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Large Class Sizes Leave Some Students Behind

September 03, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Schools are not and should not be factories, and educators have often defended their work by saying "We are not creating widgets."

But widgets are exactly what we are creating when we increase the student to teacher ratio past the point of being able to provide a quality education.

In July and August, Minnesota 2020 asked principals in schools across the state to list the effects that massive state cutbacks have had on education since 2003. Their responses are varied but there is one answer that all school officials report in common.

Principals and teachers report a steady, destructive rise in the ratio of students to teachers. Many elementary classes are at ratios of 25 to 1, while many high school classes are well past 33 to 1.

Educators insist that every student gets an education no matter how many bodies are in the classroom. The problem is one of individual attention.

"There is just less of a chance to get around to everyone," said Brandon Bjerkness, a 2nd grade teacher at Northern Elementary in Bemidji. "Let's say I want to kids to show me how to break 50 cents into change. There are lots of answers, and with 32 kids, it's hard to get more than one answer from each student."

That's the key, said Joan Hultman, principal at Lake Nokomis Community School, Wenonah Campus. When classrooms are overcrowded, students still get an education, "They just don't get the individual attention they deserve," she said.

But in the era of No Child Left Behind, there is only one measure of success:  Participation and triumph in Adequate Yearly Progress. Every student in the nation must meet academic standards by 2014 or schools with Title I funding - meant for poor children -- will face sanctions that lean toward privatization.

Bjerkness said high student to teacher ratios break students into three ranks: higher-performing students who will find the help they need and will succeed; struggling students will be given the help they need to achieve academically and will hopefully find a way to survive; The students with average academic ability, however - those who have the ability to achieve AYP goals but simply need a little push or extra help - will fail under Minnesota's growing student-to-teacher ratios. Schools will not be able to provide the manpower to properly teach these students.

 "We just can't spend as much time with students who are struggling," said Cheryl Schmidt, principal of ROCORI (Rockville, Cold Spring, Richmond) Middle School. "We can't give them the time they need."

In 2004, a blue ribbon education task force formed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty determined a proper student to teacher ratio. In its report, "Inve$ting In Our Future," the task force recommended that the Pawlenty Administration follow these student-to-teacher guidelines:

  • Kindergarten:  8 students to 1 teacher.
  • Grades 1-5: 16 students to 1 teacher for reading, spelling, writing, grammar and math, 21 students to 1 teacher for social studies, science, art, phy ed, and music.
  • Grades 6-8:  19 students to 1 teacher for language arts, math, science and social studies, less for some classes, larger for classes such as band, vocal music, physical education.
  • Grades 9-12: 26 students to 1 teacher for core classes, smaller for some elective classes like foreign language and greater for others like band.

Creating classrooms with student to teacher ratios that exceed acceptable levels causes no great harm. Instead, it causes much little harm. After one year in an overcrowded classroom, there will be 30 to 40 students who didn't learn all they could have learned. There will be 30 to 40 parents - and Minnesota taxpayers - who support citizens who didn't get the education they thought they were paying for.

These are tough financial times, and we need to make sure our investments are made wisely and likely to pay off. Sending our children into an underfunded, undermanned school to get an education that will not serve them into the future is simply a waste of money.

Minnesotans are smart people. We know that an education is the only way we can provide a better life for our children. We know education allows us to compete in the 21st Century economy. Efforts by some in this state to drop the quality of education ruin our chances of helping our children and ourselves.

The number of underfunded, undermanned schools is growing. Minnesotans need to understand that a quality education - which includes a quality student to teacher ratio - is essential to our future.

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