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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

November 17, 2014 at 6:04 AM

Stop saying Washington ranks 47th for class size

Don’t believe the hype. Washington does not rank 47th for class size.

I’ve heard numerous people cite that statistic to explain why they voted for Initiative 1351, a measure that called for limiting class sizes in Washington. Voters narrowly approved the initiative in the recent election by 50.7 percent.

After all, 47th out of 50, that’s outrageous! Well, that ranking does sound startling, but it doesn’t refer to class size.

Mark Burbank's astronomy class, Thurs., An astronomy class Mountlake Terrace High School has close to 40 kids enrolled. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

An astronomy class at Mountlake Terrace High School has close to 40 kids enrolled. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

In an editorial, The Seattle Times explained what the ranking is for:

In its 2014 annual report on state education achievement, the National Education Association, the country’s largest union for educators, warns against conflating the two measures: The “ratio of students to teachers must not be confused with ‘Average Class Size,’ which is the number of students assigned to a classroom for instructional purposes. Class size and student-teacher ratio are very different concepts and cannot be used interchangeably.”

In Washington state, the average classroom had 23.7 students during the 2011-2012 school year. That is more than the national average of 21.2 students per class, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The editorial board opposed I-1351 because of a lack of funding and because most research on class sizes show that smaller classes are most beneficial before third grade. The Seattle Times recently published a news story on conflicting data and evidence about class size, who it helps most and how it influences learning.

I couldn’t find any national rankings for class sizes and neither could John Higgins, the Seattle Times education reporter.

Even though the 47th ranking doesn’t exactly pertain to class size, it’s the only measurement available and has been used for years to quantify class size, said Rich Wood, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, which backed I-1351.

“People understand that the class sizes in Washington are way too big,” Wood said.

As Higgins pointed out in his story, some experts and researchers find that teaching quality and styles have as big a role in influencing student outcomes.

Washington spends roughly $15 billion per year on education. During the next four years, the state is on track to boost that spending by about $5.7 billion to comply with the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary school finance ruling. Implementing I-1351 would require an estimated additional $4.7 billion through 2019, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

The question remains whether the state Legislature can come up with that money and what positive effects the extra spending will have on improving education for Washington’s kids.

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