Arizona classrooms are the third-most crowded in the nation, and they're about to get squeezed further.
A recession forced the Legislature this year to cut money for K-12 education, school-tax revenues are falling, and enrollment is declining, which means less per-student state funds but often consolidated classes. Next year looks no better, and federal stimulus dollars are seen as a short-term patch by many schools.
Their next step: even larger classes. Researchers lack agreement on how important class size is. Many studies conclude, however, that minority and low-income students, who often struggle to attain grade-level skills, benefit the most from small class sizes. On the other hand, many studies conclude that unless a well-trained, highly skilled teacher is in charge, class size doesn't matter.
Therein lies the conundrum before Arizona schools and parents: larger classes, taught by high-quality teachers who earn better pay, or smaller classes.
"It's an ongoing debate in education: How can you efficiently spend on education and get the outcomes you want," said Mike Griffith, an education public-policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
Arizona had 20.2 students for each teacher in 2006-07, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education. Only Utah at 22.1 and California at 20.9 had more. The national average was 15.5 students.
Each state's teacher count includes more than just classroom teachers. The count also includes those teaching art or music at two or three schools, special-education teachers with only a few students, and teachers who mentor other teachers. So most classroom teachers face more students each day than the numbers suggest, but researchers say the ratio is a good gauge of what classrooms look like in each state.
About half of states in the U.S. have laws capping average class sizes, most often at about 25. In Arizona, class size is left up to schools and districts, which also receive less money per student than districts in most other states.
With limited funds, Arizona schools must find a balance among the number of teachers hired, the number of students each teacher will have, and how much each teacher will be paid. Average teacher pay in Arizona is climbing.
To some educators and policy makers, putting money into teacher pay and raising class sizes even higher is a prudent option.
To others, Arizona's large classes come at too great a price: lagging test scores, too few students ready for college and career training, and too many dropping out of high school and college.
Large-class advocates say teacher quality, pay are key
There are a number of policy makers and educators who praise Arizona's large class sizes and call the state a step ahead in developing the model American K-12 classroom of the future.
They envision that classroom holding 40 or more students with one excellent and highly paid teacher.
Research has not conclusively shown that all students learn better in smaller classes. In Arizona, some suggest that larger class sizes can work better.
"Per unit, if you want to look at it from a purely business perspective, we are efficient," said Justin Olson, a research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association. "The school that has the higher student-to-teacher ratio, the school that understands this premise, is probably paying its teachers better and is getting the better, the more sought after, teacher."
If teacher Linda Park had her choice, she would have 20 fourth-graders in her class instead of 29. But once a class gets much larger than 20, whether 25 or 35, the size doesn't make much of a difference, she said.
In her district, Alhambra Elementary in west Phoenix, teachers take on up to 32 students without a teaching assistant in exchange for some of the highest salaries in the state. New teachers begin at $40,100, the top starting teacher pay in the state.
"I'm not aware of any research that says a kid can't learn as well in a class of 35 as a class of 22," Alhambra Superintendent Jim Rice said.
He expects federal stimulus money to help keep class sizes steady next year; without it, average class size would rise to 35.
Rice acknowledges that large class sizes could scare away parents and even some of his highly paid teachers. Surveys indicate that next to test scores, most parents look for schools with small classes where children can get individual attention. Next to pay, teachers want reasonable working conditions, which include smaller class sizes.
Unlike other urban districts in low-income neighborhoods, Alhambra's salary schedule, along with teacher training and technology, helps attract good teachers and keep teacher turnover low, Rice said.
So far, rising test scores and attentive teachers at Alhambra's Sevilla West School have outstripped parent worries about class size, said Glenda Urrutia, who has two daughters at the school.
"To me, class size hasn't been one of the issues because both of my daughters have good grades," Urrutia said. Teachers come early and stay late to help students who need them, she said.
When Urrutia gets together with other parents, they work on supporting the teachers with supplies and school activities.
No one questions if there are 23, 29 or 32 in a teacher's class, she said.
Technology offers an edge with large classes
Sevilla West School, west Phoenix - Once the bell rings, Linda Park's fourth-grade class begins ramping up like a game show.
Park is writing math problems on a white board she carries. Everything she writes is projected onto a screen on one of the classroom walls.
There is no front or back to this classroom, not even a teacher's desk. Park just roams about the eight tables, which seat up to four students each. She has 29 students in a profession in which 25 in a class is considered large. For her, technology and collaboration are key.
On her command, students discuss their answers with "shoulder partners" or "face partners" at their tables. Park whispers advice to those still grappling.
Then a magic word: "Showdown." Students pop up, spin around the class and are back to back with their "showdown partner." Each student is desperately working to see who can get the correct answer to a problem first, squealing with joy if a winner.
When the energy falls slightly, Park calls for "Boot Camp": 10 jumping jacks, five push-ups, five sit-ups. And with vigor, or you'll do them again, alone.
Then Park stands still, leans on a table crowded with science projects, and students bring their showdown problems to her. She taps her "tutors" and pairs them with a fellow student who needs them. A line of fourth-graders forms at the board, every other one teaching the next one how to add or subtract a fraction.
At the end of the week, Park will project multiple-choice review problems and students will tap in their answers into a hand-held wireless device. A computer will tell Parks who knows how to add and subtract fractions and who doesn't. When the test is over, results for the class will appear on the white screen in the shape of a pie chart for everyone to see. Instantly, a review is under way.
"The computer does all the work for me, which is cool," Park said.
Small classes credited for higher math scores
Metro Tech High School, central Phoenix - Teacher Sheryl Filliater is on her knees at a table examining a precalculus problem with high-school senior John Arnold.
"We know it can't be 50.6," Arnold says of the answer, looking for the second solution that would be expected with this calculus problem.
"So, there is no second answer," Filliater tells Arnold.
"That's awkward," Arnold says.
"I'm going to have to explain that to everyone," says Filliater, who stands and heads to the board.
She recreates the problem and reviews the law of cosines for her 16-member math class, which looks more like a math club. Filliater's largest class this year is 22.
In smaller classes, Filliater can work with each student to get his or her perspective on each problem tackled, individual attention that gets lost with larger classes.
Metro Tech has a history of smaller classes. The sizes are unusual in the Phoenix Union High School District, where classes, by union contract, can be as large as 32.
In the past, Filliater has taught math, including freshman algebra, to five classes of 30 students a day. That gave her about 90 seconds per student. The loudest students got attention first; quiet ones were left out.
She had 150 papers to grade most nights, with just enough time to mark right or wrong, not enough to analyze why a student was making mis- takes.
Next year, Filliater expects the economic downturn to change her life. District officials warned Metro Tech most of its class sizes will rise to 32.
"Sometimes, when I worked in such large classes, I felt I was on an assembly line and just pushed them through," Filliater said.
Smaller student-teacher ratio can raise achievement levels
Mike Griffith would admit that, if nothing else, Arizona's large classes are a model of K-12 efficiency.
Teachers with 30 or 35 students in a class churn them out to the next grade, he says. One in. One out. Next.
"It would be even more efficient if one teacher could teach 200 kids," said Griffith, a policy analyst at the Education Commission on the States, an agency that monitors state education policies. "You can be very efficient, have very large classrooms per teacher, but if they're not producing, it really doesn't matter."
A class with only 15 to 17 students can raise achievement, Griffith says. Even 25 students might not be a problem. Get over 30, he says, and some students may fall behind.
Francisco Ortega, 18, a senior at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, has attended classes with 16 students and with 33. For Ortega, the difference is clear: Smaller is better.
"You have more interaction with the teacher, and that's a big advantage," Ortega said. "In a small class you cover more material, and in a larger class you have to go at a slower pace so everyone can get it."
Misty Ritz, who heads the teacher mentoring program in the Peoria Unified District, says she started one school year in Peoria with 36 fifth-graders.
That year, everything took more time away from instruction: taking attendance, passing out and collecting papers, planning, grading, and testing. Just walking down the hall and turning a corner, a teacher can have a difficult time keeping an eye on 36 students, Ritz said.
"A good teacher can have an impact, even if she has 36 kids," Ritz said. "Can she have as much of an impact? No, I don't think so."
Ritz said that would only work if all students were at the same learning level.
"But that is never going to be the case," Ritz said. "You have such a wide range of kids, not just academically, but emotionally, socially. They're at so many different levels, with so many different needs you have to meet."
Class sizes are at critical mass for most schools, who fear parent backlash if classes grow larger.
Many schools are creating elite specialty programs in science or music, using small class sizes to attract parents and compete with small charter schools.
Shelley Rosas, a Glendale mother of five, said Arizona schools are in a difficult spot. Educators know that smaller classes give teachers more time for personal interaction with students, but schools don't have enough money to create small classes and recruit good teachers with a good salary.
"You just really have to look at the big picture, but after considering all the factors, class size has to be near the top of the priority list," Rosas said. "Not necessarily at the complete top, but it needs to be a huge priority."
Here's an idea: Pay $100,000 a year to top-notch teachers
An idea to pay $100,000 a year to teachers who can help large classes of students succeed aims to break through beliefs that small class sizes are necessary, but parents remain cool to the concept.
"The myth of the curative powers of the small-sized class" has such a deep hold in America that it's an obstacle to K-12 innovation, said the Goldwater Institute in an April report called "New Millennium Schools." The report by the conservative Phoenix-based public-policy-research group included a proposal for a charter school that would pay teachers $100,000 and attract the brightest minds to the business. Here's the model:
• A charter school is operated by a private business but given public-education money for each student enrolled. This proposed charter school would start with 136 students, 20 students to a class and pay seven teachers $40,000.
• After two years, owners would determine the most highly skilled teacher, based on increasingly sophisticated methods to measure students' academic growth over one year.
• The teacher gets an additional student in class and two-thirds of the $7,860 the state gives the school for enrolling the student. That's an extra $5,240 in salary.
• If the teacher's students continue to make academic progress, add more. If the teacher could help 32 students make one year of academic progress, the salary would pass $100,000. With that potential salary, the school could attract seven highly skilled teachers.
Here's the major drawback: Parents appear not to like the idea.
"Many had difficulty believing the notion that class size is not a factor," the study said, citing feedback from a focus group of parents whose children attend district, charter and public schools. Parents said classes needed to be smaller so teachers could maintain discipline and have enough time with each child to teach difficult subjects and keep them from falling behind. Only well-behaved and highly motivated students would do well at this school, parents said.
Read the report at goldwaterinstitute.org.