Special Reports

Report: Increasing pupil/ teacher ratio by one student would save U.S. schools $12 billion

Authors argue quality of teachers more important

Class size increase special

EL PASO, Texas - The idea of reducing class size to improve student performance dates back decades, but the topic is up for debate again as school districts across the country battle shrinking budgets.
A report done by two researchers affiliated with the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found increasing class size by one or two students per class could save school districts across the county billions of dollars. 

But what impact would the move have on a child's education? The answer depends on whom you ask.

There are fewer than a dozen kids in Elvira Madrid's kindergarten class at Tornillo elementary.

That number is far below the Texas cap of 22 students for kindergarten through fourth-grade.  There are no limits on grades 5 through 12.

So, why not add a few more students -- save money-- and use the funds to hire highly effective teachers?

The authors of the report found increasing the pupil/ teacher ratio in the United States by one student would save at least $12 billion per year in teacher salary costs alone. 

Sister Elizabeth Schwartz, the superintendent of Catholic Schools of El Paso believes it is the skill of a teacher -- not the size of the class that matters most.

"Sometimes people think if you get a small class size, you get a better education. But studies have actually shown that doesn't necessarily correlate. It's the quality of the teacher in those classrooms. Because you can have five children and if you don't have discipline or classroom management skills they aren't going to learn," Schwartz said.

Even with the potential savings for school districts, in a time when funds are tight, there are those who argue class size should stay small.

Ross Moore is the president of the El Paso American Federation of Teachers.

"I can guarantee you, one or two (students) make a difference," Moore said. "You get above 30, 32 in a high school classroom and you are not teaching anymore. You are a ringmaster."

In the Borderland school districts can and do request waivers to increase K-4 class size. ABC-7 reviewed waivers requested at El Paso's top five school districts over the last three years.

The Texas Education Agency granted 31 class size waivers to EPISD. Ysleta ISD was granted 32 waivers and Canutillo ISD 14.

The most frequent grades requested for a class size waiver across all districts over the last three years were first and fourth grades. 

The most frequent reason for a waiver request was growth, mentioned in 87 waiver requests. Facilities was mentioned in 38 requests.

The trend of reducing class sizes has been costly for school districts and has produced some unintended consequences.

Dr. David DeMatthews is an education expert teaching at UTEP.

"When they did it in California, the way the policy was implemented, it meant that there were more teacher job openings. So, high quality teachers left high poverty schools and took jobs in more affluent communities. So in California, students of color, students attending school in low income communities were disproportionately impacted by the class size reduction as a state level policy," DeMattews said.

California and other states are now increasing class size to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

"There is no magic bullet solution to improving education. This sometimes gets thrown out as one of those magic bullets. But really it is a thoughtful process that communities need to think about, they need to look at the infrastructure of their schools and their district and see if it is feasible," DeMatthews said.

The authors of the report argued determining class size should be up to school districts and not mandated by states.
They do believe reducing class size for disadvantaged students in the early grades, for inexperienced teachers and for teachers responsible for struggling students may make more sense than across the board reductions. 

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