How Many is Too Many?

Image courtesy of LIFE magazine & Joe Munro.
Image courtesy of LIFE magazine & Joe Munro.

No, this picture is not a PWCS classroom, but for many parents and teachers, the image isn’t far off.

Many parents and teachers were shocked this year by the number of students in their children’s classrooms.  Apparently PWCS planning was also surprised as some schools started the year with insufficient desks and chairs, and many schools are still awaiting textbook deliveries.

Some of you will recall that during the budget debates last spring, the school division recommended increasing class sizes to the state maximums across the board.  Many of us appear to have been unaware of what that actually meant.

I set out to determine the VDOE mandated teacher to student ratios.  I wish class sizes were easy to determine, but they aren’t.

First is the PWCS regulation, which is quite simple.  PWCS regulations,  specifically 561.02.-1, requires that the “teacher-pupil ratio meets the requirements of the Virginia Department of Education”.  Unfortunately, the regulation points back to the Va DOE, and those regulations are anything but simple.

Several different factors are at play in determining class sizes.  Maximum class sizes by grade level and subject are a function of class size requirements, full-time teacher equivalents, and teacher loads.

Class sizes and full-time equivalent teacher to student ratios for elementary school and English classes in grades 6 – 12 are specified in § 22.1-253.13:2 of The Code of Virginia.  Teacher loads, which are the hours a teacher can work and the number of students she can teach each day / week, are specified in  the Virginia Administrative Code at 8VAC20-131-240, and must be taken into account in middle and high school.

For elementary schools, the first thing you have to figure out is how many full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions you have.  The definition specifically excludes SPED teachers, principals, assistant principals, guidance counselors, and librarians.  That means it includes classroom teachers, kindergarten aides, reading and ESOL specialists, math coaches, and Art, Music, and PE teachers.  Those class sizes and ratios are as follows:

  • For kindergarten, no one class can have more than 29 students in it, and classes with more than 24 students must have a full time aide.
  • For 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, no one class can have more than 30 students in it and the ratio of FTE teachers to students may not exceed 24.
  • For 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, no one class can have more than 35 students in it and the ratio of FTE teachers to students may not exceed 25.
  • For English in 6th through 12th grades, the ratio of FTE teachers to students may not exceed 24.

For Math, Science, Foreign Languages, and History / Social Studies at the middle and high school level, class sizes are based on teacher load requirements and the number of classes taught per day, as follows:.

  • If a teacher teaches 5 classes per day, then the maximum class size is 30 students.
  • If a teacher teaches 4 classes per day, then the maximum class size is 37.5  students.
  • If a teacher teaches 3 classes per day, then the maximum class size is 50 students.

A teacher in a school that follows block scheduling can teach up to 4 classes a day, provided those classes have no more than 30 students in them.

While interesting, all of this ignores the biggest issue – what class size is best for our children.  Forth grade classes with 35 students in them seem too big, no matter how many reading, ESOL, or math specialists there may be at the school.  Middle school classes with 30 students in them sound fabulous, while 37.5 seems a bit high.

It seems quite obvious to me that our class sizes are just too big.  Pushing classes to the state maximum may have allowed us to shift money to different priorities, but I’m concerned that doing so may undermine student learning.

With the budget as tight as it appears it will be this year, I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about that.   Maybe we need a plan for bringing down class sizes over a series of years to the maximums recommended by our teachers, not stipulated by the state.  Once we know what maximums our teachers recommend, we can determine the steps necessary to bring class sizes down, including the cost, then we as a community can decide how best to achieve that goal.

For anyone so interested, here is the text from the sections of The Code of Virginia and the Virginia Administrative Code which I used to attempt to sort this all out.

§ 22.1-253.13:2 C. Each school board shall assign licensed instructional personnel in a manner that produces divisionwide ratios of students in average daily membership to full-time equivalent teaching positions, excluding special education teachers, principals, assistant principals, counselors, and librarians, that are not greater than the following ratios: (i) 24 to one in kindergarten with no class being larger than 29 students; if the average daily membership in any kindergarten class exceeds 24 pupils, a full-time teacher’s aide shall be assigned to the class; (ii) 24 to one in grades one, two, and three with no class being larger than 30 students; (iii) 25 to one in grades four through six with no class being larger than 35 students; and (iv) 24 to one in English classes in grades six through 12.

Within its regulations governing special education programs, the Board shall seek to set pupil/teacher ratios for pupils with intellectual disability that do not exceed the pupil/teacher ratios for self-contained classes for pupils with specific learning disabilities.

Further, school boards shall assign instructional personnel in a manner that produces schoolwide ratios of students in average daily memberships to full-time equivalent teaching positions of 21 to one in middle schools and high schools. School divisions shall provide all middle and high school teachers with one planning period per day or the equivalent, unencumbered of any teaching or supervisory duties.

8VAC20-131-240      E. The middle school classroom teacher’s standard load shall be based on teaching no more than 5/6 of the instructional day with no more than 150 student periods per day or 30 class periods per week. A middle school classroom teacher’s standard load shall be based on teaching no more than 5/6 of the instructional day with no more than 150 student periods per day or 25 class periods per week.

F. The secondary classroom teacher’s standard load shall be based on teaching no more than 5/6 of the instructional day with no more than 150 student periods per day or 25 class periods per week. Teachers of block programs that encompass more than one class period with no more than 120 student periods per day may teach 30 class periods per week. Teachers who teach very small classes may teach 30 class periods per week, provided the teaching load does not exceed 75 student periods per day. If a classroom teacher teaches 30 class periods per week with more than 75 student periods per day, an appropriate contractual arrangement and compensation shall be provided.

G. Middle or secondary school teachers shall teach no more than 750 student periods per week; however, physical education and music teachers may teach 1,000 student periods per week.

H. Notwithstanding the provisions of subsections E, F, and G, each full-time middle and secondary classroom teacher shall be provided one planning period per day or the equivalent, unencumbered of any teaching or supervisory duties.”

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One Response to “How Many is Too Many?”

  1. A. Cunningham Says:

    Thank you for posting this. My kindergartener at Montclair has 27 in her class and I thought was not only ridiculous but dangerous. PWCS claims “a world-class education” but let’s call it what it is and recognize that they are striving for mediocrity at best.


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