Opinion: Smaller class sizes are the best way to help students recover from the pandemic

Michael Loccisano / Staff
Public school students

Opinion: Smaller class sizes are the best way to help students recover from the pandemic

The New York City Council will again have the opportunity to pass legislation that can make reduced class sizes a reality.
May 12, 2022

Recently I read an article about the failure of New York City schools to prepare students to read. The article highlighted some really dire statistics. As a teacher and union advocate, I cannot say that the statistics noticed are wrong. However, the author did miss one major factor attributing to this failure of the system: the large classroom sizes seen throughout the city.

The City of New York has been working on reducing its higher average classroom size, but there’s still more work to do. Reading is a skill that every elementary school child should be able to do, but in order to achieve that goal, we need our students to benefit from the smaller class sizes that have been shown to be effective, not only in the school districts bordering New York City, but in schools across the world. This is evident in looking at the STARR report out of Tennessee that was the initial study showing that reducing class size to between 13 and 17 students improves student achievement dramatically. Further research has relied on this showing that class size changes of 1 or 2 students is not enough to make the improvements that NYC needs to have.

City lawyers claim that class size caps harm the learning of students and the Department of Education legal team has shown they intend to ignore what is right for students by violating contractual class size caps. 

It is simple math really. Smaller classes mean that teachers can devote more time to students and give struggling students the individualized attention that they need to be successful. In New York City, elementary school classes regularly balloon to sizes greater than 32 students, the United Federation of Teachers has found. 

I believe every parent would say they want their child to get the individualized attention they need to be successful when they leave our public schools. But the reality is, there is only so much time in the day. Most city schools have an 8 period class day. That comes out to about 47 minutes per period. If we divide that amount of time evenly among a class of 32 students this means that if every child receives the same amount of individualized instruction, on average each child is only getting 1.5 minutes of target reading instruction per period daily. 

This is not acceptable, especially for the most vulnerable students during their foundational education years. New Yorkers deserve better for the children in our communities. Class size is a social justice issue our elected city leaders can no longer choose to ignore.

In the past, the city has claimed a litany of reasons, from space, to budget restrictions, to justify that smaller class sizes are not achievable. The pandemic has shown us that the space is there. The money is there as well. 

The City Council last year had legislation to make smaller class sizes a reality for thousands of students across the city, but then speaker Corey Johnson failed to bring the bill to a vote. The good news is that the new City Council has a new opportunity to bring the benefits of smaller class sizes to our students. It is time to make equity for the students of New York City a reality. Some discussions are happening right now to create new legislation. Parents, students, community advocates, clergy and business leaders must lend their support in the coming weeks to make this a priority in the New York City budget. Our children deserve no less.

Bill Woodruff
Bill Woodruff is an 18-year veteran teacher in the South Bronx and serves as the District 7 Representative for the United Federation of Teachers.