Sunday, October 24, 2010

The UFT and Class Size: Thumbs Down

Once a union agrees that teacher quality is the  most important factor, class size gets moved so far down the line as a factor it become irrelevant.

No matter what the UFT says about class size, the reality is they gave up the ghost on this issue - like around 1971. Once the teacher unions began to buy into the idea that teacher quality is the key issue or that some schools can be way more "successful" than others with the same funding or demographics - all that has to be done is replicate, replicate, replicate - and do lots of professional development, class size faded. It has taken Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson to keep the class size issue glimmer of a flame burning.

Defiling class size as a factor is a major attack by the ed deformers - thus they push teacher quality. We all know that at almost every level of judging teacher quality you want to use - there is a direct relationship between the number of kids in a class and the ability to be more effective as a teacher (and I'm not using the narrow test score but real effectiveness that works for kids). I know plenty of great teachers at elite private schools who taught in public schools and left over the class size issue. One friend told me he couldn't survive and ended up teaching for decades at a top private school.

Ed Notes and class size
I will take a bow for Ed Notes which consistently has raised that issue over the 15 years of existence (in my rush to do the Ed Notes history on Weds for the DA, I actually left it off my list which I updated  (I added some new material about the founding of ICE and GEM, so take another look.)

I printed a picture of a button in every issue that said "Class Size Matters". It certainly attracted attention. At one DA a delegate came over and said, "Is that connected to Leonie Haimson's 'Class Size Matters""? "Who," I asked? Thus I first heard about Leonie, contacted her and began to promote her work in Ed Notes.

Class size vs. toilet paper
Ed Notes brought the issue to the DA numerous times, calling on the UFT to make class size reduction a key contract demand. Those of us calling for this were called "stupid" by Unity. Why take money out of our salary pile? We argued that parents and other forces weren't going to fight for our salary but would fight for class size and the pile of money could be expanded. I used to tell them "I don't see you counter posing that money for toilet paper comes out of our salary." After all, if teachers volunteer to bring their own Charmin (which many do anyway), we could get another 50 cents raise.

In the fall of 2000 I brought a reso to the DA calling on the NY Teacher to print every year a list of every over class size so we could track them. At that point Randi and I were at the height of a friendly relationship. "Come on up here and make your resolution," she said, offering me the podium, something unheard of at the time. I used her mic - and caught her cold. After that it was all downhill between us. (The NY Teacher did follow the reso and print the lists - in 2001 and in 2002 after I raised a point of order - by that time Randi and I were no longer on good term.)

Remember those UFT class size petition campaigns which chapter leaders were asked to get loads of names on - twice. I heard that a million bucks of our dues were thrown into this ditch. Naturally, Ed Notes attacked. "You are always so negative," I was told. Sure I'm negative when I see another obvious scam. "MAKE CLASS SIZE A PRIORITY CONTRACT DEMAND and show us one positive result and I will be leaping for joy." Outcomes, baby, outcomes. Not PR.

How about those class size grievances?
I'm not even going there at this time but will leave it for ICE's James Eterno, chapter leader of the apparently doomed Jamaica High School, one of the 19 target schools from last year that Klein made sure would have as little incoming freshmen while the UFT sold them out with a deal allowing Klein to put a competing school inside the building - which has some lovely real estate for future charter, by the way.

Cross post from James Eterno at the ICE blog


The UFT contract gives principals the first ten school days of a semester to lower oversize classes. After that, the chapter leader grieves (I filed for 83 oversize classes for Jamaica High School) and a month later there is a hearing at the American Arbitration Association in Manhattan. It would be easy to assume that a month and a half is sufficient time to reduce all classes in a high school to the contractual limit of 34 pupils in a class. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen at Jamaica or many other schools that were also grieving oversize classes.

At the hearing this morning, the principal, who is represented by a DOE lawyer, said he can't fix many of the oversize classes. I don't think there is enough space to start new classes in part because two new schools opened inside our building that now occupy many rooms. But that is not the argument administration made. The DOE lawyer asserted over and over the half class size loophole in the contract as justification for oversize classes.

Remember the class size limit is 34 for high schools so a half class would be 17 or less. Without 18 additional pupils in a subject area, DOE can claim there aren't enough students to start a new class. Therefore, in reality the half class exception allows for class sizes to go as high as 51 in a New York City High School although an arbitrator several years back did limit its use. As of today we still have a subject class with 48 at Jamaica and almost 50 classes remain oversize. This cannot be justified and yet the DOE lawyer repeatedly asserted the half class exception and the arbitrator in response asked the DOE to do their best to fix the problem or otherwise he implied he would allow the half class exemption.

It was so bad that DOE even utilized the half class clause when there were two English as a Second Language classes, one had 35 students and the other had 18. Anyone could resolve this as all DOE had to do was move one student from the class of 35 to the class of 18. That’s simple, right? No, because they meet in different periods so administration claimed that resolving this problem would cause massive disruptions in programs. Therefore, they had to use the half class exception. The arbitrator, to my astonishment, seemed to accept this logic and when I objected the UFT District Representative saw the arbitrator getting a little angry at me so after a pro forma protest, the UFT moved the proceedings ahead.

DOE is not supposed to use the half class exception as a rule but that is exactly what they did. In addition, establishing a precedent that they are abusing the exception takes years.

At overcrowded Francis Lewis High School an arbitrator said administration had to stop using the exceptions allowed in the contract as a rule. This happened last school year but even then the UFT still had to go to court to force DOE into compliance and it didn't happen until this school year. My guess is next year Lewis will go back to normal and there will be many oversize classes again. At a school like Jamaica that has a much greater percentage of at risk students compared to Lewis, we have a huge problem with students being discharged. Unfortunately, administration can use this to their advantage in the class size reduction process.

Administration over-booked the classes, as they have for a number of years and then they will wait for student attrition to bring class size down for the spring when it will be in compliance with the contract. In the end, the UFT can never say that the exception has become the rule. Therefore, we have no remedy for oversize classes. At the arbitration today the UFT showed last fall’s award where the administration used the half class exception. The arbitrator seemed to ignore it.

It should be noted that our school has no Pupil Accounting Secretary in our Attendance Office so it is inevitable that we will lose pupils. Pushing kids out is no way to solve the oversize class problem but attrition is why we can't prove a pattern of oversize classes as high schools are still technically organized on a semester basis twice a year.

Sadly, the real losers in this silly game are the kids who are stuck in oversize classes until they can't take battling for a seat every day and so they stop attending class.

This problem could be easily resolved by putting an absolute cap in the contract but the UFT won’t even demand this kind of modest class size reduction. The DOE agreed to lower class sizes to around 25 in the high schools to settle the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit but they won't even enforce an absolute cap of 34 on their principals. Of course, DOE will still always blame the teachers when things go wrong in a school.

They will more than likely soon claim it’s our fault that at risk students can't learn in a class of 48 at Jamaica so they will probably try again to close the school and start another new small school. The new small school will then be provided sufficient funding for them to have class sizes capped in the twenties and then the DOE will declare that there is more proof that new small schools are better when scores improve. Meanwhile the next generation of at risk pupils will be moved to the next schools targeted for closure to be packed in oversize classes.

What is so frustrating is how the DOE continues to get away with abusing the class size limits. I saw this farce with my own eyes today.
Check out Norms Notes for a variety of articles of interest:


  1. Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch should be CNN heroes.

    EVERYONE in the DOE should be in a minimum security prison.

  2. You are 100% right about class sizes and the UFT.


    Where the conversation stands now, teachers can't turn the public discourse with, "Class size matters more than teacher quality." It's just going to be he said-she said, and the prevailing argument, backed with all the money, will prevail.

    Instead, teachers should say, "Y'all have spent all these years testing and rating everybody, and you've got dip to show for it. Not in NYC and not in the U.S. as a whole. Rating kids didn't work. Rating schools was a fiasco. And rating teachers won't work either.

    "The only way to get kids to improve is to give them some help. That means smaller classes AND more targeted services AND, if anyone wants to be the least bit serious about this, early childhood intervention for high-needs children.

    "If the politicians care so much about the kids, why don't they pay some attention to them?"

  3. A rep from the Gates Foundation made a surprisingly good point about this during NBC's Education Nation thing. He said class size and teacher quality work together. Reducing class size with an ineffective teacher probably is a waste of money, but keeping them high with an effective one (if you end up paying that effective one more - as Klein and co pretend they want to do) would be a waste of money on an effective educator...

  4. Be careful RE when Gates people speak. Their agenda is to disparage class size as a factor as it violates their entire theoretical concept of ed deform.

    First I don't accept the vocabulary of "effective" teacher as in their terms it only relates to the output of test scores and not the input of how the whole child is affected by the teacher - they only want to use something that is measurable.

    What they do - and what you are plugging into - is the idea that the a teacher's effectiveness is a static factor independent of conditions. The private school teacher I mentioned would probably be a one out of 5 on a scale of effectiveness in a public school but was probably a 4 or 5 in the private school. Reduce class size by 30% and all teachers except the very incompetent (and they love to use the relatively few examples to affect all teachers) would rise in effectiveness by whatever way you judge. I prefer ability to impact on the most children in a positive way.


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