By Ken Krayeske • 10:30 AM EST
Lawmakers can determine the number of prison beds they need to build based on third grade literacy rates. Yet states have not enacted effective policy changes that will improve third grade literacy rates.
Reducing class sizes in pre-K through third grade should be the first priority for our governments: municipal, state and federal.
In 1978, Project Star in Tennessee demonstrated the positive the impacts of smaller class sizes on academic achievement in grades K through 3. Researchers found that children in classes with 15:1 student-teacher ratios outperformed students in classes larger than 20:1.
From Heros, Inc.:
"The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) was a four-year longitudinal class-size study funded by the Tennessee General Assembly and conducted by the State Department of Education.
"Over 7,000 students in 79 schools were randomly assigned into one of three interventions: small class (13 to 17 students per teacher), regular class (22 to 25 students per teacher), and regular-with-aide class (22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher's aide).
"Classroom teachers were also randomly assigned to the classes they would teach. The interventions were initiated as the students entered school in kindergarten and continued through third grade.
"The analysis of academic achievement consistently and significantly demonstrated the advantage of small classes over regular size classes and regular sized classes with a teaching assistant. As Jeremy Finn and C.M. Achilles stated in the American Educational Research Journal (Fall 1990), "This research leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes in reading and math in early primary grades."
The additional benefits of small classroom include more motivated teachers. Heros website also reports that students in small classes are more likely to pursue college, and have higher graduation rates and higher grade point averages (GPAs) than regular class size students.
It seems a no-brainer, then, that education equality and adequacy advocates like those in the Sheff v. O’Neill movement would have latched onto Project Star. So why have we been waiting to fix it and reduce class sizes?
Perhaps because it will cost a lot of money, and elected officials are more willing to posture about educational reform than actually envisioning a new educational system.
If we were to try to implement such a project in Hartford, we would have to remember the caveat from Tennessee, that students in free lunch schools will not show as much improvement as those in non-free lunch zones (i.e. parental wealth is still the largest indicator of academic success).
Putting that aside, and donning a municipal budget hat, reducing class sizes to say 10:1 in Hartford for children in grades pre-K through fourth would cost upwards of $25 million annually.
But I argue that those costs would more than offset themselves over a 20-year period, and the city would be better off for implementing this plan. These are rough numbers, so bear with me.
About 22,000 students attend k-12 schools in Hartford – that’s about roughly 1,700 students per grade. Pre-K through 4th grade is six levels, so that’s about 10,000 students we have to attend to.
Currently, at 25:1 student teacher ratios, there’s about 400 teachers to instruct those 10,000 students. We would need to add close to 300 teachers, and 300 classrooms to achieve this increase.
At about $60,000 a year in salary, benefits and administrative costs, that’s about $18 million. The budget for new school buildings – supposing we amortize construction and renovation over 20 years –would be about $7 million a year. In total, it would be about $25 million annually to decrease class sizes in Hartford alone.
These are rough numbers, and I don’t swear to be a mathematician or a city finance expert, but imagine that instead of worrying about cutting the budget, our Mayor got creative with educational fundraising.
Also, let’s keep in mind that this project would have to be ramped up over the course of several years, and that you can’t just immediately double the size of the elementary school infrastructure in Hartford and expect success, so initial funding would not require all $25 million up front.
It would start slow, so that the infrastructure can build up over the course of several years. You begin by adding 100 new teachers, or 150 new teachers, and several new school buildings.
I’d look to neighborhood facilities, where classrooms could transformed out of possibly decaying residential facilities. One of the greatest potential side effects of such a policy is the conversion of abandoned buildings into usable space.
Bringing 300 new teachers into the scene, we have to recast exactly who can be a teacher. We would have to dip into the ranks of the retired, as well as push the state legislature to expand the Alternative Route to Certification program.
Any program should heavily recruit recent graduates, and seek to gain state cooperation on loan repayment or forgiveness programs for newly-minted teachers entering into local service like this.
All the state aid wouldn’t add up to $5 million. Where do you come up with the other $20? Bonding maybe $5 million of school construction monies for the first few year would add in.
I think we could find $5 million more by shifting priorities in city management. When I hear that Eddie Perez spends $60,000 here to send Matt Hennessey off to Harvard, then another $60,000 there in legal fees defending a lawyer from paying a $400 fine levied by the Freedom of Information Commission, I know there is plenty of money floating around in the budget.
A budget sets priorities, and to make the budget, often times, municipalities engage in smoke and mirrors. I think shining some light into the process would produce enough savings to fund a fifth of this class-size reduction policy.
The final $10 million would come from similar bits and pieces. If the school system implemented green energy policies, it could save $2 million more annually. Perhaps we could get the teachers pension plan to invest in new employees, who will pay right back into that pension plan.
For the next $7 or so million, why doesn’t the Mayor host a giant city-wide silent auction or tag sale? Or let’s figure out entrepreneurial ways to involve students in funding their own education. I am a firm believer in where there is a will, there is a way, and if you have a good enough sales crew, people will buy the idea.
The best part, though, is that once we start experiencing success with the project, it will gain national attention, and the Hartford educational system turnaround will be a model for other cities, and it will provide a narrative of hope.
I imagine we could chart the costs and benefits a curve, where the financial gains– within a matter of years – will offset initial investment cost quickly.
Most importantly, though, it will reduce crime, improve property values, and create a strong fabric of community around education and intellectual development. By developing and investing in the resources of our youth, the payoff will be immense.
By looking at educational improvements in terms of 20 year timeframes, and not merely what have you done for me on a test this year, we free educators and students to revolutionize the educational system and make it a youth-centered endeavor which produces genius citizens.