Case for Smaller Classes
Randi Weingarten, President, United Federation of Teachers
few weeks ago I had the opportunity to stand on the steps of
City Hall with representatives of a broad coalition of parent
and community groups, labor unions, and elected officials,
including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Public Advocate
Betsy Gotbaum, and Assembly Member Steve Sanders, to announce
a major step forward in the campaign to improve our schools.
that day in August our coalition—New Yorkers for Smaller Classes—presented
the City Clerk with the signatures of more than 114,000 New
York City voters who are calling for creation of a commission
that will review the city charter with a focus on class sizes
in the public schools.
need for smaller classes in New York City’s public schools
is an issue that unites our communities. Most parents would
love to have their children in classes small enough for their
kids to get more individual attention from their teachers.
People without children can understand how classrooms with
fewer students are likely to be more manageable and make better
learning environments. And educators know from first-hand experience
that smaller classes can be critical for many kids.
June the highest court in New York State confirmed that lower
class size is crucial to assuring every child in New York City
a sound basic education.
fact is class size has long been ranked by parents, the public
and teachers as one of the most important factors in serious
education reform. And that is true not just here in New York
City but across the nation. Class size mandates are a growing
national trend. Dozens of states already have class size reduction
legislation in place, including California, Florida, Texas,
Kentucky and Washington. On a municipal level, voters in Minneapolis
recently overwhelmingly approved a class size referendum for
the third time.
This is not surprising in light of the solid research showing
the merits of small class size. Back in 1985, the state of Tennessee
began a class size reduction plan for grades K-3 that resulted
in greatly improved student achievement, particularly for chýldren
in poverty. Over a four-year period, researchers studied children
assigned to one of three types of classes: small, with 13 to
17 students; regular, with 22 to 25 students; and regular with
a classroom aide. The researchers found that students in small
consistently outperformed other students in math and reading every year
at all grade levels. What’s more, those students continued
to outperform their peers right through high school.
1998 Princeton University study of a Milwaukee program also
found that class size reductions have a positive effect on
student achievement overall and an especially significant impact
on poor children.
Of course, smaller classes are not the only factor in better schools.
Children also need a qualified teacher in every classroom, along with
adequate supplies, challenging curricula and a safe and orderly environment.
High academic standards have to be established and met.
smaller classes are a key ingredient in student success, particularly
in conjunction with these other factors.
have made progress in some of these areas. The last teachers’ contract
made starting salaries more competitive and attracted more
certified teachers. The mayor made a real effort to see that
thousands of new books were delivered before the start of the
school year. And the UFT is always pushing the mayor and the
chancellor to do whatever is necessary to ensure school safety,
and we will continue to do so.
time to seriously tackle the issue of class size. Even though
the city and state governments have allocated funding to reduce
class size in New York City for years, classes remain too large—20
to 36 percent larger than those in the rest of the state.
New York City voters agree
New Yorkers for Smaller Classes gathered more than twice the required
number of voter signatures to ensure that our petitions can withstand
any challenges. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Right-wing critics
are already ganging up on this proposal, and its placement on the ballot
may be challenged by the Mayor, who has his own charter proposal about
eliminating party primaries. Even when the proposal gets on the ballot,
it would be another year before voters get to decide on the Charter Review
Commission’s recommendations regarding lowering class size.
Yorkers need to give serious thought to just how crucial smaller
class size is to education reform. Myopic nay-sayers who look
only at budgetary bottom lines will say it isn’t a real issue.
But anyone who truly wants our schools to improve must realize
that other efforts to make them better will go only so far
unless the class size issue is addressed head on. The 1.1 million
students in our school system deserve no less.#
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