In June, the DeKalb Schools (DCSD) board passed a Proposed Class Size Flexibility Resolution allowing for roughly 6 children over the state allowed max. That means, for example, that kindergartens with class sizes over 18 would normally not be funded. However, with this waiver, DCSD may now have kindergartens with as many as 24 children.
You can see the state allowed max and waivers granted to DCSD since 2011 in this chart.
The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) board recently rejected the administration’s request for class size waivers. In a called special meeting last night, the APS board reversed that decision.
Jarod Apperson, forensic auditor working on his doctorate in economics, sent this note to APS’ Superintendent, Dr. Carstarphen.
From: Jarod Apperson
To: Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent
I am writing in hopes of influencing your priorities with respect to class size as you continue to formulate a vision for our district’s schools. From my understanding of the class-size research and knowledge of the Atlanta schools, I have become persuaded that a substantial reduction in class size would be the easiest action you could take to improve student learning.
Understanding that the district faces a number of challenges and competing priorities, I write not to make demands, but with confidence that if you have a thorough understanding of the issue, the appeal of class-size reductions will be evident.
Below, I present a series of relevant questions and attempt to provide informative answers.
Are smaller class sizes an effective means to raise student achievement?
Yes. As most Georgians are aware, APS lags behind the state in student achievement. What fewer realize is that the size of this gap is not insurmountably large. The average APS student scores about 0.25 standard deviations below the state average. I begin with this information to provide context that will help you evaluate the research on class size in terms of its implications for the district.
Credible research design is essential to developing good causal estimates, and both randomized experiments and quasi-experimental research indicates that class size reductions positively impact student achievement.
Evidence from the Tennessee STAR experiment shows that students assigned to classes with a maximum of 17 students scored 0.15 to 0.20 standard deviations above students assigned to classes with a maximum of 25 students.
Thus, the experiment’s results suggest by reducing its maximum class size by 8 students, APS could close between 60% and 80% of its achievement gap with the state.
Quasi-experimental designs, which are more common because they can be conduced with observational data, have found similar results. The most famous of these is an Angrist and Lavy (1999) study using Israeli data. The authors use a fuzzy regression discontinuity design to evaluate differences in achievement for schools just above and below a maximum class size threshold. They find results consistent with the STAR study.
Importantly, both studies indicate that the positive effects are even larger for disadvantaged students, a significant fact in a district were approximately 80% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Unfortunately, the debate on class size was muddied by a number of ill-designed studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that purported to show no effect, but in fact did not employ empirical designs that would allow the researchers to isolate the effect of class size on student achievement. Though the academic literature has moved toward more credible designs, these studies continue to influence popular culture and were most recently featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. Northwestern economist Diane Whitmore describes additional research in her 2014 summary of the class-size literature.
For more local and (admittedly) anecdotal evidence, we can turn to an APS charter school that explicitly prioritizes class size. I serve on the Board of Directors for the Kindezi School, an Atlanta charter that sets a maximum class size of eight students across all grades.
The average Kindezi student scores about 0.31 standard deviations above the state average, and according to the state’s Beating the Odds measure the school ranks in the 99th percentile statewide when benchmarked against schools serving similar students.
So, yes, reducing class size is an effective means to raise student achievement. Credibly designed research supports the importance of class size and anecdotal evidence in our own back yard confirms this body of work. If APS were to substantially reduce class size, it could decrease or potentially even eliminate the gap between its achievement and the state average.
Are smaller class sizes easier to implement than other initiatives?
Yes. For reasons that are not always clear to me, class-size discussions in the district often meander into a territory where class size is pitted against effective teachers. In response to a suggestion that the district prioritize class size, it is not uncommon to hear “the most important thing for student achievement is placing an effective teacher in every classroom.” This is a flawed argument for two reasons.
First, it is a false choice. Reductions in class size need not come at the expense hiring effective teachers. The district’s historical struggles to attract top talent are not the result of financial constraints. APS offers one of the most competitive compensation packages of any district in the nation.
Instead, a perceived culture of incompetence is what has long dissuaded talented people from joining the district. Under your leadership, the district can work to improve this culture while prioritizing class size.
Second, reducing class size is easy while placing an effective teacher in every classroom is easier said than done. A recent Education Week report showed that New York City has been able to turn around its first-year teaching pool, but it took a very long time.
In 1985, 42% of the city’s teachers came from the bottom 1/3 of the SAT distribution. Today, only 24% come from the bottom third, while 40% come from the top third. That transition took 30 years.
By developing a pipeline at higher-caliber universities and continuing its partnership with alternative recruitment programs, APS can and should raise the bar for teacher selection, but results will undoubtedly be incremental. Class size reductions are an effective policy that can be implemented immediately, and there is no credible reason they should come at the expense of prioritizing effective teaching hires.
Does the return on investment for class size reduction make it worthwhile?
Yes. When APS publishes estimates of what it would cost to reduce class size, the district typically uses a cost per teacher of $80,000. While this may be accurate from a cash-flow perspective it is not appropriate for long-term decision making because state funding the following year is a function of the number and experience level of teacher employed by APS in the prior year.
Here’s the reality: for every incremental dollar APS invests in class size reductions, the state reimburses it 32 cents, and it gets to keep another 30 cents of local property tax revenue. So when the finance department presents you a proposal with a $20M price tag, if you are willing to set short-term cash flow issues aside, the real incremental cost is about $8M.
I will attempt to explain the basics of this without getting too wonky on the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. QBE is designed to incentivize the prioritization of teacher hires over alternative uses of district money. The way the formula works, districts are responsible for paying the base salary of certified teachers, payroll taxes, and contributions to the Teacher’s Retirement System. The state then reimburses districts $11k for health insurance.
Additionally, the following year, the state pays the district the incremental salary earned by the employee as a result of having years of experience and/or any advanced degrees. Both of these payments (T&E/HI) impact the share of local property taxes the district distributes to charter schools. When all three sources are combined, APS ends up net down about $30,000 per teacher rather than $80,000.
The short story is this: investing in smaller classes makes solid financial sense because a significant portion of the expenditure ultimately comes back to the district in the form of higher revenue the following year.
Do smaller class sizes disproportionately benefit non Title 1 schools?
No. The final topic I want to address is the notion that class sizes are a “Northside issue,” and students in the district’s Title 1 schools have no stake in the class size discussion. It is frustrating that some misappropriate the language of social justice to buttress opinions that reinforce the status quo.
As I explained above, the class size research indicates disadvantaged students actually benefit more from small classes than middle-class students. It is true that a number of Title 1 schools in APS already reduce class sizes by using their Title 1 earnings and/or supplemental resources such as EIP teachers.
However, we must acknowledge the limitations that choice poses on their educational program. If supplemental resources are being dedicated to class size reduction, they aren’t being used for other interventions. They aren’t funding individualized after-school tutoring. They aren’t funding small group pullouts.
If APS allocates additional teachers to all its schools, including Title 1 schools, that frees up supplemental resources. It returns those resources for use in targeted interventions aimed at the students most in need.
I hope that this information proves useful as you evaluate ways to raise student achievement in the district. The financial benefits and proven effectiveness of class size reductions suggest you should find ways to make it a priority in your plans.
- Announcement – Compensation & Classification Salary Adjustments
- Update On Phase 2 Salary Steps for All Staff
- Chamblee Redistricting Superintendent Recommendation
- Dunwoody 7-Year Enrollment Forecasts
- 2019 Salary Schedules And Comparison
- New Step Structures for DeKalb Teachers
- 2018 CCRPI
- Chamblee Redistricting Options – Meeting 3
- College Admissions 101
- Graduation Schedule – DeKalb Schools Class of 2019
- DeKalb Schools 2018 CCRPI Scores
- Visitor and Volunteer Policy – Part II
- Chamblee Redistricting Options – Meeting 2
- Make Chamblee Charter HS Better Not Bigger
- Free Speech … For Some At DeKalb Schools … Part II
- DeKalb Schools Visitor and Volunteer Policy
- DeKalb Schools 2018-2019 Calendar
- Make Lakeside HS Better Not Bigger
- DeKalb Schools 2018 Graduation Rates
- Redistricting For Schools in Chamblee & Brookhaven
- News & Updates – 8/30/2018
- Delay in New Austin ES Opening
- School Readiness Report 2018-2019
- GOP Governor Runoff – Kemp has the Mo
- DeKalb Teachers Get a 2.5% Raise And Start Stepping
- July 2018 – New And Open Principal Report
- Chamblee German Teacher Controversy
- June 2018 – New And Open Principal Report
- Dr. Donnie Davis – New Peachtree Charter MS Principal
- TSA & Annexation – Legal Update
- School Councils Are Now Principal Advisory Councils
- City of Brookhaven Not a Fan of Briarcliff HS Site
- Support for DCSD Bus Drivers
- DeKalb Schools FY 2019 Preliminary Budget
- DeKalb Bus Driver Sick Out
- Location of New Cross Keys Brookhaven High School
- Where to Build the New Cross Keys Brookhaven High School
- Policy Input – Magnet Students Participate in Sports
- Dunwoody HS Trailer Park
- Metal Detectors at YOUR School
- Building Additions – Project Plan and Schedule
- Student Protests Wed – The Plan – County by County
- School Safety – What's the Plan?
- News & Updates – 2/23/2018
- DeKalb Schools New Hires
- Mega High School Construction Update
- Virtual Learning Make Up Days
- Adequate Space Requirements For Mega High Schools
- Student Chromebooks – Update
- Survey – Making Up Days Lost to Inclement Weather
- Lakeside HS Council Not A Fan of the Building Additions
- DeKalb Schools Make Up Days
- DeKalb Schools 2018 – 2020 Calendar
- Which DeKalb Schools Are Beating The Odds
- Protesting Cheerleaders at DHS – The Whole Story
- 2018-2020 Calendar Options
- Emergency Weather – What's The Plan?
- Atlanta & Atlanta Public Schools Annexing DeKalb
- Kids Doc on Wheels Medical Van
- DeKalb Schools 2017 Turnaround, Priority & Focus Schools
- Class of 2018 Graduation Ceremonies Schedule
- 2018-2020 Calendar Update
- DeKalb Turnaround Eligible Schools Trends 2015-2017
- DeKalb Schools – Free Speech….For Some?
- Adding Classrooms is Only Part of the Soluion
- DeKalb Schools Enrollment Capacity Data
- Concerns about Lakeside HS Expansion
- DeKalb Schools 2017 CCRPI Trends
- DeKalb Schools Extends Days in November
- 2017 DeKalb Graduation Rates By High School & Demographic
- Emory Annexation and DeKalb County Schools
- DeKalb Schools – Students Kneel During National Anthem
- Teaching Sexual Behavior Standards At School
- Make Up Days – Public Input
- Plan B – Make-Up Schedule
- Make-Up Schedule – DeKalb Schools
- School Make-Up Days
- DeKalb Schools is Back in Business
- School Recovery Report – DeKalb Schools
- Detailed Status Report – DeKalb Schools
- News & Updates – DeKalb Schools – 9/10/2017
- Google Classroom Vs VERGE – Feedback
- Where Is The New Cross Keys HS Going
- Carstarphen And APS Desire To Expand Into DeKalb
- DeKalb Schools Responds To Poor Curriculum, Assessments and Planning Templates
- Feedback – Curriculum & Assessments
- Trailers at Cross Keys High School
- Monday Solar Eclipse – The Plan
- DCSD Home Football Tickets Now Available Online
- New & Vacant Principals & Assistant Principals
- DeKalb Schools Digital Dreamers
- New Laptops For All DeKalb Teachers and Students
- DeKalb Schools Extends School 1 Hour For Solar Eclipse
- Meet DeKalb Schools' New Assistant Principals
- Tom McFerrin, Dunwoody HS Principal, Is OUT
- Meet DeKalb Schools' New Principals
- What is the Purpose of Public Schools
- Principal and Teacher Vacancy Report And Selection Process
- TSA – Summary Judgement
- Billboard Marketing Campaign