Our View: Time for honest class size discussion in Steamboat school district

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Editorial Board, January to May 2013

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Randy Rudasics, community representative
  • John Centner, community representative

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Few issues spark the passion of Steamboat Springs parents more than class sizes in our public school system. Unfortunately, passion doesn’t always equate to reason and sound fiscal policy. As the Steamboat Springs School Board and the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board grapple with how to budget their limited dollars most effectively for the coming school year, we hope they carefully consider the value of small class sizes in relation to other educational programs and expenses.

For many years, the school district has asked the Fund Board to pay the salaries of teachers needed to keep class sizes with the district’s mandated ratios. And for many years, the Fund Board has fulfilled that request. This year, the Steamboat Springs School District is requesting a whopping $1.3 million from the Fund Board to pay the salaries of 22 full-time employees. That single request is for more money than all of the district’s other funding requests from the volunteer group that oversees the city’s half-cent sales tax for education.

At a joint meeting of the School Board and Fund Board last week, a group of parents and elementary school teachers urged the boards to further reduce class sizes, with at least one parent calling the district’s current class-size policy outrageous.

We disagree with that assessment. More to the point, we question the value of spending so much taxpayer money to achieve slight reductions in class size, particularly when research shows questionable benefits of doing so. By analyzing the few available credible studies, a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that class size reduction had the greatest positive impact when classes were reduced by 7 to 10 students at elementary levels and for kids who come from “less advantaged backgrounds.” The impact also was greater in classrooms with lower-quality teachers. Most studies revealed a smaller impact or no impact at all. Conversely, there is no shortage of studies supporting the notion that teacher quality has a more significant impact on student learning than any other classroom factor, including class size.

Perhaps equally important is weighing the expense of achieving small variations in class size in Steamboat’s schools versus what else could be accomplished with that money. That’s where we hope the School Board and the Fund Board resist the urge to simply grease the squeaky wheel. We understand the political hurdles associated with the class-size debate, and it sounds like Superintendent Brad Meeks and some Fund Board members do, too. Meeks kicked off last week’s meeting by presenting years’ worth of enrollment and class size data for the district along with research that showed a quality teacher is more important to student achievement that the number of students in a class.

“The challenge is taking what the research says and what the community needs are and balancing that with the resources we have available,” he said.

The passion our community — especially its parents — has for education is one reason why the Steamboat Springs School District remains one of the top-performing districts in the state. But let’s not throw good money at bad policy. Paraprofessionals, teachers aides and other educational tools are examples of what might be far more cost-effective methods of leveraging taxpayer dollars for improved student achievement than more teachers and slightly smaller, or even stable, class sizes. Ultimately, we welcome the Fund Board and School Board’s efforts to start a serious, fact-based discussion about class sizes.

Comments

david niedermeier 1 year, 6 months ago

Whether real or perceived, the benefits of smaller class sizes in public schools are a significant factor for families who value education to seek out Steamboat as a place to raise their children. Number of students per class is a simple statistic to compare across school systems and is probably the first and easiest surrogate marker used to gauge quality of education and a comminty's commitment to education. These are often going to be families involved in volunteering in the schools and themselves contributing to the quality of education. These are also young professionals who buy houses, start or run business, pay employees and greatly contribute to our community as a whole, not just the school system.

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Dan Hill 1 year, 6 months ago

David, nothing makes me feel better than paying taxes so other people can get PERCEIVED benefits.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

"[Class size] is probably the first and easiest surrogate marker used to gauge quality of education and a comminty's commitment to education."

I think results on state's standardized tests are the first and easiest indicator of quality. Many school districts such as Soroco and Hayden have class sizes similar to Steamboat's. The measurement that has the public believing Steamboat has excellent schools is their results on standardized tests and the resulting honor of being a district of distinction.

The danger of focusing purely on class size when the evidence suggests that other factors are also important is that the school district's results start to suffer compared to better run school districts that find a more effective balance between class size and improved teacher skills. And thus, Steamboat ceases to be a district of distinction.

I am also concerned that small class sizes appears to becoming a teacher's employment act and not a means to achieving educational goals.

Despite the periodic drama of rotating Superintendents, one thing that SSSD has done well is avoiding setting educational policy based upon theories of what should work and instead focusing on what measurable results shows is working.

SSSD should not weaken their policy of seeking educational excellence by expending significant resources on what is popular, but less effective.

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david niedermeier 1 year, 6 months ago

Scott, Totally agree that quality of teachers is the most important issue and should not be sacrificed for smaller classes. Test scores however, whether more or less important than class size, are harder to meaningfully compare from school to school because the student populations are so variable.

My main point is that in addition to these decisions directly affecting the education of students is that they have implications for creating a desirable and successful community. That is a difficult metric get a grasp on but I think in speaking with parents ( N's of 1-not good science) you easily see that class size is an important factor not only for quality of education but for "desirability" of a community.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

David,

SB has enough students that any variability of students becomes closer to comparable districts. Pretty straightforward to compare against other districts of similar income and parental educational levels. And so while SB is a school district of distinction, so are many, but not all, of it's comparable school districts.

Yes, parents like smaller classes. It is simply more appealing than larger classes, but it was also driven because of earlier studies showing that it works. Certainly, it is clear that second graders do better in a class of 25 than 35. But SSSD is facing the question is it worth spending lots of money to be 22 vs 25 or so. Research on hat difference of class size is less conclusive and appears to show that teacher quality is a more important factor.

And for high school students, the research suggests that class size is generally less important and the quality of teacher matters more.

I think the school district can adjust class size and would generally have public support if they argued that using the money for better teachers means this will have better results.

I note that the Fund Board debate is not whether money should be spent or cut, but what is the most effective educational use of the money to be spent.

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Beth Wilhelm 1 year, 6 months ago

When the half cent sales tax was passed the pros and cons on the ballot were small class room sizes and increased technology. That is what was voted on. We have exceptional teachers already. Our school board does not hire the cheapest teachers or teachers right out if college. They hire the best teachers out there. If one teacher is taken away from the fourth grade class at Strawberry Park Elementary school the class sizes would be 31 kids per class! Is that ok for parents? Some of the classrooms can barely accommodate 24 kids let alone 31.

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mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

Remember the ole' "It'll be a great day when the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers and the schools have all the money they need..." bla bla bla bumper-sticker?

I'll bet most of the folks who once proudly drove around with that one on their Subaru also voted for the current president, whos administration is currently planning to send fighter jets to Egypt...

I'll also bet anyone a dollar to a dime that the overwhelming majority of those who DID will see absolutely, positively NO hypocricy in that... just saying...

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Lina Grant 1 year, 6 months ago

Class size is very important to me. My children need a smaller class for their sake. That is why I have my kids at Heritage Christian School where the teacher/student ratio this year is 1:3. Incredible! My kids get nutured while they are learning. With the HCS board deciding to lower tuition, who would pass up this opportunity? Many of the teacher have Master's degress. I am a single mother sending 2 children to HCS! My kids are thriving and enjoy learning! It is well worth the sacrafice for my children. Who could ask for more?

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mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

Lina,

I salute you. You are one of the few who put their money where their mouth is when it comes to their most important responsibility... their kids.

Congratulations!

I thank you and I guarantee your kids will one day thank you as well.

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