Class size increase

There are 31 students in this gifted and talented English 10 class at Dulaney High School. Classes are becoming larger because of cuts in the numbers of teaching positions. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 27, 2012)

Dulaney High School parent Jean Suda came before the Baltimore County school board this winter to say the class sizes at her child's school had grown significantly this year. She had assembled some handmade charts, drilling down as far as the data she had would allow to document what had happened after the county decided to cut 196 teaching positions.

The Sun decided to take her work a step further, and asked the county school system for a list of every high school class that was offered this school year and last. We wanted to see just how many classes had gotten bigger. The county turned over the listing of classes. Each line told us the high school, class teacher's name, the number of students in the class and where it was held. There were over 17,000 lines of data.

First, we decided to look at the smallest classes. It became clear that there were a lot of so-called classes with one, two or three students in them that were independent study or work study.  We decided to eliminate from the data all classes with less than four students.

Then we analyzed the data. We looked at how many classes had 30 or more students in them. We chose 30 because most teachers and parents think that once a class reaches 30 students,  it is considered a large class. We also sorted for classes with 20 or fewer students, classes that most educators identify as small.

The assumption by many teachers, legislators and parents is that the highest-achieving schools have gotten more resources. In fact, classes have remained small in the low-achieving schools, such as Dundalk and Woodlawn, where significant turnaround attempts were underway after years of poor performance. Most parents and teachers we interviewed agree that struggling schools deserve lower class sizes. But one principal of a high-performing school said that doesn't mean that the successful, high-performing kids don't deserve reasonable class sizes.

The data also busted another myth: that the squeaky wheel parents at Towson and Dulaney had protected their schools from the cuts in teaching positions. But in fact, those two schools have the largest percentage of large classes and the lowest percentage of small classes.

Principals and teachers there said just four more teachers at each of those high schools would go a long way to lowering class sizes.

One other school stuck out: Milford Mill. For some reason, Milford Mill has had a lot of large classes. But instead of getting more over the course of the year, the number of large classes went down.

The Sun hasn't looked yet at class sizes in the middle schools. Many of those schools were supposed to have cuts in the student/teacher ratio last year as well.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in an email that he does not believe the data were interpreted correctly. He uses as examples the fact that some years, the number of classes will vary depending on how many students request a class. For instance, a class of French II and French III might be combined one year if there aren't enough students to hold both.

In a lengthy response to a question about the data, school board president Lawrence Schmidt said: 

"I would also add that I believe that all indeed means all; and not simply the disadvantaged students to whom the statement is most typically applied. We must make sure that all students are challenged and given the opportunity and support they need; whether that is a gifted and talented student at one high school or a student who is academically struggling at another. We cannot predict from where tomorrow’s leaders will emerge and we must make sure that all students are prepared for the 21st century."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com