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Skandera: Teachers more important than small classes

The New Mexico Public Education Department, supporting a recent statement that smaller class sizes are not a priority, points to research that the high cost of mandated class size reductions doesn’t outweigh limited gains in student achievement.

PED Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera said Friday that her agency is not budgeting money for schools to return to statutory limits on class sizes, which were waived during the recession to allow school districts more flexibility.

Skandera said she does not oppose smaller classes. But faced with finite resources, PED is focusing its spending on programs it believes will have a greater payoff, such as making teachers more effective through professional development programs, she said.

“Research does show, in fact, that class size is not the change agent to improve student achievement,” Skandera told the Journal on Friday.

The PED cited an analysis of research published in 2011 by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The report highlighted research from Tennessee in the late ’80s that found kindergarten students in classes of 15 outperformed students in classes of 22 by about 15 percent on standardized tests. That study added that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to benefit from the smaller instruction setting.

However, when weighed against the high cost of implementing statewide across-the-board class size reductions like those California established in the late ’90s, it may not be worth the cost, the report concluded. California increased its school budgets by $1.5 billion to afford hiring thousands of new teachers and constructing new classrooms, according to the Center for American Progress report.

Skandera, in her own analysis published in 2003 through the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said the California class reductions failed to show academic gains. That finding was based on achievement of the first fourth-grade class to experience the smaller classrooms compared with the prior year’s cohort.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said restoring the state law that caps class sizes is a matter of returning to the number of classrooms and teachers New Mexico had before the recession.

“You can’t pick and choose from the research,” Stewart said. “There may not be a 1-to-1 correlation about class sizes and student achievement, but there’s plenty of research showing the overall success of students is enhanced by smaller class sizes.”

Stewart, in her schools spending proposal, earmarked $20 million budgeted “above the line” to help school districts return to statutory class caps. The $20 million figure is based on an Albuquerque Public Schools estimate that returning to statutory class caps would cost the district about $7 million, Stewart said. Extrapolating that estimate across the entire state school system brings the total to about $20 million, she said.

State caps limit kindergarten classes to 20 students, elementary school classes to between 22 and 24 students, and middle school and high school students at an average ranging between 27 and 30 students. Waivers granted by the Legislature have allowed schools to exceed those caps by 10 percent.

Late Monday, PED spokesman Larry Behrens said the agency is “open” to discussions with the Legislature on how to reduce class sizes.

“We fully agree that reducing class sizes is a goal we want to achieve in New Mexico classrooms,” Behrens said. “We should start in a way that targets at-risk kids and those most in need.”