My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does Size Matter?

We've had a lot of discussion about issues of "size" at School Committee meetings this year -- school size (largely focused on whether eliminating Marks Meadow, the small of our elementary schools, is a bad pedagogical idea) and class size (largely focused on how many kids we should try to target per class in the middle school and high school). Thus, during this week of school vacation, and hence no School Committee to report on, I thought I would do a blog posting on both of these issues of size.

First, in terms of issues of an ideal school size, it is hard to draw very conclusive findings. There are many studies, but the findings are very hard to interpret because children are (obviously) not randomly assigned to attend a small or large school. And because large schools tend to be located in urban areas, and small schools tend to be located in rural areas, any differences between outcomes seen in large/urban schools and those in small/rural schools could be due to location and/or type of student instead of size of school. This is the classic research issue of determining whether a study shows causation -- meaning whether size of school CAUSED the difference in achievement -- or correlation -- meaning whether two variables are associated, but it isn't clear whether one variable (such as school size) CAUSED the other variable (such as ACHIEVEMENT).

Most research on school size acknowledges, however, that school districts need to consider cost efficiencies in making decisions about school size. Thus, recommendations tend to focus on the balance of having small schools and the cost-efficiencies inherent in large ones. The most common conclusion I've read describes schools of 300-500 as “moderately” sized, and those that “balance economies of size with the negative effects of large schools." ( Similarly, the 2005 Master Plan for the District of Columbia (http://www, gives a "recommended elementary school size of between 300 and 500 students." This plan also notes that "One way schools have continued to operate with lower enrollments has been to eliminate educational offerings; for example, elementary schools have cut staff for art, music, physical education and libraries." In other words, schools that drop below this 300 number are often forced to cut other offerings to pay for their small size. Sound familiar?

I find this research encouraging -- because if Marks Meadow is closed, we'll have 1300 students to educate in 3 buildings, which should mean 3 schools of between 300 and 500 in each (closer to 300 in Crocker Farm, and closer to 500 in Fort River and Wildwood). Sounds like a good way to balance the importance of small learning communities with the realities of always scarce school budgets.

Second, in terms of class size, there is quite a lot of research on this issue (and thanks for my fellow Amherst blogger Gavin Andresen ( for sending along a lot of good information on this topic. This research suggests that small class sizes can be beneficial, especially in the early years (see AND for good reviews). In particular, this research suggests that:

  • Smaller classes in the early grades (K-3) can boost student academic achievement

  • A class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits;

  • A program spanning grades K-3 will produce more benefits than a program that reaches students in only one or two of the primary grades;

  • Minority and low-income students show even greater gains when placed in small classes in the primary grades.

In sum, the research on class size suggests that class size should be very low in kindergarten and first grade (ideally 13 to 17 in a class), and that class sizes of this level are especially beneficial for low income and minority students. However, there is less evidence supporting the positive effects of class size reduction in 4th through 12th grades. Thus, I believe the schools (including the Superintendent and the School Committee) should consider decreasing our class size averages at the very youngest grades (certainly K and 1st grade, and ideally 2nd and 3rd grade as well), and then increasing the class size average targets 5th through 12th. This seems like a good way of allocating limited resources (teachers, classrooms) in a way that is in line with current research findings about when you "get the most bang for your buck" in terms of class size.

So, one question becomes how do you pay for so many teachers (to allow for small classes)? The answer in part would be to increase class sizes in the later grades (which of course is easier to implement in a K to 12 district than in the Amherst district in which the elementary K to 5 budget is separate from the regional 7 to 12 budget). However, there is another possibility: the research I've read suggests one way is to move intervention teachers to regular classroom teachers: "Extra teachers in a school who do not have regular class assignments are costly and may not have the same positive impact on achievement as shrinking class size." ( This raises a very important point for me -- should we be reducing support staff in our schools (e.g., intervention teachers) and increasing the number of class room teachers? We currently have 11 intervention teachers in the four elementary schools. That would mean we could gain 2 to 4 classroom teachers at each of the schools if we were to move intervention teachers to classroom teachers -- and that could mean an extra class at 2 or 3 or even 4 grade levels in a building (which would have a dramatic increase on class size for all the kids at that grade in a given building). I don't know the costs of doing this (e.g., are there kids who particularly need pull out intervention support), but this idea of reallocating staff to different roles in a building strikes me as one that should at least be seriously considered.


Anonymous said...

"...are there kids who particularly need pull out intervention support...?"

Of course there are. May I suggest that if you want to continue micro-managing the schools, you discontinue your research of published studies, and spend time "shadowing" those professionals that provide the services you wish to question.

You have mentioned a goal of not speaking to issues you know nothing about. By spending actual time at the side of the professional, experiencing the services provided first hand, you would attain such.

Or you could assign the task of evaluation/review to the newly hired Super. Or not.

Anonymous said...

There are MANY children who NEED to have the support of an intervention teacher. A classroom teacher can not provide the kind of intense instruction that a pull-out group or one to one setting can. These kids are well below grade level and need a chance to catch up to their peers through intervention services. If there is no one to work with these kids most will end up being referred to special education which costs so much more in the long term. The idea of intervention is that it actually saves the district money. Also, if our core values are to educate ALL kids equally I can't believe this is even being discussed. What do you think will happen to these kids without support?

Gavin Andresen said...

Anonymous1 : you seem to be putting more faith in personal experience, and what "seems" to work, than in rigorous research. That seems to me like a fine way to be popular, but not a good way to make decisions.

Anonymous2 : the idea is that small class sizes at the beginning will keep kids from NEEDING extra support in later grades. That's better for everybody in the long run, but there is a short-run bootstrapping problem-- how do we help kids currently in the system who didn't benefit from small class sizes in early grades? What would you suggest?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I know it would be complicated, but I would love to see larger class sizes in the high school in order to get down to these smaller class sizes in the younger grades. I agree that it would be difficult to pull intervention teachers into classrooms next year...what about those sixth graders who have had six straight years of 24+ sized classrooms and thus none of the advantages of a small classroom? Eventually, yes, I think that fewer and fewer kids will need intervention if they have smaller classes, but that is a long-term strategy. In the short term, can we move to a 22-25 class size for the high school (instead of the goal of 20-22) and move some of those savings to the elementary budget?

Anonymous said...

Even with small class sizes there will always be some kids that are behind due to learning disabilities, a disadvantaged background, developmental delays, etc. I have worked at two very small private schools with classes as low as 10 and there were kids there who still needed help. In one school an intervention teacher was provided and at another there was a private tutor who worked with the kids - the parents paid extra for the tutoring services. So, kids whose parents can afford it will pay for the extra help and those who can't end up with kids who will have trouble for years and will ultimately be referred to special ed. And it's not just academic problems in the long run but behavioral issues arise as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous1. It seems that Catherine has read an impressive amount of research, from which she has gleaned a great deal of information. If she were to now spend some time actually in the school, "at the side of the professional, experiencing the services provided first hand" I expect she might increase her knowledge exponentially. It might well even save her some time in the long run, as I truly don't believe she would again make many of the suggestions she has made in the past. I think it would become quickly evident to her that they are not feasible, either for the students or for the staff.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:14 - First, I think it is pretty amazing that I'm accused of "micro-managing" the schools by doing a blog posting on class and school size. I haven't announced this at a School Committee meeting, ordered the superintendent to change class sizes, etc. But the reality is, the School Committee does set policy, and that policy includes class size. If that is "micro-managing," you should take it up with the Massachusetts Board of Education. I am not basing this recommendation on my own opinion -- as you are. I'm basing it on what the research says -- which is that smaller class sizes seem to have a better impact on kids than expensive pull out services. Spending a day with a teacher who is doing pull out isn't the same as any sort of research on what is effective for kids -- that would involve studying the benefits of pull out versus small classes on student achievement - not just an anecdotal approach of spending a day with a person. As I note in my blog, the research suggests that small classes benefit kids more THAN pull out services. If you'd like to see both -- what would you cut from the budget? That's really the question. I certainly plan to ask the new superintendent to engage in evaluation and review -- including an evaluation of the class size recommendations we are using as well as the use of pull out services.

Anonymous 11:35 -- I'm amazed that the idea of even questioning how we spend our school dollars (e.g., on small class sizes versus intervention teachers) is so shocking to you. I've never said some kids don't need more support -- what I've said is that the research suggests that small class sizes are a better way to provide that support than pull out programs. Helping kids in need isn't about adults guessing what works -- it is about actually using best practices to help kids. And it is not clear to me, based on the research, that our approach of having larger class sizes and more intervention teachers is the right way to go. And I believe that of course teachers can't provide the type of necessary support in a class of 22 or 26 ... but maybe they could actually provide this support in a class of 15? That seems to me to be the question.

Gavin - thank you -- great points.

Alison - two thoughts. First, I think if we have a long-term goal of smaller class sizes early on and fewer intervention teachers, we could start working on this soon. I think that should definitely be discussed as a policy. Second, regionalization is the only way we can transfer those funds from the MS/HS to the elementary schools -- we should know more about that in a year!

Anonymous 1:56 - I'm wondering if we could even REDUCE the number of intervention teachers ... that would also help us provide smaller class sizes. I also hear from parents that their kids feel stigmatized from being pulled out, and I hear from teachers that it is disruptive to have kids pulled in and out of the classroom all day at different times. So, smaller classes could very likely reduce the need for so many teachers, and allow more kids to be served in a classroom setting. Sure, it may be that SOME kids need the pull out services, but it also may be that some do NOT -- if they were in small enough classes in which that type of individual attention could be offered.

Anonymous 4:17 - I think you and I have a fundamentally different view of how to make decisions. I believe one could go sit in a school and watch how things are done, and say "well, this must be the right way." But there are many problems with this approach -- you see one side of an issue, not the others, and whatever results you "see" are based on your own interpretation. I'm not convinced by personal opinions or ancedotes. I'm convinced by research that has tested which approaches work better (as measured in an objective way) than others. And you can only find those answers by actually examining data. The data, in this case, points to the importance of small class sizes early on -- that these class sizes have lasting benefits, especially for low income and minority kids. To me, that is what is important -- not what do I, or you, see as good, but rather what is actually good for kids' achievement and learning.

Anonymous said...

I may be going a little off track here, but I would like to ask about the Building Blocks program now being housed at Ft. River. What role does the School Committee serve in overseeing this program? And, has there been any recent investigation into the way they use a padded closet to contain their students? We need to know this. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

And, has there been any recent investigation into the way they use a padded closet to contain their students?

I have worked in that room over 3 times and the notion of a "padded closet" is not accurate. There is a place in that room that allows for students to nap or stretch out (like when I was there and observed a student with medical condition to stretch her bones).

An investigation would be nothing more then a waste of time and money.

As far as the BB program what questions do you have? I saw nothing but hard working people doing their best to handle children with various social, physical, and mental issues.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the district is looking to hire an Assistant Superintendent.'m not even sure what to say here.

Where's the money coming from for a such position and what's the need? If the funding for this position is coming from what could be used for intervention or classroom teachers, I want to express sheer and complete outrage!

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:23 p.m. It simply cannot be disputed that this program, BB, uses/used a padded closet to contain their students. Please open your eyes and read Amherst By The Numbers' guest blog that will perhaps convince you otherwise.

Anonymous said...

When you say "intervention," does that include ELL services? I think that should definitely be eliminated for K-3. If the class size stay small for K-3, integration is the best way for these children to learn English. I heard some children receive ELL services even thought they are born here and may have gone to preschool here. They shouldn't be pulled out at all.

Anonymous said...

ELL (which is not an intervention) services aren't just about learning to speak English. It's about learning to think, read, write and reason in English. K and 1st grade, I could perhaps understand not having services for those kids. But once we're talking 2nd-3rd grades, ELL is necessary since [theoretically] the native English-speaking students are reading, writing and reasoning in English.

Anonymous said...

"Theoretically," shouldn't these children have learned "to think, read, write and reason in English" by 2nd grade if they have been in the school system since Kindergarten? If the class size stay small for the primary grades, shouldn't the classroom teacher be able to teach all of these children in his/her classroom in K and 1 without being pulled out? Do Amherst school teachers go through some in-service training to how to work with these students since we claim to be so focused on Multicultural Education? Or is there a law dictating Ell just as Sped?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 8:13 and 9:23 - I believe the new evaluation of the entire special ed program will help reveal strengths of our program and areas in which it could approve. I believe this will include the Building Blocks program.

Anonymous 1:56 - although budget lines are still up in the air, there is a plan to hire an assistant superintendent to manage curriculum and instruction. This has been the plan for over a year now -- and was a recommendation of Jere Hochman. The money is not new -- it is coming from money that was previously used to pay for other administrators (e.g., Wendy Kohler who retired last year). But again, I don't even know if this is still in the budget after the most recent round of cuts. However, I believe this is an essential position -- the district has issues with both vertical and horizontal curriculum alignment, and thus I believe this position is a very important way to even out the educational experience of all kids.

Anonymous 7:50 - I believe the intervention budget does include ELL teachers -- and yes, the current trend (and I believe the state mandate) is in fact to integrate those kids in English speaking classes early on.

Anonymous 8:42 - I think the key thing is WHEN kids are arriving in our district. If kids enter our district in preschool or kindergarten, we might well be able to include them in regular classes (and provide necessary ELL training to teachers). But it is harder to do this with older kids (I'm not sure about 2nd/3rd grade, but certainly middle school, etc.).

Anonymous 10:46 - there is NOT a law requiring pull out services for ELL ... there is a law requiring services, but that doesn't have to be pull out, and as you note, with small classes and some training, this might well be possible, especially in the early grades, with regular classroom teachers.

Anonymous said...

It looks like the asst. super. job is still a go. Here is a link to the job posting:

Anonymous said...

Is the Assistant Supt position a new position or a replacement for an existing person? I don't see how a new position could be justified.

Rick said...

My understanding, as of about 2 months ago, is that there is currently no director of curriculum (used to be Wendy Kohler?) and that the hope/plan was to hire that position around the same time that the super was hired.

I don’t know what position should do this job, but it seems to me there should be one person in charge of coordinating and overseeing K-12 curriculum to make sure it all fits together and that there is coordination among schools as to what subjects are taught in what grades.

Along with oversight and coordination, hopefully this person would also have ideas on good curriculums that are used elsewhere – and don’t take that to mean Amherst’s curriculum is bad, I don’t mean that.

To me this is one of the two most important things that create an excellent education: Excellent Curriculum + Excellent Teachers = Excellent Education

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 3:19 - thanks for posting the ad ... I think it sounds like a great description for a much needed job. However, I still think it remains to be seen whether we can afford this position -- I am hearing we are at Tier 3, and again, I don't know whether we can fill this position if that is true.

Anonymous 9:04 - it is a new position, but one that the funding for is taken from eliminating two other positions (so it is not "new funding"). If you look at the Amherst organizational chart ( you will see the two positions that are being CUT for this new position: Director of Professional Development, Evaluation, and Curriculum (Fran Ziperstein), and Curriculum Administrator (Mike Hayes).

Rick - I agree with all you said: this is NOT a new position in terms of funding, and this is a very important position in terms of our district.