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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida class size: Is it worth the expense?

As we noted in a story today, researchers at Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance — a group that has been associated with more conservative philosophy supportive of past Florida accountability efforts — suggest the money made no significant difference in academic performance in Florida's schools.

That report kicks off what's likely to be a heated debate over the issue as voters prepare to decide whether to scale back the requirements of the 2002 amendment.

That in mind, we turned to the sponsor of the bill to return the issue to voters and some teachers. Their comments didn't make the story, so we share here. Their reactions might not be what you expect.

State Rep. Will Weatherford sponsored the legislation that put the class size amendment back before the voters. He said he found the Harvard research "interesting" and suggested it could add fuel to the debate. 

"But I'll be honest with you. Even if it didn't have a benefit, I can understand why a teacher wants to limit the number of children in a classroom," said Weatherford, who grew up in a family of nine children. "We should never be overcrowding our classrooms."

The amendment to the amendment is not about saving money, he said. Rather, it's about giving schools the flexibility they need to manage their classes as they see fit. The proposed new rules do not seek to eliminate class size caps, he noted, only to give schools more control over how they assign teachers and students.

John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel is Pasco County's largest and fastest growing middle school. Teachers there said they have seen good things come from the class size amendment.

"Coming from a classroom that had 40, absolutely is has made a difference," said sixth-grade social studies teacher Teresa Cowart. "With 40 kids you have a minute per child in a 50-minute class. If somebody needs individual help, you can't give it with 40 kids."

Now her classes average 25 students. "I feel like I can give the kids more attention that they deserve."

But class size is situational, Cowart and some of her colleagues said. Mainstreaming of students with special needs into regular education courses, for instance, practically requires smaller classes. Some classes, meanwhile, can excel with much larger numbers.

"Thirty is manageable with regular ed kids, but when you start putting the other kids in there, it's almost impossible" at 30, said Kim Monbarren, a sixth-grade science teacher.

She worried about the financial implications of going to the final phase of the class size amendment. Class sizes would continue to shrink, but other things would be lost, such as classroom aides and teaching teams.

"When you lose the team, it's a huge piece," said Becky Jenkins, a sixth-grade social studies teacher. "Every staff member is important as far as us getting wonderful results. ... Now that we have been faced with severe budget cuts, I think everyone is rethinking."

"In a perfect world, yeah, 22 would be amazing," Cowart said in agreement. "But this is not a perfect world."

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 11:01am]


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