STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Class sizes are getting bigger in Michigan. What does that mean for student achievement?

Nick Azzaro
Ypsilanti Community Schools

Alex Muraviou and Curtis Metheny are in third grade at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti, and they've been best buds for years. The two have gone to the same school since Kindergarten, but they say this year is different because they only have 21 kids in their class. We "usually have about 29 or 30," says Alex.

When asked if they think 30 kids is a good amount of kids in a class, Alex jumps in first. "I'm used to having more, but I think less would be a good thing."

Curtis chimes in, too. Less is better, he says, "because there's less talking and ... if you're talking with a teacher, she doesn't have to get up and talk to someone else about something." 

Their teacher, Lisa Murray, agrees. She’s been teaching for 23 years and she says usually her class numbers hover around the 28, 29, 30 mark.  Last year she had 31 third graders. "It's done nothing but increase," says Murray. "I never thought I would see a small class again. I feel like I’m teaching, like I am really connecting with kids in a deeper way and their families. It’s ridiculous I’m this giddy about a small class, but I am." The Michigan Department of Education doesn't track class size specifically,  just pupil teacher ratios (more on that tomorrow), but a spokesperson for the department says class sizes are "trending upward as funding gets tighter [and] costs increase." 

Lara Dryden is a kindergarten teacher at Glengary Elementary in Oakland County's Walled Lake school district. She, too, normally has a large class size of around 29 kindergarten students, but this year she has 18. "This is abnormal," she's quick to point out, but she's loving every minute of it.

She says with fewer kids in the class, there's more of her to go around. She's able to get to all of them quicker and better. The children "are getting to know each other and building friendships faster because we have time to talk and build the social skills a little bit more," adds Dryden.

Dryden and Murray and countless other teachers we spoke to for this piece say you have to ration your time differently when you have 31 kids in a class, say, versus 21 kids. It’s another ten students to get to know, another ten possible behavior issues to deal with; it’s four reading groups you can get to every day versus six reading groups that you can’t meet with daily.

In other words: smaller class sizes mean more individual attention for students, and that translates into better outcomes for them. 

It’s common sense,  yes, but it’s also highly researched. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and an expert on class size. She says the research is clear: kids in small classes, especially in grades K through 3, do better than their peers – not just on standardized tests, but later in life too.

"Kids who were randomly assigned to the small classes were more likely to go on to attend college," explains Schanzenbach. "They’re less likely to be involved in crime, they’re less likely to be a teenage parent, they’re more likely to save for retirement." And the positive outcomes are most pronounced in African American children and kids from low-income families.

But here’s the catch: we know small class size matters, but Michigan is one of only a handful of states with no policies in place to cap class size. Instead, it’s left up to individual districts and their teachers union. David Hecker is president of Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers. He says "it depends on what numbers we’re able to negotiate in the contract [and] it also depends on the "what happens" language…"

The "what happens if..." language is key, as in: What happens if your contract says you’re supposed to have 25 students in a class, but you’ve got 30?

Some contracts are strong, with real class size caps and real consequences for districts if they’re not met. Others have no real consequences. It all depends on what the teachers can bargain for and how much money a district has to work with.

That means class sizes can vary wildly - from 10 kids in a class in the U.P. to 45 kids in a class in Detroit.

So I ask David Hecker: Is there a better way to make small classes a reality in Michigan classrooms? He thinks for a minute and says maybe. Maybe there could be a law that says classes can’t exceed a certain "meaningful number, and then we can bargain lower class size [at the district level.] But the state needs to adequately fund public education so the resources are there."

We know that kids benefit from small class sizes, especially the most vulnerable kids in Michigan. But, as Hecker points out, all the data in the world won’t matter if small class size isn't a priority, and if there’s no money to make it happen. 

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.