Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to close dozens of schools hinges on a vision of the “ideal” size for kindergarten through eighth-grade classes as 30 students, far larger than is the case now in the typical Chicago classroom.
That round number — little mentioned despite months of public debate — provides the simplest explanation yet for parents, students and teachers trying to understand why their schools are among 129 that could face closing.
A Tribune examination of that figure amid a blizzard of data offers new clarity about how Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are framing their case for improving the school system and wrestling with a budget deficit they peg at $1 billion next year. The implications are significant.
Setting a benchmark higher than what records indicate is reality across Chicago — and far higher than in many suburbs — indicates to some that Emanuel is willing to buck the popular notion that smaller classes produce better students who get more individual attention.
Pegging calculations to a 30-student class allows the mayor and school officials to drive the public debate with attention-grabbing statistics. It has enabled the Emanuel administration to declare nearly half of all elementary and high schools underused, leaving 100,000 desks empty.
On the other side of the ledger, however, are numbers that raise questions about the district’s calculations.
After several rounds of public hearings, Byrd-Bennett is expected by the end of the month to present the school board a list of elementary schools that she recommends be closed. High schools have been removed from the district’s closing plans.
At its core, the debate comes down to one of the old-fashioned three R’s of education — arithmetic.
CPS documents outlining cutback plans refer to the number 30 as both the “ideal” and “average class size recommendation” for a Chicago classroom. All the ciphering about empty desks and underused schools derives from the assumption that all homerooms in a perfect world would be occupied by 30 children.
But state records show that actual classroom numbers are all over the map in Chicago, with some above 30 yet most well below. Last school year, for example, Chicago classes ranged from an average size of 23.8 in second grade to 25.1 in sixth grade, according to the state data. City class-size averages have been in the same ballpark for several years, the state records show.
Thirty is not the norm in most suburbs or downstate school districts either, according to state statistics that show most class sizes substantially below that.
The statewide average class size ranges from 20.9 in kindergarten to 22.8 in fifth grade.
Asked why they seized on the 30-student-a-class standard in calculations, school officials first told the Tribune that the number reflected the reality in a Chicago classroom today.
Pressed on the discrepancy with state records, they said they didn’t know where the state got its information and cast doubt on its accuracy. The state said it gets its data from CPS.
In December, however, CPS officials offered their own analysis of average class size in a document submitted to the school closing commission picked by Byrd-Bennett to advise her. Those numbers showed that fewer than 10 percent of elementary schools had average class sizes of 30 or greater, while 57 percent of elementary schools had average class sizes of 26 or less.
In an interview, Byrd-Bennett said the 30 standard derives from a school board directive dictating how resources typically get divvied up among schools. It assumes that all classes have 30 students, but CPS officials said many principals use discretionary funds also at their disposal to hire more teachers and keep classes smaller.
“You have such a variety of numbers around class size across the district, finding the median, finding the average, is always going to be viewed as prejudicial in some way,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Because it’s not going to fit the reality of someone.”
School officials are quick to stress that the method they use to pinpoint school efficiency is hardly as rigid as the 30 standard might suggest.
An elementary school’s “ideal capacity” is calculated to be the number of homerooms it has multiplied by 30 students. A school is considered efficient if enrollment falls between 80 percent and 120 percent of its ideal capacity. In practical terms, a school can have an average class size as small as 24 and as large as 36 and still be considered efficient.
Critics see that formula itself as a problem, arguing that fixing 30 as the midpoint of the flexibility range instead of its ceiling skews the calculations to accept far larger class sizes than is now the norm. To buttress that argument, they note that the current contract with the Chicago Teachers Union sets an upper limit of class size between 28 and 31 depending on the grade. But the contract also allows for wiggle room.
To data expert Jeanne Marie Olson, who crunched the numbers for the parent group Raise Your Hand, the CPS calculations are geared toward saving money, not improving schools.
“We believe that the formula is over-simplistic and skewed,” said Olson, an instructor at Northwestern University. “It gives them the ability to put more kids in a classroom with fewer teachers on staff.”
There’s a lot at stake in the closing debate for Chicago Public Schools, which sees eliminating redundant facilities as one piece of a long-term strategy to force efficiencies and address a chronic fiscal crisis.
For parents and students, the prospect of being shifted away from familiar, nearby schools — even those where student performance lags — can be a daunting and even scary prospect in a city where crossing more streets brings with it expense, inconvenience and safety concerns.
Michelle Harris, president of the Local School Council at May Elementary in the Austin neighborhood, also sees the consolidation efforts as a threat to school quality.
“In western suburbs like Forest Park, where my kids used to go to school, they sure wouldn’t be OK with 30 students in a classroom,” Harris said. “When there’s more children in a classroom, there’s less learning time and less personal time with the teacher.”
May is one of the 129 schools under consideration for closing. This year there are 463 students enrolled at May, under half its ideal capacity as figured by school officials.
Becky Carroll, a CPS spokeswoman, argued that big classes don’t necessarily hamper learning.
“It’s the quality of teaching in that classroom,” Carroll said. “You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed.”
Declining enrollment and shifting demographics of the city have fed wide variations in school use, with African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the West and South Sides among the most affected.
Intensifying the problem has been the district’s decision to beef up privately run charter and contract schools. The result? Over the past decade, overall enrollment dropped from about 438,000 to about 403,000, but the volume of schools jumped from 602 to 681, records show. Much of that growth comes from the expansion of charter schools.
CPS official Adam Anderson, among the top architects of the downsizing efforts, said such changes have helped feed a paradox that puzzles many parents. They are having trouble reconciling the news that their child goes to an underused school that could close even as their child’s class might be quite large.
The reason is complicated but revolves around money. With fewer students overall, a school gets less money and so might end up having to forgo hiring a needed homeroom teacher to hire, say, a music or art teacher, Anderson explained.
That can lead to odd distortions even within the same school. An example is Ashe Elementary in the South Side Chatham neighborhood, which serves 394 youngsters but officials say should ideally serve 690.
Specific class size data for this year aren’t yet available, but state records show that last year, the first grade at Ashe averaged 18.5 students per class, while the third grade had 47 students per class and fifth grade had 43 students per class.
Appropriate class size is often an emotional issue for parents, who in Chicago and many other communities push fiercely to keep them small even in the face of budget woes. But the role of class size in educational quality is frequently debated.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, analyzed several studies in 2011 and concluded there was no compelling proof that smaller classes led to improved learning. That said, they added that class size reduction seemed so popular with voters that policymakers in lean times might find it difficult to juggle school resources by making classes larger.
At least two dozen states in recent decades have passed laws either setting class size limits or encouraging school districts to keep classes small, according to Brookings.
One alternative, the Brookings report suggested, was to focus efforts to keep classes small on “students who have been shown to benefit the most: disadvantaged students in the early grades.” That description fits a large proportion of students in Chicago, especially on the West and South sides, where the bulk of schools under consideration for closing are located.
Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said wide distortions in class sizes tend to show up more in schools in lower-income neighborhoods where parents may be less savvy about how to raise a fuss and work the system.
“Children in upper-tier schools will be fairly unaffected,” she said. “The negative impact will fall on the poorest schools, which have the least control on enrollment and the most need for smaller class sizes.”
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed.