NBC News and
updated 3/1/2011 7:09:42 PM ET 2011-03-02T00:09:42

For Angela Goines, who has two children in the Detroit Public Schools, news that the system could make historically drastic budget cuts has left her with "agony in my heart."

Detroit school officials say they have no choice after Michigan education officials last week ordered them to implement a contingency plan intended to eliminate the system's $327 million deficit by 2014.

Robert Bobb, the system's emergency financial director, said that to comply, Detroit will have to close 70 of its 142 schools, shut down most bus service and eliminate individual school principals in favor of principals in charge of school "regions." An announcement is expected in April on how many hundreds of teachers would be laid off.

So many classrooms and so many teachers will likely be cut that an average of 60 pupils will be crammed into each high school class, the school system projects. That number frightens parents and education experts, many of whom who say individual attention is the key to reaching a child — attention that could shrink dramatically in such a large setting.

"These babies are really not having a full opportunity and a fair education," Goines said after the state order was announced — an assessment that Detroit school officials share.

"Clearly, those (plans) are not preferable educationally," said Steven Wasko, a spokesman for the district.

Research isn't consistent
Research into whether smaller classes actually improve academic performance is extensive but contradictory.

"Probably few issues in education have been studied as often as class size, yet few studies have produced satisfactory or consistent results," said researchers at Health and Education Research Operative Services, a nonprofit foundation that studies education programs nationwide.

Since 1989, the group has been tracking the progress of about 11,500 pupils who took part in experimental reduced-size classes in elementary schools in Tennessee. It's still tracking them through the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project and hasn't published its final results. But in occasional updates since then, the organization has said there's statistically significant evidence that smaller classes contribute to better grades, fewer discipline problems and higher enrollment in college.

Full data from project STAR (various formats)

But Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow specializing in education at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, looks at the same Tennessee data and sees a "very weak" argument.

Hanushek acknowledged that "your child could get better teaching and more attention in a small class," but he added: "The problem is the teachers don't change their behavior very much when you change the class size by a few children. ...

"The evidence is very clear that the most important aspect of schools is having an effective teacher. An ineffective teacher is not helped by having a small class."

If nothing else, budget cuts across the country in the next few years should give researchers a wealth of new data. As state and local officials struggle to reduce education deficits, they are looking at closing many schools and laying off huge numbers of teachers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has already laid off about 2,700 teachers over the last two school years. Facing a deficit of more than $400 million, the school board is now considering scenarios that could mean layoffs for as many as 4,000 more teachers — 1 of every 10 remaining.

"It's depressing when you realize that some (pupils) are going to fall through the cracks and you can't do anything about it," said Ali Kobaissi, who teaches Advanced Placement psychology and life sciences at Eagle Rock Junior-Senior High School. He often has 45 or more pupils on any day in his biggest class, which has an official enrollment of 56. (The national average is slightly fewer than 25, according to 2010 figures from the U.S. Education Department.)

"When you have a class size that's even 40, it's too large," Kobaissi said. "You can never really get to each student and find out their needs and weaknesses. Oftentimes, with a class like 56, it's hard even to be personal enough to memorize all their names."

'This is a lot of kids — how do you do it?'
The Los Angeles district is the second-largest school system in the country. In the largest, the New York City Public Schools, the story is similar. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed to eliminate more than 6,100 of the city's 75,000 teaching positions — about 4,700 of them through involuntary layoffs, according to a list the system released Sunday — as part of his budget.

When parents come in for conferences, "They look at all the seats and they say, 'This is a lot of kids — how do you do it?'" said Luz Paternostro, who has 29 youngsters in her kindergarten class at PS 65 in Brooklyn.

Paternostro's principal, Daysi Garcia, said the prospect of such deep cuts leave her "very fearful, very fearful" that more than 30 children could fill each classroom.

Other big districts say they, too, face laying off hundreds or even thousands of teachers to make the budget numbers work:

  • The Dallas Independent School District could have to lay off 3,800 teachers and staff if state education spending is cut as deeply as district officials expect.

"Obviously, we were in shock, we were in denial" about the impact of the economy, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said.

  • The Houston Independent School District hasn't yet calculated how many teachers it may have to let go, but it's clear it could be a lot — enough to raise the average class size from 28 to 40.

With district budget cuts as high as 20 percent under consideration, "this is going to be a drastic change," school board member said Mike Lunceford said. "I don't know any other way of getting around it."

  • The Providence, R.I., School Board voted last week to send out notices warning of possible layoffs to all 1,900 teachers in the system. Superintendent Thomas Brady called the move "unprecedented" but necessary in light of a projected $40 million deficit in the school budget.

Brady said there was no ducking the impact: "To be clear about what this means: This action gives the school board the right to dismiss teachers as necessary."

Overall, 48 percent of the nation's school districts laid off teachers or other staff for the 2010-11 school year, the American Association of School Administrators found, and two-thirds expect to do so again next school year.

In large part because of those layoffs, 57 percent increased their average class sizes this year, and 65 percent anticipate doing so next year. That's because 84 percent of districts described their funding as inadequate.

Read the full AASA report (pdf)

For teaching graduates, a shortage of jobs
The cutbacks come at what should be a promising time for America's education system. President Barack Obama's new budget calls for aggressive efforts to hire 100,000 new teachers above current levels in the next decade.

The president wants to expand teacher numbers at the same time school systems are shrinking partly because they can't afford the teachers they already have, posing a dilemma not only for administrators, but also for prospective teachers looking for positions now.

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The real impact of Obama's proposals wouldn't be felt for as long as 10 years, but "we're going to graduate in a year and a half," said Eunbi Cho, an education major at the University of Texas who wants to teach elementary school.

"We're pretty worried for our future" right now, Cho said.

Norma Cantu, chairwoman of the university's Department of Educational Administration, said the challenges facing would-be teachers are unprecedented.

"I've never seen anything like this in terms of budget," Cantu said. "It's a confusing time for students."

While college education programs "reassure our graduates that they're the best in the United States, we also bring a reality check to them that school districts will not be hiring," she said.

The reality, she said, is that if they do hire, it will be the lowest number of teachers" in decades.

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Video: Teachers brace for layoffs, bigger class sizes

  1. Closed captioning of: Teachers brace for layoffs, bigger class sizes

    >>> it wasn't long ago you heard education in the united states referred to in terms of the apollo program , the way to regain u.s. superiority around the world, but then came the tightening of budgets around the country. deficits, grim forecasts, and now in state after state, so many parents and teachers and students are asking, why does it seem education has to take the brunt of the cut backs. it was in the news again today, and our report tonight from our chief education correspondent, rehema ellis.

    >> reporter: today in the nation's largest school district , officials are considering a startling plan that could push more than 4,600 teachers out of the classrooms.

    >> there is a limit to how much we have.

    >> reporter: in providence, rhode island , the school board announced that all of the district's 2,000 teachers were given pink slips . not all of those teachers will lose their jobs, but it's an example of tough budget decisions facing school districts nationwide. classes will be combined because of teacher layoffs. in fact, one survey found 65% of school administrators expect class size to increase in the next school year. this high school psychology class in los angeles already has nearly 60 students enrolled. nationwide the average class size is 23.

    >> it's depressing when you realize that some are going to fall through the cracks and you can't do anything about it.

    >> reporter: some argue, class size is only one part of the equation.

    >> class size by comparison is virtually meaningless. put a great teacher in front of a large class , and you can expect good results.

    >> reporter: teachers insist, smaller classes are especially important for kindergarten through third grade.

    >> we're really going to pay a high price in future years, by increasing class size in these tough economic times .

    >> reporter: some education analysts argue, there's not a lot of research to support the idea that class size matters .

    >> if you look across the bulk of the evidence, it suggests no reason to believe that student achievement will improve if you lower class sizes.

    >> reporter: even with the move to smaller classes over the the last 20 years, national test scores for 17-year-olds in reading and math have not improved. and increasingly, the hardest lesson in the classroom may be how everyone adapts to fewer resources. rehema ellis, nbc news, new york.


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