Saturday, August 24, 2013

Space is not the real constraint on class size

The Press-Citizen reports today on the school board’s proposed new caps on class size. Both the article and the quotes from the superintendent leave the reader with the impression that the only thing preventing the district from implementing the caps is lack of space. In fact, lack of money to pay additional teachers is the real constraint.

I applied the proposed caps to last year’s elementary school enrollment numbers, school by school, and grade by grade (using the data here). To meet the caps, the district would have needed 333 general education classes. The district actually had about 319 gen-ed classes. So, to meet the caps, it would have needed about 14 more classroom teachers – and that’s just at the elementary level. There were schools that did not meet the caps but had available classrooms (for example, Borlaug). The only thing that stopped the district from having smaller classes in those schools was lack of money to pay the teachers.

By contrast, space constraints currently play a more limited role. The district would have needed 333 gen-ed classrooms to meet the caps. The district currently has 405 total elementary school classrooms, not counting temporaries. Even reserving four rooms in each building for art, music, and other uses, the district had 329 classrooms to work with. The bigger problem was that the classrooms weren’t necessarily in the schools where the students were, because it’s been so long since some attendance areas were adjusted.

The number of classrooms needed in each building under the caps would vary each year with even minor changes in enrollment, so additional wiggle room would be nice. And of course, enrollment will grow, so eventually we’ll need even more space (though whether that adds up to three new elementaries is another question). But all the additional classrooms in the world won’t create money to hire fourteen new teachers (and more at the secondary level). It’s constraints on hiring, not constraints on space, that make the class size caps challenging.

At the high school level, constraints on space are more of a factor. (The same data about number of classrooms just isn’t available, so it’s hard to assess in as much detail.) But again, additional space won’t create the money to hire additional teachers.

And, again, even under the caps, the existing classrooms can (and will) hold more students than the consultants’ new capacity determinations would permit.


Matt Townsley said...

I'm intrigued by the classroom estimates made in your analysis, Chris.

While I do not know the specifics of the classrooms and staffing at Iowa City elementary schools, I can describe the situation in my district:

Our elementary building (~500 students) has one art classroom, one music classroom, two rooms for special education, one room for ESL, one smaller room for a gifted education teacher, and two classrooms for reading strategist/support (i.e. Title 1). I think it's entirely possible for an elementary school to have 6+ classrooms for special education, ESL, Title 1 reading/math, art and music.

We also have two sections of preschool that each take up a classroom in addition to an alternative kindergarten classroom.

This anecdote may or may not be similar to the setup in Iowa City, so take it for what is may be worth.

Chris said...

Matt -- Thanks. I know that our schools use rooms for those purposes, too (though not every school houses each of those programs). For example, we have two special ed classrooms and one preschool classroom at Hoover. That's one reason why Hoover wouldn't be operating "under capacity" even if it did lose gen-ed attendance. It's also why some additional capacity would definitely be useful.

But the consultants' capacity estimates are not just for gen-ed students. They are for everyone in the building. If you put special ed classrooms and preschools in the building, then you'd have to put that many fewer gen-ed kids in the building, meaning you would have fewer gen-ed rooms in use. That's why the capacity numbers are unrealistic even when you consider that there will be classroom used for other purposes.

Mandy said...

Chris, there are 3 special ed classrooms at Hoover. 2 that are considered the "modified classrooms" meaning those kids are in those classrooms for most, if not all of the day in that classroom and have more profound needs. There is one "Resource" classroom where the kids spend a lot of time in Gen Ed and are pulled out for special ed.

Chris said...

Thanks, Mandy, that's good to know. I'm assuming that's more than the average elementary would have, since the autism program serves many attendance areas. Either way, it sounds like there are kids assigned to the two modified classrooms and that it's only the Resource room that would be a special-use classroom with no enrollment assigned to it.

The kids who are assigned to the two modified classrooms would count toward the total enrollment in the building. This year, I think that's 13 additional kids beyond the gen-ed number. There are also 18 kids in the preschool. That's 31 kids, which means that, under the new capacity numbers, Hoover could house only 273 gen-ed students in its remaining 16 classrooms (not counting temporaries or two rooms set aside for music and art). That would be 17 kids per room, which is not realistic. Even if you left two more rooms open, it would be 19.5 kids per room -- significantly below the likely averages even under the proposed class size policy.

Notice that if Hoover just had about 60 transfers, which is the district average, instead of 129, its gen-ed enrollment last year would have been 292. Together with the preschool and the special ed classrooms, it would definitely have exceeded the consultants' capacity number (304). So how can people who otherwise accept the new capacity numbers say that if it weren't for SINA, the building would be operating at 2/3 capacity?

Mandy said...

They "can't handle the truth!"

Anonymous said...

I am a.bit confused. Do the special Ed kids count as 3.5 as they do at TREC?