Armed with new statistics on class size, the Maryland State Teachers Association called yesterday for fewer students in every classroom, and as few as 15 in kindergarten through third grade.
The state's first survey of classroom teachers shows that the average class size in public schools is slightly more than 27 students across all grades, said association president Karl Pence at a news conference in Annapolis. The poll was requested by the Governor's Commission on Education.
Prince George's County has the largest classes, with an average of 29.3 students, and St. Mary's County the smallest, with 25 students per class. Anne Arundel County has the second largest classes with an average of 27.9 and Baltimore City is close behind with 27.8.
The association's numbers are about 10 students greater than teacher-student ratios reported by the Maryland State Department of Education, which uses a different formula. In 1997-1998, the state department said, the ratio of professional staff -- librarians, guidance counselors, as well as teachers -- was 18 to 1.
"Typical class sizes in Maryland are not 17 or 18; the typical class size is 25 or 26 or larger," said Pence. "Our census gives us the real numbers that are experienced by teachers and children every day."
Pence did not fault the state education department for its formula, saying it was the same used by all states and the U.S. Department of Education. "We are trying to get behind these numbers to see what's happening in a child's life in a classroom," he said.
Ronald Peiffer, state education spokesman, said, "We don't go out and poll teachers because there's no state law requiring it. We've been looking at this class size issue for some time. It's not a new problem."
Janette Bell, who has taught elementary school in Prince George's County for 29 years, sees class size this way: "When children need helping hands, if you have 60 hands to help, it's far more difficult than if you have 30 hands to hold."
For her, the optimum class size would be 15 in kindergarten, a maximum of 20 in first through third grades, and 25 in fourth through sixth.
A third of the teachers responding to the survey said the optimum class size would be 20, although estimates ranged from 6 to 25 students.
The teachers association sent surveys to every teacher in the state. More than 17,000 -- or about 30 percent of the teachers -- responded.
The association also tallied caseloads of school psychologists, guidance counselors, speech therapists and other professionals not in the classroom.
Although a matter of nationwide debate, the optimum class size is generally thought to be 18 to 20. President Clinton called for 18 or fewer students in classrooms across the country in his State of the Union Message this year.
A large-scale, long-term study in Tennessee shows students in small classes have better test scores, participate more in school and behave better. That research by Frederick Mosteller, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, shows that class size matters, if you can get it below 15 students.
"It's more important to make a significant class size reduction than to chip away at one or two [students] across the board," Pence said.
But association officials acknowledged that reducing elementary classes to 15 would cost $100 million for starters.
They did not suggest where schools would find the space for what could amount to six to eight additional classes per school, based on current enrollments.
"All of the research shows that with very substantial decreases in primary grades you can have substantial increases in achievement," said Peiffer. But finding enough qualified teachers for all the new classrooms would also pose a large problem, he said.
In Prince George's County and Baltimore City, school officials have had to hire uncertified teachers to fill existing vacancies, he said.
Pence did not advocate doing that: "We should not compromise teacher standards. We want a fully qualified teacher in every classroom at a ratio of 15 to 1."
Md. class sizes
Average class size in 24 local school systems according to a survey of more than 17,000 teachers. These figures are weighted
District ......... all grades
Allegany ........ 28.1
Anne Arundel .... 27.9
Baltimore ....... 27.8
Baltimore Co. ... 26.8
Calvert ......... 26.5
Caroline ........ 26.0
Carroll ......... 26.8
Cecil ........... 26.7
Charles ......... 26.9
Dorchester ...... 26.3
Frederick ....... 26.9
Garrett ......... 26.3
Harford ......... 26.4
Howard .......... 26.9
Kent ............ 25.5
Montgomery ...... 27.3
Prince George's.. 29.3
Queen Anne's .... 25.5
Somerset ........ 26.6
St. Mary's ...... 25.0
Talbot .......... 26.0
Washington ...... 26.9
Wicomico ........ 25.9
Worcester ....... 25.4
SOURCE: Associated Press
Pub Date: 5/29/98