Limit class to 17 pupils, panel says; Recommendation is for kindergarten through third grade; Lack of space, teachers; Research is urged on effects in middle and high schools


All Maryland classes from kindergarten through third grade should be cut by about 30 percent, to no more than 17 pupils, according to recommendations expected from a state task force.

The task force, which held one of its final meetings yesterday in Annapolis, concluded that achievement could be boosted if all early elementary classes were limited to 13 to 17 pupils, below the state average of between 22 and 25.

"The research says that reducing those classes to 13 to 17 students will have a big impact," said Carmela Veit, a task force member and former Maryland PTA president.

But the group is not convinced that smaller classes would have much effect on students in fourth through 12th grades, and its report -- to be issued to the governor and General Assembly by Dec. 1 -- will recommend only that the state begin a detailed study in upper grades in conjunction with a local university or independent research institution.

If put into place, the task force's recommendations would carry a huge cost and would significantly worsen the state's looming teacher shortage and the crunch on classroom space in fast-growing suburban systems.

Smaller class size has emerged as one of the fastest-spreading school reforms of the 1990s, and a growing body of research suggests that lowering class sizes leads to improved performance in the early grades, particularly in reading.

This school year, Maryland schools received $17.5 million from the federal government to hire an additional 381 teachers to reduce class sizes, and the governor and General Assembly gave additional funds to one district -- Montgomery County -- for the same purpose.

Montgomery's class-size reduction plan -- the only one the governor felt was sufficiently developed to be worthy of state funding -- calls for all first- and second-graders to receive 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in groups of no more than 15 pupils. Teachers added to schools aren't assigned full time to classrooms but switch between the two grades for reading instruction.

For a fast-growing school system such as Montgomery's, that plan allows for smaller classes for reading instruction, without requiring additional full-time classrooms for every new teacher.

Small classes all day

But the task force, which has been working since December, has explicitly rejected recommending such a plan, saying that the research shows the biggest gains occur when pupils are in small classes the entire day for all subjects.

"It should be a full day and should not just be instructional blocks," said Abby Beytin, a task force member and teacher at Timber Grove Elementary School in Baltimore County. "We don't feel that anything else is really class size reduction."

Even though the task force will recommend that the class-size reduction be phased in over four years, its conclusions would force school systems and the state to seek not just money for more teachers and materials, but also for extra classroom space.

When Harford County school officials studied the idea of reducing all of their first- and second-grade classes to 18 pupils or fewer, they realized that they would need 50 more classrooms.

In Howard County, a plan to cut the first- and second-grade class sizes to 19 pupils at all 37 of its elementary schools essentially eliminated space for 2,200 children. That means the school system is looking at additions and portable classrooms. But the state task force's recommendations also will call for further reductions in more grades.

'Money for teachers'

"If we get more money for teachers, we still have to find a place to put them to teach," said Sandra French, a member of the task force and the Howard County school board. "Capacity is a critical concern."

The other significant concern would be finding enough qualified teachers. Last summer was one of the tightest hiring markets in two decades, and the problem is expected to get worse with rising student enrollments and a wave of anticipated teacher retirements among baby boomers.

The task force is expected to complete a final draft of its report by the end of the month and send it to interested groups for comments before delivering its final report.

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