‘It’s Time for Action’: Virginia Educators Drum Up Support for Smaller Class Sizes


More than 150 fed-up Virginia educators packed a local budget hearing this week, braving the threat of bedbugs (yes, really!) to testify for more than three hours about the proven, harmful consequences of outrageously large class sizes.

Organized by the local Prince William Education Association, teachers and staff delivered a powerful and consistent message to the County Board of Supervisors: They want to help every student be successful, but coping with the largest average class sizes in the state is making that very, very hard to do. “This is an issue that affects the entire community, not just teachers, and it’s time for action,” said PWEA President Jim Livingston.

Prince William County educators pack a recent Board of Supervisors meeting to call for smaller class sizes.

Teachers describe classrooms that are so stuffed full with chairs and bodies that it’s nearly impossible to reach every child every day. Students are routinely “put on hold,” said first-grade teacher Kathryn Alford, who has 26 students, including five still learning English and five with special education needs. Alford divides them into seven reading groups, and attempts to meet every day with two of those small groups while the other 20 students work independently.

“I don’t have time for individual attention anymore. The only time they get it is in their small reading group (once or twice a week), and that’s only if I don’t get interrupted by something else…” she said. “I’m not being able to support them—and I hate it! I don’t want to put any of the students who need help on hold.”

And inevitably, bigger classes also mean additional behavioral problems. The noise, the too-close contact with peers, plus the growing frustration by students who can’t get the help they need, all add up to teachers being forced to shift their focus and energy to maintaining discipline, rather than educating children.

With all this in mind, the Prince William Education Association members—and their many parent and community supporters—are calling on county board members to make a meaningful investment in smaller class sizes, for the sake of students and their community.

The Facts About Class Size

It’s a myth that class size doesn’t matter. It does. In fact, it matters greatly if you care about students and their long-term success. According to a Northwestern University professor’s study, published this month by the National Education Policy Center with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research, increasing class sizes will not only harm students’ performance on standardized tests in the short term, but it will also damage their ability to develop critical thinking skills necessary for success in higher education and careers.

Children learn more, and teachers are more effective in smaller class sizes, writes the study’s author, professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, in her policy brief, “Does Class Size Matter?” Reducing class sizes can help them perform better on reading and math tests, and those pay-offs are particular great for low-income and minority students.  “Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future,” she wrote.

Her results echo the findings of the well-known Tennessee STAR study from the 1980s, called “influential” and “credible” by the Brookings Institute. In this study, elementary students and teachers were randomly assigned to either a small class, with an average of 15 students, or to a regular class, with an average of 22 students.  This large reduction in class size (seven students, or 32 percent) was found to increase student achievement by an amount equivalent to about three additional months of schooling.

And it’s not just a benefit for young students—there are more than a dozen studies that link smaller classes in middle and high schools with higher achievement, fewer dropouts, better graduation rates, and fewer disciplinary referrals.

Of course, none of these findings particularly surprise Prince William’s teachers, who are living with the consequences of the state’s largest average class sizes. “They don’t have the time to build relationships that will have impact, that will really help their students succeed,” said PWEA president Livingston. “We have to have the time to be able to make those personal connections with those students, in order to help them be as successful as possible.”

Students ‘End Up Falling Through the Cracks’

Chemistry teacher Adrienne Maneno’s classroom at Osbourn Park High School comfortably fits about 20 students. In one class, she has 32. (Across all of her five classes, she has 149 students this year.) Do the math: Does this add up to a great learning experience? “Class size is a huge factor in teaching lab science,” said Maneno. “When I can’t ensure the kids’ safety, I can’t do the labs.”

Maneno attempts to compensate by dividing the class into halves, one engaged in independent seatwork, the other working on the Bunsen burner-type lab experiments that typify high-quality chemistry instruction. But there are always students who need help, and they have to wait, and wait, and wait. Moreover, they need to advocate loudly for themselves.

“When kids raise their hand, they eventually get my attention,” said Maneno. “But there are other kids who need attention and they’re not asking for it, and they end up falling through the cracks.”

Maneno makes clear, like Alford, that she doesn’t blame her school principal or other administrators for the problem. “It’s the hand they’ve been dealt. They’ve been very supportive of moving furniture around, leveling classes out…”

The problem is education funding—or lack of. When the economic recession hit Prince William County and so many other communities in the country, county board members lowered tax rates and reduced school funding. School administrators made up the difference by raising class sizes.

But with the economy on the rebound, and students suffering the consequences, PWEA educators and parents say it’s time to re-invest in student success. On Tuesday, just hours after the Washington Post revealed a bedbug infestation in the county’s hearing rooms, PWEA members showed up in droves, wearing matching t-shirts and gathering petition signatures from parents and community allies.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted to advertise a compromise tax rate, lower than educators and parents had asked for, but higher than the county executive had recommended to the board. But this process will go on for another two months, before the board adopts a final budget at the end of April. In the meantime, the organized efforts of PWEA members, parents, and other community allies will only gather more energy and commitment. “I feel like we’re already successful in raising community awareness,” said Livingston.

“We’ve got people talking about it.”