency but citizens might well ask how efficient this policy will be if the educational outcome for students is weakened. It may take years to figure out the tangible ramifications - by which point it will be too late for the affected students- but existing research indicates that closing schools to make fewer larger schools that have larger classes is not efficient education policy over the long term.  Again, here are just a few findings from the Brookings report:

·     With kindergarten literacy and mathematics, and first-grade mathematics….large classes [over 25] were detrimental to student learning. 

·      At the end of kindergarten, children in small classes were academically almost one month ahead of children in the other two classroom conditions; by the end of first grade, the same children were almost two months ahead

·      …first graders in small classes learn almost 10% more per month in literacy than children in large classrooms (2.68 versus 2.49 points per month). 

The references above illustrate how smaller class size creates better environments for teaching and learning. Neighboring schools, that may already have medium to large classes by national standards, will have to accommodate students from closed schools. These shifts will mostly occur on the south and west sides where communities are already coping with high poverty and violence.

THE COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS

Krueger, an Economist from Princeton who conducted a cost-benefit analysis of data in the STAR project, found that the positive effects of reduced class size were largest for African American students, economically disadvantaged students, and boys. He estimated that the economic returns on class-size reductions in Tennessee were greater than the costs, with an internal positive rate of return of about 6 percent. In other words, the savings related to smaller classes outweighed the costs.

CPS’s own School Utilization Commission’s final report notes areas where spending will likely increase in response to closing schools:

  • increased bussing,
  • more administrative staff to handle transfers,
  • capital improvements to make buildings able to handle new populations and summer programs to prepare transferred students.

The report emphasizes the need to ensure safe passage, which may involve increased policing. There may be innumerable hidden costs to closing schools even beyond these outlined in the Commission’s report.

The Commission presents long-term efficiency questions of school closures as well, noting that the current model does not consider the demographic ebbs and flows Chicago:

The utilization formula is a snapshot, and doesn’t account for demographic change over time.” 

The School Closure list does not account for year-to-year and decade-to-decade population changes as it proposes closing up to 12% of Chicago’s public elementary schools. This is curious methodology given that Chicagoans know that half-empty schools from 10 years ago are bursting at the seams with long wait lists now.

 

Furthermore, RYH has pointed out that CPS has not walked through all of the schools to understand on-the-ground situations, such as the presence of special education classrooms that necessarily house fewer students to accommodate special needs. CPS might deem a special education classroom as underutilized even though Illinois law dictates less density in these classes. Possible legal expenses for the City as a result of closing schools have not been calculated in the costs of this policy.

 

The results of this School Consolidation experiment also have long term urban policy and societal implications not easily quantified:

  • Will learning issues of students be detected and be addressed early enough in larger classrooms?
  • Will consolidation increase violence?
  • Will stressors be greater resulting in fewer students graduating?
  • Will consolidation foster a life-long pattern of learning?
  • Will it help students attend college or pursue career options?

 

In short, with larger and fewer schools, how many more kids will fall through the cracks, both educationally and societally? Given that Chicago currently has only a 60.6 high school graduation rate, the potential risks of this experiment seem huge.

 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

The Center for Public Education (CPE) concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence supports positive effects and academic gains when class size reduction programs in the primary grades are well-designed and properly implemented.”  

CPE further noted that student test achievement is not the only important factor. Dee and West used a national database of students to compare the outcomes of the same 8th grade students who had attended different class size; they found modest overall positive effects on non-cognitive skills such as student attentiveness and attitudes about learning.

Another study of the STAR data, published in the American Journal of Public Health, estimated that reducing class sizes is one of the most cost-effective public health measures society can take, with large savings in health care and almost two years of additional life for those students who were in smaller classes in the early grades. 

Then there are the concluding remarks of CPS's School Utilization Commission itself: 

We recognize that closing schools can be a disruptive and dispiriting process and has not, in the past, led to greater educational opportunities for children.”

This statement brings to mind an old adage, "the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."

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