December 13, 2011

30? 40? 50? — Ann Arbor School Officials Have No Idea Exactly How Many Kids Are In District Classrooms

by P.D. Lesko

Class size: one time when size does matter. Research on the success of K-12 students has concluded definitively that class sizes impact the performance of all students. Kids learn better in small classes. According to research compiled by the Brookings Institution and published in a paper dated December 11, 2011:

The most influential and credible study of CSR (class-size reduction) is the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, study which was conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s.In this study, students and teachers were randomly assigned to a small class, with an average of 15 students, or a regular class, with an average of 22 students.This large reduction in class size (7 students, or 32 percent) was found to increase student achievement by an amount equivalent to about 3 additional months of schooling four years later.

Studies of class size in Texas and Israel also found benefits of smaller classes, although the gains associated with smaller classes were smaller in magnitude than those in the Tennessee STAR study. Other rigorous studies have found mixed effects in California and in other countries, and no effects in Florida and Connecticut.

Because the pool of credible studies is small and the individual studies differ in the setting, method, grades, and magnitude of class size variation that is studied, conclusions have to be tentative.  But it appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have significant long-term effects on student achievement and other meaningful outcomes. These effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds.

A2Politico, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, attempted to obtain actual classroom counts for each of the District’s schools. The District provides head count data per grade, per school, but it’s not possible to determine exactly how many students are in individual classes. Liz Margolis, speaking on behalf of the AAPS, said that the AAPS keeps no records of the exact number of students in each classroom for each of the District’s schools.

However, a series of emails obtained through FOIA that were sent between AAPS employees on October 4th and 5th of this year contradict that claim.  In response to parent emails complaining about over-crowding at Huron High School, Alice Chamberlain, AAPS Assistant Director, Employment Services, asked for just that information to be provided to her for each of the District’s high schools. Chamberlain writes to Julie Ziesemer, a researcher for the District:

Hi -

In an effort to reconcile data between staffing sheets, payroll and powerschool, I’d like to request a report by school by teacher with their scheduled classes and class size. The schools sheets will be sent to me by Friday October 7.”


Chamberlain was provided with the breakdown of exact class sizes by teacher by class for each of Ann Arbor’s high schools on October 5th. Frustrated parents, meanwhile, remain in the dark about both the exact number of students in their kids’ classrooms, as well as staffing adjustments made throughout the District in response to complaints.

Based on the contents of the email exchange between Chamberlain and Ziesemer, above, A2Politico appealed the AAPS FOIA denial that claims the District has no information concerning the exact number of students in District classrooms. It’s possible AAPS officials are trying to to hide from the public the exact proportions of the overcrowding, and in which of the District’s schools classrooms are most over-crowded. After all, hell hath no fury like an AAPS parent.

According to research on class size and student achievement, officials in charge of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, with its notorious achievement gap, should be moving heaven and earth to make sure that all students, but particularly students “from less advantaged family backgrounds” are in small classes. However, thanks to a structural budget deficit related to the costs associated with building Skyline High School — a decision that is coming under increased scrutiny — the School Board Trustees have been faced with the unsavory task of cutting teachers, programs, services and increasing class sizes.

The result? Between 2003 and 2010, while enrollment in Ann Arbor’s middle and high schools has fallen, average class sizes have increased significantly, and so have actual class sizes, resulting in classrooms stuffed with 7-10 students more than the District’s class size targets. Class size targets for 2011 were 23-25 students in grades K-2, 26-30 students in grades 3-5, and an average of 30 students in grades 6-12.

In Ann Arbor, between 2003 and 2010 middle school enrollment fell from 3,639 students to 3,406 students, according to District enrollment records. Likewise, enrollment in the District’s high schools has fallen, as well. In 2003, the AAPS enrolled 5,410 students in four high schools. In 2010-2011, there were 5,227 students enrolled in five high schools. Today, Ann Arbor taxpayers find themselves paying on $183,400,000 in general obligation debt, an amount slightly more than the District’s total 2011 $183,000,000 budget. In short, the current Board of Trustees has put the District in the financial position of now owing as much in debt as it takes in each year in revenue.

Thanks to the Board of Trustees’ decision to cut dozens of teaching positions, District officials faced a firestorm of criticism from parents in September and October 2011 concerning overcrowded classes. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by A2Politico, AAPS officials released parent emails sent on the subject of over-crowding.

In one of the best-funded school district’s in the state, with per student spending that tops $9,500 per kid, parent emails to District officials paint pictures of noisy, crowded classrooms, and students without books or desks. The emails also reveal that District’s teachers are openly refusing to accommodate the additional students, but rather have told parents they will scale back on the quality and quantity of course assignments.

As one parent wrote to Alice Chamberlain, Assistant Director, Employment Services in an email dated October 6, 2011: “The additional teaching load that teachers in the Humanities program [at Huron] are carrying means that the writing component of the course must suffer enormously….Writing assignments are being cancelled because Humanities teachers simply do not have the time to guide students through longer paper assignments, nor do those teachers have the time and resources to comment on and grade those assignments.”

A PTSO board member at Huron High School emailed both Superintendent Patricia Green and Board of Trustee President Deb Mexicotte. In that email, the parent revealed that 22 of the school’s teachers were each shouldering loads of 150 or more students. The PTSO official writes, “Huron has 22 teachers with a student load of +150. Classes that usually had 27 or 28 students now have over 33 students.” (The District class size target is 30 students.) The PTSO representative then goes on to state the obvious, “The large class sizes are affecting the quality of what’s happening in the classes.” The PTSO representative writes in her email that “several” teachers at Huron decided to deal with the ballooning class sizes by refusing to assign work that would need to be corrected, or by assigning shorter papers.

Another Huron parent wrote on October 4, 2011 of being “disappointed to hear that the writing assignments were going to be reduced for the classes this year due to changes in the student to teacher ratio this year.”

Alice Chamberlain, to whom these parent emails were sent, forwarded them without comment to other AAPS officials, including Alesia Flye, Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services, Joyce Hunter, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools, Dave Comsa, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Legal Services, and Marcus Edmondson, a Principal at Huron High school. Chamberlain did not forward these parent emails to the Superintendent.

Parents from Logan Elementary School, however, contacted the AAPS’s new Superintendent directly, according to emails released by District officials. One of those parents was Merry Johnson, parent of a 5th grade Logan Elementary student. Merry Johnson told A2Politico: “There are 38 5th graders in certain classes, such as math, social studies, science. I found out that this was the case because the substitute teacher told me. I bet there are very few parents who know this.” On paper, Logan’s 5th grade classes have 29 students. However, because there are two 4/5 splits (called combination classrooms—where 4th and 5th graders are placed together), the math, social studies and science classes require the children to have different instruction. Thus, a 5th grade class of 29 students expands to accomodate nine more 5th graders from a 4/5 split when it comes time to study math, science and social studies. In essence, for half of the students’ day, the class has 38 and not 29 students.

“There are not even enough desks,” says Merry Johnson. “My 5th grade daughter wears earplugs in math and science because the room is so loud.”

Logan parents unsuccessfully lobbied Superintendent Patricia Green for additional teachers in order to reduce class sizes.

Two miles away, the parents at Northside Elementary, emails reveal, succeeded in squeezing an additional teacher out of the District, despite the fact that Northside’s total enrollment and average class sizes were smaller than those at Logan. Superintendent Green emailed Northside’s PTO President to explain the “reasoning” behind the assignment of the additional teacher. In an email dated September 16, 2011, Green writes that “the numbers were brought to her attention and she called a special meeting of member of her Cabinet.” Green goes on to explain that “…a class size of 32 at fifth grade was not acceptable to us.”

One wonders, then, why a class of 38 at Logan is acceptable to Green and the members of her Cabinet. One also wonders exactly how many classes of 32, 37, even 40 students there are in which elementary, middle school and high school classrooms throughout the District. One also wonders how many of the District’s teachers, like those who teach in the Humanities program at Huron, are simply refusing to assign and grade student work in retaliation for increased teaching loads.

As a parent wrote to Superintendent Green via email on October 6, 2011, “As a teacher myself with close to 30 years in the high school and college classroom I know that…unless this bottom line of class size can be met, no other innovations, programs, no resources really have much chance to improve the quality of education.”

The problem, of course, is that District officials either don’t know, or are deliberately trying to hide the truth about exactly what the real “bottom line of class size” is in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. 

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