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May 3, 2015

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Amid crowds, some students are left behind

Teachers say increasingly crammed classrooms make it hard to reach segment of pupils


Justin M. Bowen

Arthur Gamboa leads a discussion with his 38 students in his Modern Literature class at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

Overcrowded Classrooms

Dedra Steinline has her class of 36 take shifts at the microscopes due to her large class size at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

The former Catholic priest moves among his flock of high school seniors, questioning, listening, seeking eye contact with his students as they read aloud from Isaac Asimov’s series “Foundation.” The work, which is set so far in the future that people have forgotten about Earth, isn’t easy to absorb. Arthur Gamboa is working hard to engage the teenagers, but that’s difficult in this class of 40 Palo Verde High School seniors. The room is cramped. The aisles are narrow. There’s no space to walk behind teens seated in the back rows.

The 48-year-old teacher worries that he’s not clicking with a significant portion of his students because of the crowded conditions spurred by a three-year expansion of class sizes. “One half can get my presence by my walking among them. The other doesn’t,” Gamboa said. “There’s also another challenge, just trying to keep a student focused.”

Educators say 10 to 20 percent of the students will excel in any classroom, no matter how crowded. The bottom 10 to 20 percent will lag behind; class size is irrelevant. It’s the students in the broad middle — more than 180,000 in the Clark County School District — who will suffer the most as class sizes balloon amid state and local budget cuts, or so the thinking goes.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said of looming budget cuts and growing class sizes, “I’ve made it pretty clear what is being proposed right now is just too devastating for the School District.”

Jones thinks the cutoff point for classroom effectiveness could be 30, 35 or 40 students in the upper grades. It’s a hard number to pin down. There are so many variables — the complexity of a subject, the intellectual and social skills of students, teacher skills, the intensity of parental involvement — to cite a few.

At some point teachers find that it’s increasingly difficult to reach individual students. Longtime Palo Verde teachers remember classrooms with five to 10 fewer students just a decade ago, settings that offered more opportunities for one-on-one contact. Then came the boom and its rapid growth in the neighborhood. And then the bust and shrinking government resources to support education. Students were crammed into classrooms.

“I’ve witnessed that the last few years,” Gamboa said. “The larger the numbers in the classroom, the more the problems that are exacerbated.”

Jones cites a familiar refrain among teachers working in crowded classrooms: “Am I giving them exactly what they need?” Some of his most effective classroom teachers say they aren’t.

In the 1970s, school districts throughout the country pushed for class-size reduction. The goal was to provide a nurturing atmosphere for students, particularly in the earlier grades when research shows that the foundation is laid for a child’s math, reading and writing skills.

Educators, school boards, legislators, teachers unions and taxpayers joined to invest in lower student-teacher ratios. Advocates say the research is clear — smaller classes provide a healthier learning environment.

Critics of class-size reduction say the results aren’t so certain. They often point to inner-city schools where public school systems adopted smaller classrooms, yet the results on standardized test scores at those schools have declined. To the critics, the chief result of class-size reduction has been increased spending per-pupil and higher taxes.

But most educators say conducting a well-run class becomes difficult when teachers are increasingly focused on crowd control and discipline. Teachers fret about losing many of the cues that come with physical closeness to students in need of help. They miss the uncertain eye movements, the nervous body language, the altered breathing patterns.

“At some point individuals don’t feel like they’re teaching anymore,” said Randall Boone, department chairman of curriculum and instruction at UNLV’s College of Education. “Instead, they feel as though they’re just providing a place for students.”

However, Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, doesn’t buy that analysis. The 40-year educator, writer and researcher thinks smaller class size is not the key to a strong education.

Rather, he stresses the need to hire and retain good teachers while ridding districts of their worst. An advocate of the type of reforms being pushed by Gov. Brian Sandoval and Jones — ending what is informally known as teacher tenure, the execution of effective teacher evaluations, and the annual firing of teachers who record poor academic growth rates among students. Hanushek thinks parents in Clark County should be more concerned about the coming layoffs of good young teachers who lack seniority.

The Stanford professor, who appears in Davis Guggenheim’s well-received 2010 documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” argues that if you lined up all of a school’s teachers in a row and graded each for his students’ growth in standardized test performance between the start and finish of a school year, you could get rid of 5 to 8 percent of that group. Over time, he said, there would be a dramatic improvement in student performance.

“The only thing that matters is teacher quality,” Hanushek said, noting that class size is largely irrelevant to a good teacher. “There are huge differences among teachers that are unrelated to their background characteristics. If you go for seniority, then that’s the mistake.”

Click to enlarge photo

Principal Dan Phillips, is photographed in his office at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

The student population at the 15-year-old Palo Verde High School has changed with the recession, reflecting the new reality of its Summerlin neighborhood, some of which has an effect on academic performance. The school’s homeless population has grown, many families bouncing among the homes of friends and relatives. Grandparents have taken in children and grandchildren. Multiple families are living in what had been single-family homes, some renting, others owning. Students are stressed, hungry, tired and a growing number are not prepared to learn. Principal Dan Phillips thinks growing class size is one more disruption.

“We’re starting to see the stress out there,” Phillips said. “The first 10 or 15 years of their lives they’ve known nothing but affluence ... or there was a facade of affluence.” Some students are couch surfers, staying in the homes of friends, having nowhere else to live. “Education,” Phillips said, “is one area they think they have control.”

Budget cuts have reduced Palo Verde’s faculty from 160 teachers two years ago to an expected 108 next year. Classes have been eliminated in art, photography, auto shop, costume design, the sort of vocational classes that can set a strong foundation for students who don’t excel in more traditional subjects.

Phillips does the math: A class of 45 students typically has six non-motivated students; 20 are in the middle but not particularly motivated. He fears that the “vast middle” will grow with all of the cutting. “The filters we have to catch kids are going to fall through,” Phillips said.

Class-size growth in the valley’s schools is invariably linked to the construction boom that saw the region’s population explode from 708,750 in 1989 to 2 million before the economic collapse. From 1994 to 2008, the School District’s student population exploded to 310,000 students from 150,000. Bond measures were passed to build schools. Property taxes were raised to pay for their operation. A makeshift mix of temporary revenue packages was adopted by state lawmakers to help fund education. Yet educators and public school advocates say schools continued to lack the resources needed for smaller high school classes.

“Personally I’m glad that all of my children have graduated from the School District. I think the future is dismal,” said Carolyn Edwards, School Board president. A decade ago she lobbied Nevada legislators for a long-term plan to fund education.

Carolyn Edwards

Carolyn Edwards

She bemoans what she views as the failure of state lawmakers to adopt such a strategy, one that might have found a more stable funding structure for the state’s public schools, colleges and universities. “There is no vision here,” she said. “There is no future planning here.”

High school graduates from the late-1980s recall science and math classes with 20 to 25 students. It was a setup that played to the complexity of the curriculum and the needs of students in science labs, where one-on-one time with a good biology or chemistry teacher can be the difference between a student who comes to love or hate a subject.

It’s particularly frustrating for Palo Verde science teacher Dedra Steinline to see 38 of her 40 lab stations filled with sophomore biology students. She graduated 20 years ago from Basic High School, and she recalls much smaller science classes.

“There always seemed to be plenty of room. We had our own lab tables, drawers where we kept our supplies. It just felt bigger,” Steinline said. Thirteen years ago, during her first year as a teacher, she had 20 to 25 kids in her Palo Verde classrooms. “I felt like I really knew the kids,” she reflects. “There’s a whole different atmosphere when you have fewer kids. They become more of a family. Students pick up the kids lagging behind.”

Steinline, whose husband also teaches science at Palo Verde, considers the anticipated budget cuts, and considers what it could mean for next year’s classes. “You have the kids in the middle. They could go either way,” she said. “I could lose them. They could go the other way. That’s what I see.”

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  1. Brian Sandoval, a man for all dark ages.

  2. "The only thing that matters is teacher quality," Hanushek said, noting that class size is largely irrelevant to a good teacher. "There are huge differences among teachers that are unrelated to their background characteristics. If you go for seniority, then that's the mistake."

    Does that SOUND LOGICAL?
    It sounds like a CONTRIVED POSITION by another clueless ACADEMIC that was PAID.
    Of COURSE we should "keep the good teachers", AND we should REDUCE CLASS's NOT AN EITHER-OR proposition.

    "The Stanford professor, who appears in Davis Guggenheim's well-received 2010 documentary, "Waiting for Superman,"

    As does all propaganda, when done correctly, it fools fools.
    But it doesn't fool folks who can THINK...

    Google. Try it. There are THOUSANDS of these links to articles critical of the MOVIE & IT'S PREMISE.

    It's trash... and a shameful use of cinema for Political Propaganda...not exactly unprecedented, is it?

    ARE THERE TEACHERS for whom class size wouldn't be a "deterrent"? SURE! Are they UNIQUE, and unusual, and ANOMALIES?
    "I'm not sure... what will it cost me?"...

  3. A couple of real PEARLS OF WISDOM, from the Tanker!

    "In Clark County, since the test scores are low, we are going to punish the teachers by making the classes bigger, taking away pay and resources. What sense does that make? It's like taking ammunition and supplies away from soldiers because they failed in their mission."

    "Teacher tenure has nothing to do with educational reform. It is about union busting, and destroying collective bargaining. It distracts from the fact that we aren't doing any to improve the quality of education in Nevada unless we address the other, more important issues as well."


  4. There is a threshold where as a teacher you can "reach" your students, or just be one more annoying background noise in the life of the young. Add in the additional number of tests to grade, time spent to explain or clarify a point with individual students, thirty five plus students are more than any teacher can truely handle.
    God help this country when we can't find the money to properly educate our young but can spend money to build roads in Afghanistan, or subsidize the billionaires.

  5. The Right-Wing PLOT to GUT EDUCATION...

    Now includes ridding our schools of their most VALUABLE ASSET...
    The Experienced Teacher.

    "LOOK! We can save HUGE DOUGH if we get rid of the more experienced teachers! The less experienced teachers MAKE LESS MONEY!"

    Its ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS about the MONEY!!!

  6. ...if you're running a BUSINESS that requires BRAINPOWER, and need to cut staffing, do you let go your more experienced, longer-term employees over newer, less experienced workers, or would that be considered...

  7. Gmag, I see you still can't fight facts with facts. You have to throw out personal insults.

    Teacher quality is one thing school districts can control and it is highly correlated with student achievement so yes, teacher quality is perhaps the most important thing schools can focus on.

    You can't control parents and student behavior problems are at least partially related to the competence of the teacher. students aren't dumb. If the teacher is incompetent the students won't respect the teacher.

    I've also showed you on numerous occasions that experience after 5 years isn't correlated with effective teaching. In some instances teacher quality begins to decline and at some point - 20 years out or later - the veteran teachers may actually be worse than first year teachers.

    From Harvard University:

    I cover this subject in detail at my blog here:

  8. Gmag

    The logical reason why class size reduction doesn't work is because class size reduction increases the likelihood that we're exposing students to ineffective teachers.

    The result of tenure, seniority, lock-step pay, teacher training methods, recruitment and retention is that the average teacher now comes from the bottom third of college graduates.

    Research by Dale Ballou and Michael Podgurksy have also shown that increasing teacher pay only results in schools paying more money to recruit from the exact same pool of teachers.

    So when you continue to recruit from the same pool where the average teacher is below the average college graduate and you want more of these teachers you are diminishing the quality of the labor force in teaching. In other words, bad and mediocre teachers are crowding out the good teachers.

    As Tennessee professor Dr. William Sanders demonstrated, effective teachers are 10-20 times more powerful than small class sizes.

    What you want are great teachers and as many children learning from them as possible. What we don't want is to dilute the talent pool which is what class size reduction has actually done.

  9. Let's get to the fundamental problem. Some classes work when they are larger. Others cannot work when they are larger. But instead of looking at the individual subjects, and the quality of the teacher in that subject and how s/he approaches it, we try a one-size-fits-all approach. The way I teach a history class (granted, it's college-level) may lend itself to a larger or smaller class, and students may benefit accordingly. But if our educational system is so badly in need of reform, and Brian Sandogibbons is the reformer, why did he propose taking his new-found money and putting it into education? Simple answer: because he is a political hack and dishonest. More complex answer: it helps his vice-presidential campaign.

  10. Good motto, RoboGod. But I have always said that Governor Sandoval's long standing motto regarding this issue for Nevada is:

    "The youth of Nevada need to be incarcerated...not educated."

    One of the problems I see, and I have heard this from teachers too, is there are a helluva lot of administrators and higher ups within the Clark County School District that all look for more and more teachers to cut, trying to get innovative and helpful on what to cut and dice and slice. But they're not being helpful. They are basically in survival mode. They're sacrificing others to save their own jobs (and worthless carcasses that suck up money).

    Get rid of three quarters of the administrators, that would solve the problem. They are not the ones who are identifying the problem....they ARE the problem. To put the whole cost saving debacle on teachers is totally unfair.

    But, no, don't listen to me. That makes too much sense.

    And anyways, Governor Dracula MUST look for more and more things to cut and take away from the Nevada middle class. All in order to give the filthy rich and the corporations more and more tax breaks and subsidies. If he followed what I said in above, he'd cut teachers more AND administrators. Because he serves corporations. Not the taxpayers.

    The corporate welfare MUST continue according to Governor Dracula.

  11. Mr. Gibbons, you say that "the average teacher now comes from the bottom third of college graduates."


    Just curious, have you ever taught?

  12. Please season this conversation with the failure of No Child Left Behind and the profound effects of ELL/ESL students in the American educational system, more specifically, here in NEVADA!

    One critical problem we have is that educators and education are NOT valued in the United States of America as it is in other countries.

    The other problem, which has been pervassive and on-going for decades, 30+ years, is that NEVADA LAWMAKERS have habitually neglected and/or refused to address and reform an ancient TAX STRUCTURE that does NOT serve the people in this great state. That is the heart of the matter. There's fat to trim in every department in the state, in every program, and there should always be attached to any program, a timeline, expectations, and evaluation of that program to see if it should continue. How much of that really goes on?

    Yes, education needs to be evaluated and reformed on the personnel end. Too many years have been focused on educational programs and not the vessels that deliver those programs. Like their students, many teachers blindly trusted the system that hired them to care about them. This is a very complex system as you don't just make teachers.

    You take educated and qualified individuals and TRAIN them to be teachers! Just as you would for doctor interns, police & fire academy rookies, law student/intern, student nurse, and so on. A qualified person goes through many hoops, receives training, but continues that training and experience ON THE JOB!!! All must PASS a rigorous and thorough examination of various challenges within their chosen discipline, do volunteer experience time, certify and be licensed, and continue training and experiences.

    One of the worst practices that could go on(and may be going on), is the use of evaluators who have NO experience in the discipline that they are JUDGING, ASSESSING, AND EVALUATING an employee on. This does happen. Let's not blindly pass legislation requiring evaluations, but NOT stipulate the requirements of the evaluator!!! It must be a fair process.

  13. Mr. Lide,

    Yes, and I came out of the top half of my graduating class.

  14. Mr. Lide

    There are several reasons why.

    First the Colleges of Education typically recruit from the bottom half of high school college bound graduates.

    Second, some highly skilled individuals may not be interested in entering a field where there is lockstep pay, seniority, and tenure policies that protect and reward bad and below average employees. Why join such a field when you could earn great rewards for your hard work somewhere else? In other words, the risk-takers, entrepreneurs etc aren't interested in teaching - these are typically highly intelligent, highly motivated people that could benefit many students.

  15. Tanker,

    The effects size of small classes are small to non existent.

    As for AYP it can mean something or nothing at all and sometimes both at the same time. The problem lies in how its designated which was nonsense from the start.

    About 90 percent of schools will NOT pass AYP next year and 100 percent will not be passing AYP the year after that.

    It has little to nothing to do with rising class sizes which nationally have increased by 1 student and in Nevada have increased by about 1 student and potentially up to 2 more next year. Failing AYP has everything to do with the fact that Congress passed NCLB with the belief that every child could be above average...seriously, that is exactly what they thought.

    Class size reduction is merely a policy to funnel money from taxpayers to teacher unions. It does nothing for students and most education researchers have agreed on this for about 2 decades now.

  16. Mr. Gibbons. I spent about 25 years teaching in universities. I taught classes of 200 in an auditorium, most of my classes fell in the 50-60 student range, and others with 20 students.

    Please don't tell me that I could be as effective teaching 200 as 20. Please don't tell me I can do the same things in a classroom with 60 people that I can do with 20.

    In the last 10 years at my last university, I routinely had 60 students in a classroom built for 40 chairs.

    Do any of your studies ever talk about classrooms that are literally packed like sardines?

    Perhaps you should meet with the teacher in the article and straighten him out.

    Don't get me wrong -- there are some things that I agree with you on. But this holier-than-thou, smarter-than-all-of-you attitude does not persuade folks to listen to you.

  17. Which is more important: A) that a teacher identify the best students and help them reach their full potential, or B) that a teacher helps the worst student have a fighting chance at a reasonable life?

    The ideal would be both, but I doubt that is possible in the real world. So which do you choose?

  18. nnose:

    It is called "social engineering." Advance the ruling class and press down the peasants. No pesky middle class - the thinkers, the innovators, the denters. They want to silence us.

    The clueless - the peasants who believe them - will be pressed down just like the rest of us. These peasants actually think they will be allowed up there with their masters! Unless they have a billion dollars, they won't have a heck of a chance to get on "The Ark." They will simply continue to serve their masters. Ha, ha, ha, and one more HA!

    An afterthought: I wonder if they would understand my analogy. Maybe not, but oh well.

  19. Pat,
    I see your still a blowhard.
    And again, I see that NO ONE is swayed by your PROPAGANDA.
    Wrangler, SHMANGLER!!!

  20. I would support budget increases but only after the bigger issue of teacher quality was addressed. Funding alone seems to be all the teachers are talking about.

  21. Who and how do we determine who is effective and who is not? Is effectiveness determined by an increase in passing rate? If so, then we have to compare the same group of children with the same teacher in the same subject from year to year. That is logistically impossible.

    Let us look at this new panacea of First In, First out (F.I.F.O) from another angle using a different profession. For your loved one's brain surgery would you advocate 'passing up' on the older 20 year experienced doctor in favor of having the brain surgery performed by an Intern with 2 or less years of experience?

    What about this? Would you rather have your 16 year old son drive you to work at rush hour because you at, 40 may be over the hill?

  22. INFORM is a new system that CCSD is rolling out now for the coming school year that takes all the test score information and presents it in ONE PLACE for each student. A great feature is that it has 3 years of CRT scores next to each other to compare the progress of each student.

    Any of you concerned about teacher performance, will enjoy this latest tool. And if you are a parent, it provides you with a picture of your child's progress so you can have intellignet conversations with teachers on a plan you believe will assist in his/her learning potential. A parent's insight and involvement is like GOLD to a teacher and very welcome!

    Somewhere, along the line, many of you will discover that education is quite dependent on a child's development. There are some children that have extremely slow work speeds, are more concrete, are more abstract, are more kinestetic, are second language and struggling to learn English, have behavioral issues, ADHD, ADD, physical challenges, and the list goes on. All children can learn and grow. But let's set the goal posts fairly. And note, just like one shoe size does NOT fit all, nor does one goal fit all children. Just one reason No Child Left Behind and some of these contrived programs Ms.Rhee is feeding Nevada and the rest of the world simply are not the "magic bullets" in education. Nothing replaces good old fashioned study, practice, and meaningful classroom activities for a child to learn. You don't need to throw money at the study or practice part, you do need to get the parents involved to properly guide their children through the experience. A professional teacher really doesn't need much to provide classroom experiences. I wonder WHERE the money is being spent. If it is truly being spent on salaries of qualified teachers that do provide those experiences, there is no problem here. So why are children left behind?

    Some of the budgeted expenses at a school site are the computers, stables as manipulatives, posters, copy machines, paper, pencils, markers, erasers, crayons, glue, paper clips, post it notes, folders, and consumable books.

    So, we have costs for real estate, labor, fixtures, supplies, and what else? Why are we leaving children behind?

    Why, in over 30+years, has the Nevada State Legislature avoided changing the tax structure for mining so that they would pay a FAIR TAX? All the affected children, families, school employees, should be picketing every mining business in Nevada asking them to support this CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE.

    When MINING pays its fair share in taxes, then students will NOT be LEFT BEHIND!