Does Class Size Matter?

Reposted from the Fact Checker.

DSW Note: We are at least happy to see that Atlanta Public Schools is in discussion with their new (highly qualified) superintendent about issues like improving student achievement. They have come a long way. We pray DeKalb can follow a similar path with a new superintendent. We have suffered class size increases since Crawford Lewis’ reign, upheld by superintendents Ramona Tyson, Cheryl Atkinson and now Michael Thurmond. The mantra, ‘it’s about the children’ is simply false rhetoric coming from leaders who insist on making ‘budget cuts’ by increasing the loads on our children and their teachers.

In June, the DeKalb Schools (DCSD) board passed a Proposed Class Size Flexibility Resolution allowing for roughly 6 children over the state allowed max.  That means, for example, that kindergartens with class sizes over 18 would normally not be funded.  However, with this waiver, DCSD may now have kindergartens with as many as 24 children.

You can see the state allowed max and waivers granted to DCSD since 2011 in this chart.

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) board recently rejected the administration’s request for class size waivers.  In a called special meeting last night, the APS board reversed that decision.

Jarod Apperson, forensic auditor working on his doctorate in economics, sent this note to APS’ Superintendent, Dr. Carstarphen.


From: Jarod Apperson
To: Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent

I am writing in hopes of influencing your priorities with respect to class size as you continue to formulate a vision for our district’s schools. From my understanding of the class-size research and knowledge of the Atlanta schools, I have become persuaded that a substantial reduction in class size would be the easiest action you could take to improve student learning.

Understanding that the district faces a number of challenges and competing priorities, I write not to make demands, but with confidence that if you have a thorough understanding of the issue, the appeal of class-size reductions will be evident.

Below, I present a series of relevant questions and attempt to provide informative answers.

Are smaller class sizes an effective means to raise student achievement?
Yes. As most Georgians are aware, APS lags behind the state in student achievement. What fewer realize is that the size of this gap is not insurmountably large. The average APS student scores about 0.25 standard deviations below the state average. I begin with this information to provide context that will help you evaluate the research on class size in terms of its implications for the district.

Credible research design is essential to developing good causal estimates, and both randomized experiments and quasi-experimental research indicates that class size reductions positively impact student achievement.

Evidence from the Tennessee STAR experiment shows that students assigned to classes with a maximum of 17 students scored 0.15 to 0.20 standard deviations above students assigned to classes with a maximum of 25 students.

Thus, the experiment’s results suggest by reducing its maximum class size by 8 students, APS could close between 60% and 80% of its achievement gap with the state.

Quasi-experimental designs, which are more common because they can be conduced with observational data, have found similar results. The most famous of these is an Angrist and Lavy (1999) study using Israeli data. The authors use a fuzzy regression discontinuity design to evaluate differences in achievement for schools just above and below a maximum class size threshold. They find results consistent with the STAR study.

Importantly, both studies indicate that the positive effects are even larger for disadvantaged students, a significant fact in a district were approximately 80% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Unfortunately, the debate on class size was muddied by a number of ill-designed studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that purported to show no effect, but in fact did not employ empirical designs that would allow the researchers to isolate the effect of class size on student achievement. Though the academic literature has moved toward more credible designs, these studies continue to influence popular culture and were most recently featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. Northwestern economist Diane Whitmore describes additional research in her 2014 summary of the class-size literature.

For more local and (admittedly) anecdotal evidence, we can turn to an APS charter school that explicitly prioritizes class size. I serve on the Board of Directors for the Kindezi School, an Atlanta charter that sets a maximum class size of eight students across all grades.

The average Kindezi student scores about 0.31 standard deviations above the state average, and according to the state’s Beating the Odds measure the school ranks in the 99th percentile statewide when benchmarked against schools serving similar students.

So, yes, reducing class size is an effective means to raise student achievement. Credibly designed research supports the importance of class size and anecdotal evidence in our own back yard confirms this body of work. If APS were to substantially reduce class size, it could decrease or potentially even eliminate the gap between its achievement and the state average.

Are smaller class sizes easier to implement than other initiatives?
Yes. For reasons that are not always clear to me, class-size discussions in the district often meander into a territory where class size is pitted against effective teachers. In response to a suggestion that the district prioritize class size, it is not uncommon to hear “the most important thing for student achievement is placing an effective teacher in every classroom.” This is a flawed argument for two reasons.

First, it is a false choice. Reductions in class size need not come at the expense hiring effective teachers. The district’s historical struggles to attract top talent are not the result of financial constraints. APS offers one of the most competitive compensation packages of any district in the nation.

Instead, a perceived culture of incompetence is what has long dissuaded talented people from joining the district. Under your leadership, the district can work to improve this culture while prioritizing class size.

Second, reducing class size is easy while placing an effective teacher in every classroom is easier said than done. A recent Education Week report showed that New York City has been able to turn around its first-year teaching pool, but it took a very long time.

In 1985, 42% of the city’s teachers came from the bottom 1/3 of the SAT distribution. Today, only 24% come from the bottom third, while 40% come from the top third. That transition took 30 years.

By developing a pipeline at higher-caliber universities and continuing its partnership with alternative recruitment programs, APS can and should raise the bar for teacher selection, but results will undoubtedly be incremental. Class size reductions are an effective policy that can be implemented immediately, and there is no credible reason they should come at the expense of prioritizing effective teaching hires.

Does the return on investment for class size reduction make it worthwhile?
Yes. When APS publishes estimates of what it would cost to reduce class size, the district typically uses a cost per teacher of $80,000. While this may be accurate from a cash-flow perspective it is not appropriate for long-term decision making because state funding the following year is a function of the number and experience level of teacher employed by APS in the prior year.

Here’s the reality: for every incremental dollar APS invests in class size reductions, the state reimburses it 32 cents, and it gets to keep another 30 cents of local property tax revenue. So when the finance department presents you a proposal with a $20M price tag, if you are willing to set short-term cash flow issues aside, the real incremental cost is about $8M.

I will attempt to explain the basics of this without getting too wonky on the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. QBE is designed to incentivize the prioritization of teacher hires over alternative uses of district money. The way the formula works, districts are responsible for paying the base salary of certified teachers, payroll taxes, and contributions to the Teacher’s Retirement System. The state then reimburses districts $11k for health insurance.

Additionally, the following year, the state pays the district the incremental salary earned by the employee as a result of having years of experience and/or any advanced degrees. Both of these payments (T&E/HI) impact the share of local property taxes the district distributes to charter schools. When all three sources are combined, APS ends up net down about $30,000 per teacher rather than $80,000.

The short story is this: investing in smaller classes makes solid financial sense because a significant portion of the expenditure ultimately comes back to the district in the form of higher revenue the following year.

Do smaller class sizes disproportionately benefit non Title 1 schools?
No. The final topic I want to address is the notion that class sizes are a “Northside issue,” and students in the district’s Title 1 schools have no stake in the class size discussion. It is frustrating that some misappropriate the language of social justice to buttress opinions that reinforce the status quo.

As I explained above, the class size research indicates disadvantaged students actually benefit more from small classes than middle-class students. It is true that a number of Title 1 schools in APS already reduce class sizes by using their Title 1 earnings and/or supplemental resources such as EIP teachers.

However, we must acknowledge the limitations that choice poses on their educational program. If supplemental resources are being dedicated to class size reduction, they aren’t being used for other interventions. They aren’t funding individualized after-school tutoring. They aren’t funding small group pullouts.

If APS allocates additional teachers to all its schools, including Title 1 schools, that frees up supplemental resources. It returns those resources for use in targeted interventions aimed at the students most in need.

I hope that this information proves useful as you evaluate ways to raise student achievement in the district. The financial benefits and proven effectiveness of class size reductions suggest you should find ways to make it a priority in your plans.

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17 Responses to Does Class Size Matter?

  1. dekalbschoolsfactchecker says:

    You can see the class size for your school/class for the last two years here:

  2. sawyerbrown68 says:

    What makes a qualified superintendent?

    A superintendent recruited by Proact or search firms like it?

    These search firms firm drink at the same magic well. They focus principally on Broad Superintendent Academy (Hall, Dallemand, Hinojosa, Brizard, Carstarphen) and SUPES Academy devotees, I meam graduates, and install them as quality superintendents. I have no reason to believe that Carstaphen’s end of service will be any different than the others. DekalbSchoolWatch used sing paen to Dr. Hall.

    Mr. Gary R. Solomon is intimately linked to Broad and SUPES academies.

    Pro sites for the Broad Academy:
    Con sites for the Broad Academy:

    I know a principal in a doctorate program at Mercer who should attend these academies.

  3. Cheryl Atkinson was from the Broad superintendent academy.

  4. Vesta Smith says:

    Class size matters but…
    You can have 10 students in a classroom and if your educators are stripped of their desire to carry on, learning will not occur. The elephant in the room that no one in DeKalb is willing to discuss is the years of oppression of the educators and schoolhouse employees. Even though there are clear indicators, such as the high rate of teachers resigning, no one is brave enough to address it and come up with a clear plan to resolve it. Instead of being of honest, random excuses are given by human resources. Years of seeing neighboring school systems have enough appreciation and respect for their educators to siphon funds for some type of raise for their employees,is a clear testimony of what the powers to be think of DEKALB educators. No, it’s not just about salary, it’s about stolen money (TSA), stolen dreams, and adult bullying. I do not know what principals are being told in these Tuesday meetings, but after each one principals are becoming more and more Napoleon like. Power is only good when it is placed in responsible hands. Morale is non existent from the north to the south. Consistently. Don’t be confused and think its better on one end. It’s ironic or maybe just a consistent overview of both parents (meaning the writers of this blog) and educators, the towel has been thrown in. This blog was once a place of shared information both for employees and parents. Now it’s just reposted articles from other sources. Compare this to classroom educators and schoolhouse personnel:
    Yes, your students are being educated but not with that zeal and passion it once was.
    Yes, the floors are being mopped but they aren’t shining.
    Yes, the students are being served lunch but not with a smile.
    I hope someone will understand my intent and lead some type of live discussion on what the climate feels like in the schoolhouses.

  5. Vesta Smith says:

    Correction TSA not TRS

  6. September says:

    Class size matters a great deal. When you have fewer students, each one gets more of your time. When you assign a big project like writing a term paper it takes hours to read and grade all of them. Every student deserves useful feedback. The more students you have the more time you spend. If you have 100 students and spend 10 minutes reading and assessing each one that is 16 hours of work. With 120 students you will need 20 hours to do the task. Teachers plan their lessons. Sometimes those plans include individual modifications for students. They talk with parents. Attend meetings. Everything a teacher does multiplies as class sizes get larger. I know from personal experience that I am more effective with a smaller class. My students learn more when I have more time to work with them.

  7. Teachers Matter says:

    I absolutely agree that smaller classes provide a better learning environment. However, the students and parents play a huge role in that environment. I recently had a diverse class of twenty-two students, the majority of which could have cared less about learning. It was a daily struggle to motivate them and although I never gave up, too many did not succeed. A few years ago, I had a class of thirty-four (also diverse) who were all about learning and we had a great year together. They worked hard for me and I for them. So many factors play into a child’s success and until we speak honestly about all of those factors, change will not occur.

  8. howdy1942 says:

    The Dekalb County School System can afford smaller class sizes. It can also afford to restore those TRA contributions. The economy has come a long way since Eugene Walker and his school board majority took away those contributions. But we first need to stop funding lawyers, rightsize administration, and get our priorities straight. That hasn’t happened and is not happening.

    Reducing class sizes is probably the first thing that we should do to enhance student learning and improve test score results. My view is that they are inherently linked. Students have the opportunity to ask more questions. Teachers have greater opportunities to know the individual needs of his/her students and thus be able to address those matters earlier. Teachers – not administrators – can make a difference.

  9. dsw2contributor says:

    Reduce class sizes in Dekalb? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, GOOD ONE!

    Right now, Dekalb schools CANNOT even find SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS when teachers are out sick. Where is DCCS going to find the Permanent Teachers needed to reduce class sizes when it cannot even retain its current teachers, nor provide substitutes for those teachers when they are sick or injured?

    STAN: Dekalb substitutes are only alllowed to work 16 days (or less) per month, because DCSS insists on keeping them as part-time employees. If they work too many hours, the subs would be eligible for health insurance & other benefits.

    The economy is doing well and the subs have realized that they can now make more money by working as a retail clerk than as a 16 days-or-less DCSS substitute teacher. Consequently, most of the subs on the DCSS sub list are not actually willing to work as a DCSS sub.

    For extra credit, look into what happens when a teacher is out for multiple weeks (on maternity leave or because they were in a bad accident).

  10. dsw2contributor says:

    BREAKING NEWS: The Georgia Department of Education released the 2013 College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) this morning:

    Read Region-5’s scores and Weep!

  11. dsw2contributor says:

    NEVER MIND!!! I got faked-out; the above Channel-11 article is from 2014.

    (CCRPIs are supposed to come out this week.)

  12. concerned citizen says:

    It is so true that principals come in after those useless principal meetings and strut their stuff! It is an obvious link; I guess they feel on top of the world with their colossal egos flaming. Ours has actually started yelling at some of us Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Now, that’s the pits! With thieves like Simpson reaching the top AGAIN, don’t you think these principals feel extra special after being told they have absolute power to behave in any old way they choose? I do.

  13. My 20 year old was lucky enough to start kindergarten in 2000, when the Roy Barnes Class Cuts of 17 kids in Kindergarten were in place and 22 in elementary. Her first three years of public school were bliss full. I went in and helped the second grade teacher who had 2 minority kids that could not read at all. I got the one boy, who is now a red shirt freshman running back at auburn put to reading level. The girl disappeared after a couple of weeks. The next year the county shuffled zoning and the school had 30 kids in a class, high SES once the majority soon became the minority.

    I moved my child to Catholic School, followed by the youngest. After several years and a divorce. No child support or tuition being paid by the ex who had fled to Canada. I had to move the children to public school. Public 4-8 was a disaster with large classes, bullying and gangs, lack of reading, writing practical reports, and Math 1,2,3 for my youngest. She refused to go to school. I tried to home school. Even though I have taught at the college level, not every parent child combo is set up for home schooling.

    Luckily, I found my daughter a Hybrid Private accredited 2 day school / home school in September. Her average class size is 4-5 students in each class. I pay $525 per month ( no dinners, lunches out, dropped the maid down, dropped cable channels, etc..) their are a few others with larger class sizes that charge less). My child with only 4-5 students in her classes tells me she learns far more in 2 days than in any week long class in public school. I held her back from 8th because she missed so much in public school. She tells me constantly, that the public school teachers refused to stop and answer her questions. The state standard of 8th grade Social studies is Georgia History, her private school is covering that. Yet the major public district she was in covered Asia. She said she never had Georgia. Her class is a mix of above ave kids like her and kids with some mild Learing disabilities, but with 5, there is time for all and no acting out. The same 4 teachers teach 5 days a week, middle school 2 days and high school 3, which makes the model financial reasible. We bring our lunch or have pizza days. PE is. Walks in the neighborhood.

    The administrator/ principal also teaches a class. Even look at any Catholic or private school administration is thin.

  14. howdy1942 says:

    @concerned citizen – I agree! I especially find the promotion of Simpson to Area Superintendent to be offensive. He is only two years removed from that incident and, on the basis of one year as principal, Thurmond thinks he is ready to be promoted. No one who has committed such and intentional ethics violation, if not a violation of law, should be considered for promotion. In industry, he most likely would have been fired because it was intentional with his full knowledge that he was doing something wrong. At best, he would have been demoted at least one level, probably two and transferred. Yes, he paid the money back, but only after he was caught. Were I in District 5 working for Simpson, I would have absolutely no respect for him.

    We need someone running our school system who knows how to set priorities, set expectations, demands the highest ethical and moral standards, and then follows through. We need to fix the process by which we hire teachers, we need to compensate them accordingly and restore those TSA contributions, we need to hire enough teachers to reduce classroom size, and we need to budget with the classroom set as the highest priority. And we need someone who has the courage, the ability, and the foresight to reach out and unite Dekalb County behind its school system. I am hoping that our Legislature will have the wisdom to understand that the Dekalb County School System is THE problem in Dekalb County and is the source of all the cityhood efforts. Fix the schools and you go a long way toward fixing Dekalb County.

  15. teachermom says:

    Hints are being given that our CCRPI scores are up at our school even as more and more seasoned teachers are given poor evaluations on walk throughs and formatives. I wonder who they think should get credit for that rise??? I cannot believe that the administration in our building wants the teachers who are responsible to rising scores to leave; but yet the assault continues via Teacher Keys… Many of our teachers are preparing to go. Its really becoming the insult on top of injury (the financial cuts being the first).

  16. dsw2contributor says:

    I posted the following response to Jarod Apperson’s letter over at the AJC. While Maureen frequently publishes his writings, Apperson does not really know what he is talking about. His school’s performance is not very good, given all the advantages his school has.


    You frequently publish the work of Jarod Apperson, who serves on the Board of Directors for the “Kindezi School, an Atlanta charter that sets a maximum class size of eight students across all grades.”

    Let’s compare how the Kindezi’s Elementary School performed on the CCRPIs against how well one of Dekalb’s higher-performing TITLE-I public elementary schools, #3064, performed.

    Kindezi Elementary has a ton of advantages over public elementary school #3064: Kindezi gets to limit who attends the school (Kindezi has an application process and a waiting list), has a maximum class size of 8 students and only has two Subgroups (Black & Economically Disadvantaged). Kindezi is not flagged as a Title-I school on the CCRPI page (but that may be an error).

    Dekalb County Elementary School #3064 is a traditional public school. It has to take every elementary student who shows up; it does not have an application process, nor a waiting list. School #3064 has class sizes that are above the state’s maximum (thanks to DCSS’s waiver) and frequently has to exceed that maximum class size because DCSS no longer has substitute teachers.

    School #3064 also has five Subgroups — it has the same two Subgroups that Kindezi has (Black & Economically Disadvantaged) — plus School #3064 also has the Hispanic, English Learners and Students with Disabilities subgroups.

    Kindezi has only 173 students enrolled; Dekalb Elementary #3064 had over 700 children enrolled (the last time I checked).

    The Principal & Teachers at Kindezi have a ton of advantages over Elementary School #3064, so there should be a big huge difference in their CCRPIs….. but there is not.

    Kindezi Elementary has an 80.9 CCRPI, while Public Elementary School #3064 has a 79.1 CCRPI.

    There is only a 2% difference between the two schools. If I were Carstarphen, I would view Kindezi Elementary as not doing very well given all its advantages over traditional public elementary schools.

  17. Just Wondering says:

    Another Comment,

    Would you mind sharing the name of the school that you found? It sounds great.

Comments are closed.