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Schools wrestle with class-size targets

Original post made on Aug 12, 2016

An eighth-grade algebra class at JLS Middle School with 33 students. A French class at Jordan Middle School with 33 students. A multivariable calculus honors class of 35 at Palo Alto High School. An Advanced Placement U.S. history class of 32 at Gunn High.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, August 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

Comments (31)

Posted by about time
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 12, 2016 at 10:01 am

"Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said that the teacher's union tried to negotiate lower class sizes and/or total caseload caps for the middle and high school several years ago, but they weren't agreed to by the district and school board.
We realize capping class size is more difficult and complicated at those levels because of the fact that you only have so many sections of classes and such, but we would be happy to discuss this in negotiations in the future to try to get class sizes down "

So the Teachers Union is on board. They can't be any clearer. The problem is with the board, not the teachers union.
Time for the board members to stop making vague promises on random teacher hiring that are never fulfilled and STEP UP and deliver on the board agreed class-sizes.
This MUST be the #1 item in the initial position when the board re-opens negotiations.

Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2016 at 10:37 am

@about time - The teacher's union is only on board when the answer to overcrowding is more teachers at the same pay rate. See if they are still on board if the answer is to teach an extra class to spread the students out, or give up your pay increase so we can hire more teachers.

Posted by Jordan Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2016 at 10:49 am

This is even more wide spread than this article talks about at Jordan. In my son's 8th grade class last year kids were sharing desks in Social Science and Sciend people were on the floor. Spanish was 31 kids which is ridiculous for a foreign language. This class should be split into two sections but that wasn't even a consideration. Thank you to the two parents who brought this to light to the public although many of us who have kids at Jordan have known this for awhile. The quality of education goes way down in this situation because a teacher can not reach out the the quiet "in the middle kids" like he/she would want and as good as a teacher can be, having 100 kids in their total classes makes this impossible. I'm not sure why everyone is clamoring to live here "for the schools". Overrated!

Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2016 at 11:26 am

"A French class at Jordan Middle School with 33 students. A multivariable calculus honors class of 35 at Palo Alto High School."

And sections of 50-100 at major universities. Enjoy the pampering while you got it.

Posted by Class sizes should be actual not averages
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 12, 2016 at 11:27 am

Class sizes should be actual not averages is a registered user.

Class sizes should have an ACTUAL limit and not be based on averages.
Core middle school English, math, history/social studies and science classes should have no more than 24 ACTUAL students in a class.
freshman-year English and math classes, should have no more than 20 ACTUAL students
sophomore year English classes should have no more than 24 ACTUAL students
All other middle and high school classes should have no more than ACTUAL 28 students

That may mean that every student doesn't get into the exact class that they want. That may mean that some classes without enough students get cancelled.

Posted by about time
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 12, 2016 at 11:32 am

"Class sizes should have an ACTUAL limit and not be based on averages. "

This is what the union is also asking for. It's the board that's blocking it.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2016 at 1:14 pm

There were caps on elementary classrooms and then that went out the window.

There were caps on elementary school sizes, and then that went out the window.

We are now reaping the results of these huge elementary classes as they are progressing into high school. Of course it is not right to have core classes that have struggling students sharing space with fast learners where the class moves at the speed of the best students, not the slower learners. Of course faster learners should not be held back, but slower learners need more time from a teacher and not the comments from the fast learners about how pathetic that the slower students can't keep up. Of course some calculus classes can be too big, but so can some Algebra classes where slower learners are struggling to reach a passing grade for graduation requirements, let alone college applications.

Of course foreign language classes shouldn't be so large. Of course we start learning a foreign language too late in our schools. Of course we need smaller language classes to enable each child to have the opportunity to speak in the target language, to read in the target language and to get enough practice that is heard by a proficient speaker of the language, not just peers.

Of course English classes need to be small enough to enable each student to read out loud regularly. It is only by reading out loud that good grammar becomes instinctive because they "hear" when something sounds right or when punctuation is necessary. Of course the students in an English class need to write frequently and have their writing checked by a teacher and returned in a timely fashion as well as making the necessary corrections for grammar, punctuation and syntax so that they learn from their mistakes.

Of course we need smaller classes and we have no real knowledge of how big some of our classes are. Back to school night, I suggest that at the Q & A time at the end of each session, the question is asked how many students in that particular class and how many students the teacher has enrolled between all that teachers classes. If we don't ask, we won't be told.

Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2016 at 2:43 pm

"Oh God, who will save the children?"

If it's so important for the teachers union, why not offer to reduce or eliminate their pay raises and have the money go towards hiring new teachers?

Oh right. More important for the tenured teachers to get their money and forget the others. Sounds very Palo Altan, actually.

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Friday afternoon

Hi, folks,

At a time when District projections show that some 600 new students will be enrolling in our high schools by the year 2020, it's encouraging to see the Weekly's focus on class size and to see so many of our school professionals--Mr. McGee, Ms. Herrmann, Ms. Baldwin, Ms. Godfrey, Mr. Kolar--attuned to the problem.

No issue could be more pressing for the mental well-being of our high-schoolers.

On stressed-out campuses, teeming with large groups of teenagers, making class-sizes more friendly has approximately the same relieving effect of lowering control rods into a nuclear reactor.

It makes no sense to be creating campus "wellness centers" as places to flee to from overcrowded classrooms where it's hard to get your raised hand called on, homework returned with individual encouraging feedback, or a glance from your teacher that says, "Gee, I can see you're having a rough day."

A student who is in a small enough class to make his individual needs or puzzlement known to the teacher, who can get her teacher's extra attention for a troubling point of math or a difficulty composing topic sentences, who can obtain the extra boost of help that makes cheating unnecessary, or who can explain to a sympathetic teacher that it's a recent parental divorce or the death of a grandparent that is making it hard, for now, to remember to bring homework to school--that student is infused with a continual confidence that "help is on the way" and that he or she need not succumb to discouragement.

With more than 400 classes in our high schools, all last year, that had thirty or more teenagers in the room, and with only 3 new teachers added at each school, this year, to improve on these oppressive numbers, it's heartening to see a rich discussion of this problem--which the community campaign Save the 2,008 is also working hard to solve.

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Director, Save the 2008

Posted by Anon
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 12, 2016 at 7:31 pm

More population = more students = larger class size. Some say they want more housing. OK. That will = more population = more students = larger class size. So pay to refurbish and open more schools or, pay to pack in more portables and hire more staff, or stop thinking that building towers of housing in a built out town is a good idea. It's not a mystery and it's not complicated.

Posted by Curious
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 12, 2016 at 8:49 pm

I'm curious as to what is driving the increase in class sizes. Did housing grow in PA? Doesn't seem like it did though. More young families?

Posted by Hated school
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 12, 2016 at 9:28 pm

This is why we pulled our kids out of PAUSD

Posted by Jim H>
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 12, 2016 at 10:15 pm

@ Marc Vincenti - I very much support the work you're doing to lower student stress. But I wonder why you haven't pushed for the district to open a 3rd high school or a combo middle/high school. If you've been on the middle and high school campuses, you know how crazy it is for the district to be cramming so many people in such small spaces.

Small class sizes are great, but students also need open space. It also makes teachers' jobs much easier allows them to make those connections with students in a more meaningful way.

The campuses are not built to hold as many students as the district has expanded capacity. Putting more classrooms on open space does not mean that a school can handle that number of students.

PAUSD set up a committee to make recommendations on opening new campuses, and the committee recommended opening a new high school and/or middle-high school combo. The board ignored their recommendations.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2016 at 9:30 am

"I'm curious as to what is driving the increase in class sizes. Did housing grow in PA?"

Housing grew rapidly through the 2000's and then has slowed the last couple of years.

The city council candidates vary on this. The Palo Alto Forward backed ones want to return to fast housing growth, while the PASZ backed ones want to maintain slower growth.

Also Stanford is adding new housing though much is targeted for grad students without children.

Posted by Byline
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2016 at 9:50 pm

Shouldn't Jorge get a co-writing credit on the publication of this PR job for the district? Where is any reporting beyond district staff? Did you talk to Sally Kadifa and Rita Tetzalff or Ken Dauber or Marc Vincente or ANYONE who does not currently draw a bloated paycheck from PAUSD?

Posted by Lauren
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2016 at 10:35 pm

33 students in French language class? It is insane! Class size for introductory foreign language classes should be 12, and the maximum should absolutely not exceed 20.
Why aren't parents taking legal action against school board?

Posted by midtown mom
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2016 at 4:19 am

been a resident for many years - have suffered and paid through each of the three parcel taxes - 2001, 2010, 2015 - slated to insure small class sizes. We = the taxpayers, have certainly lived up to our side of the bargain - what's the deal?
We need to all get over the "aren't Palo Alto schools sooooo awesome!" mindset and face the fact that this district and it's administration has serious issues.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 15, 2016 at 9:33 am

Here is the data I would like to see:

Same level English/Science/Math classes and the size of these classrooms. Why do some classrooms at same level have a lot less students than the others? And can the difference be explained by scheduling? Or are there other factors in play such as higher number of student placement in favored teachers' classes?

The solution I see is to make the tests and the grading common within a department. This makes it fair for all students, and promotes equal distribution of students to classrooms.

Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2016 at 11:15 am

I know... how about cutting the PALY English dept. budget. My kid's teacher only gave 3 essays for the entire year and then hired someone to do the correcting. She could easily teach 200-600 kids per section this way. OH.... and she decided she did not want to correct or hire a corrector for the final, so she just cancelled the final. Any kids with borderline grades were denied access to redemption on a final.

what I do not understand at PALY is how there can be a teacher like this getting by with this with her colleagues who are really staying up all night, getting to know their students and families and helping them become great writers. Why is this person not expected to at least follow standards. No one is holding her to their pretty high standard.

Also, at JLS and Jordan, do you think teachers should get paid that push a button for "books on tape" while they sit in the class and have a tape read their kids the book ? Is that teaching? Easily, there could be 100 kids sitting there getting the exact same thing out of that class.

Posted by Where is Your Data?
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:00 pm

What stands out is that:
1. First Superintendent McGee was dismissive and derisive to the parents who presented the data, claiming there was no problem.
2. Now, there is an intense effort to promote efforts to solve a problem that did not exist.
3. Administrators now want to re-frame the issue and say it is not class size.

Administrators Kolar, Ofek, and Herrmann comments are an attempt to obfuscate and confuse the issue. They are now claiming you have to look at something other than class size or that it is too hard to schedule (which is not actually data on class size, it's an excuse for not providing data, and a poor one at that), that the public just does not understand, and the worst excuses: that the Board is at fault for not asking for certain data in a certain way (Although the school District has the data, it just can't manage to present it when parents can. It is not possible for a school District to not have the data on class sizes.) Stating the problem is there is no metric to document classes which are co-taught? Make that metric. You, and only you, have the data. This is really not that hard.

Quote from Chris Kolar:

"I think that the class-size conversation needs to start by focusing on what the outcomes are that we're trying to consider," he said.

"If we want to focus in the secondary level on SEL (social emotional learning) — and not just the teacher relationships, but things like bullying — then one of the questions that we need to ask is how many kids are jammed into a room ... and is it conducive for development of functional relationships and meaningful connections?"

I am not sure what that means. You are a Director of Research and Assessment. You are seriously straying from the boundaries of what research does. Please do not change the focus and tell people they should focus on something else. Please provide the research and data.

The Superintendent now providing a "commitment" to give ranges with highs and lows of class sizes along with the Superintendent telling the Board their job, is not confidence inspiring. He needs to provide the data on class size. All of the class sizes. He can put this in tables, charts, spreadsheets. If he and his Research Director can't present data which only they posses, there are hundreds of parents and undergraduate students who can do this for him and his $900 a day Administrators. Some will even do it for free. Don't confuse or complicate it.

And please stop being so dismissive to parents who bring forth truth, and attacking Board members and then doing exactly what they request. All of this could been done without the attacks. You would have gotten to the same place, just been more mature about it.

From Herrmann:
"For Herrmann and other principals, the class-size debate has lacked a full understanding of the many moving parts that impact a school's master schedule, some of which are within the school's control and others, aren't: the number of students that request a particular class, the number of sections the school can accommodate based on space and staffing, students moving in or out of a school, projected enrollment and different funding sources.

From Ofek:
"That's the best way to describe making a master schedule: It's about managing competing demands," said Sharon Ofek, former principal of JLS Middle School."

Of my goodness, the principals are saying the real problem is dumb parents just don't understand "competing demands," or the real problem is different funding sources? How condescending.

Somewhat incomprehensible quotes:

"I think that if parents want to see data, and the board wants to see data represented a certain way, then that needs to be made clear and then they need to ask us professionals to provide it that way," Herrmann said.

Dear Reader, please read this quote out loud and see if it makes sense.

"To Kolar, until the class-size debate is couched in specific problems and outcomes, it will continue to frustrate both the district and community members.

"I always like to step back and ask, what is the problem that we're trying to solve? A lot of different people may identify the problem in a different way. As a result, working on a solution to one problem doesn't look like you're working on the solution to somebody else's important problem."

Uhm, Dear Reader, please read the last sentence out loud again.

Remember folks, it is all your fault. You just don't understand, and Administrators are paid $961 a day to say you don't understand.

Posted by @Where is
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:21 pm

^^^ that's a heck of a good post up above. Well done.

Posted by PAEA rules
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Teri Baldwin didn't anticipate how this could go south when she rallied the troops for more money when a very few folks were questioning the fiscal wisdom of granting three year raises based on a hope or guess, but it has indeed gone south, and no PAEA trolling is going to change that. We definitely need lower class sizes, but that can't happen while Glenn McGee and Cathy Mak raid the reserves. McGee has to go, and Mak should have been released years ago. Don't forget the majority that voted in the latest increase to the parcel tax, that was proof that McGee and PAEA were vindicated, even though the outrage on the PA Online forums had them running scared. Once the results came in, it was home free, but that was the pride before the fall. Folks, don't be dumb. Do not donate a single dime to PIE or PTA. Our kids will not be hurt, that is just a scare tactic lie. Do not re-elect the very same board that got us in this mess, not the one who has overstayed her welcome years ago, or the one that has had fours years time to demonstrate just a thread of competence, but hasn't. Let McGee's contract run out. I was never impressed with his circus act of triathlons, Max Mail, or audible sub-vocalizing during board meetings.

Posted by whose side are you on
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:06 am

Yeah, that's right, here's the PAEA's response:

While you ignore Teri's repsonse here: ""Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said that the teacher's union tried to negotiate lower class sizes and/or total caseload caps for the middle and high school several years ago, but they weren't agreed to by the district and school board."

It's not the fist time the Union has tried to get class size reductions included: Web Link

"Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said that the teacher's union tried to negotiate lower class sizes and/or total caseload caps for the middle and high school several years ago, but they weren't agreed to by the district and school board."

Now juxtaposition that with Dauber's response: Web Link

"In short, negotiating a contract that reduces class size because it reserves enough money to hire teachers has nothing to do with negotiating the article the sets maximum class sizes."

You've got this surreal position where the union has been fighting hard and advocating for class size reductions as part of the negotiations and board members saying that negotiating class size have nothing to do with contract negotiations.

It's pretty clear the union has consistently been on the side of students with class size reductions.

This is just surreal!

Posted by It's Not Complicated
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:30 am

Come on, it's not that complicated. The union contracts specifies the MAXIMUM student:teacher ratio overall. The Board is free to staff at a lower ratio, they don't need to negotiate that with anybody. So Dauber was saying that if we lower the raise we could use the freed up money to hire more teachers. No contractual change required. In fact, if we DO NOT change the contract, that gives us the flexibility to raise the ratio again if things actually get tight.

Blaming the teachers for class sizes is wrong (if anybody is doing that). It is squarely the Board's fault. Dauber wanted a smaller raise and to use the money to hire more teachers (Collins too, btw). That's it.

Posted by you're missing the point
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:24 am

And how well would Dauber's plan have worked out with the budget shortfall? What would have been the first thing to go?

Seems that only the PAEA are willing to commit to this this. The board is just playing at "hit and hope" instead of being serious about class size reductions.

Posted by Red herring
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:26 am

@It's Not Complicated,

Exactly right. What Dauber said is exactly true: "In short, negotiating a contract that reduces class size because it reserves enough money to hire teachers has nothing to do with negotiating the article the sets maximum class sizes."

If the board's goal is to reduce actual class sizes, the way to do that is to make sure there is enough money to hire teachers. Reducing the class size cap doesn't reduce the size of actual classes -- you need to hire teachers to do that.

Where I disagree a bit with "It's Not Complicated" is the idea that teachers are unaware of this. Either Terri Baldwin was genuinely confused about this obvious point when she attacked Dauber or she was just looking to score points in favor of the contract.

Either way, teachers are getting larger classes than they would otherwise, in exchange for a large pay raise. I guess that tradeoff is worth it to them, but they shouldn't come back and complain about class size after walking into it with their eyes wide open.

Posted by Red herring
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:30 am

@you're missing the point

Dauber's plan would have left the district with $4.5 million a year less in compensation cost than it has now. Combined with reasonable expense cuts away from the classroom, it probably would have let the district spend a couple of million dollars a year on new teachers (around 15), while still closing the budget gap. The board's decision left the district with no way to hire new teachers, and a hole in the budget with no sustainable way to fill it.

Posted by you're missing the point
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:45 am

@red herring,

Good try! However Dauber relied on the same property tax increase that the board did. There would have been no money left over to hire teachers after the budget short-fall.

As usual, Dauber says at lot but at the end of the day achieves nothing! It's an embarrassment.

Getting a fixed class size negotiated with the union eliminates the need for parents, such as Rita, having the hold the board's feet to the fire. This is the ONLY way we can make sure that class sizes are set.

Posted by Red herring
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:50 am

So, to "you're missing the point" having $4.5 million lower expenses every year makes no difference to the district budget and to the district's ability to hire teachers. That's nonsensical on its face.

I don't really get the point of this -- is it to say that the other board members didn't really spend the $4.5 million on 9% rather than 6% raises, so they aren't to blame for busting the budget? I think Palo Alto voters are going to be smarter than that but feel free to believe otherwise.

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

@outsider: PAUSD English departments in secondary schools were excellent when I attended in the 70s and 80s. We were taught how to write, given a lot of practice, and papers were returned with red pen marks as feedback. All we have now is a couple of papers with little/no feedback returned late or peer corrections (as if another student is going to know more than a teacher with an English degree).

Students in PAUSD are generally well-behaved so the large classes aren't as bad as everyone thinks. In Minnesota, we had 35 students per class in elementary school, and that was an issue.

The City Council needs to stop selling out to developers.

Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:11 am

paly alum

There are still teachers that correct papers and have targeted goals for individual students, but.... and this is a big butt. I do not think any principal should be allowing a teacher to be so far off their standards by just giving 3 uncorrected essays to students. It would be better for them to have kids join a MOOT or coursera class.

The most important years are first-3rd grade. students at that age need to focus on reading comprehension. If this is done well by qualified teachers, the kids are set for life. If not, then all homework and learning is a struggle. White boards, phones, smart boards or any amount of money will not help. A good teacher that can actually teach reading will help. I think more focus on teachers who have specific training and those who can mentor new teachers in this skill and talent should be more a focus. A great teacher can teach 20 kids to read very well. A bad teacher can not teach even one. sometime low class size is only better because fewer kids have to suffer a not so great teacher. Be careful when lobbying for class size. Lobby more for better programs and better teachers in the short run. YOu really only have a short run to help your own kids while they are in this district. Class size is too political and issue and may make no difference anyhow.

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