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  Thursday January 29th, 2015    

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Raise class sizes (01/30/2013)
By Frances Edstrom

The Winona Public School district finds itself in the age-old position of having to cut jobs and programs due to falling revenue. For parents new to the way school finances work, rest assured this happens on a regular basis, due to cycles in the way schools are funded by the state and through levy referenda particular to a school district.

One of the ways the school administrators are proposing to cut the necessary amount from the budget is to raise class sizes. The financial benefit of this move is that the district is able to accommodate the same number of children using fewer teachers, and to some extent, other staff. As salaries are the single largest budget item for the public schools, that is where the most substantial savings are to be found.

Naturally, teachers and their union find raising class sizes less than desirable. They will tell you that smaller class sizes result in better education and higher test scores.

But is that necessarily true? Winona has the lowest class sizes in the Big 9. Why compare us to the Big 9? School districts in the Big 9—Albert Lea, Austin, Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna, Rochester and Winona—are remarkably similar in demography. They have similar racial composition, number of special education students, free and reduced lunch numbers.

Winona class sizes, compared to the Big 9, are in some cases much lower. We spend more per pupil than any school in the Big 9, more than even Edina. Our per pupil cost is $10,346, while the state average is $9,063 per pupil. Compared to other districts in the Big 9, Winona does no better, sometimes worse, on state test scores, which one would think would be where we would look to see the benefits of smaller class sizes. In comparison to the state average test scores, Winona does not do as well as one would hope, given our investment.

Although I am not a statistician, and my conclusions would be anecdotal, I know where to find statistics. A study done by researchers at the University of Minnesota Department of Applied Economics was published in June 2010.

In this study, the authors point out that the widely-held position that smaller class sizes produce a better education (which seems intuitive) is based on a study in Tennessee in the eighties, called Project STAR. It gained momentum in the nineties, and was widely implemented by states. (According to the U of M study, “California spent $11 billion and Wisconsin spent $463 million from 1996-97 to 2004-05 to attain their class size reduction goals.”)

The question the U of M study wants to answer is, “is all that money getting us better test scores.” The answer is that the gain in test scores is marginal at best. They site other studies that measured a reduction in class sizes of between 7 and ten students to result in a gain of between 0.1 and 0.3 standard deviations—in other words, it is negligible.

As far as the common belief that minorities and poor students wo-uld gain more from smaller class sizes, the study reports, “Overall, there is no evidence of differential impacts of class size on test scores by gender, race or poverty status. “

The study concludes, “This implies that in Minnesota the cost of reducing class size greatly exceeds the benefits as measured by [students’] future earnings, and schools and parents need to look elsewhere for policies that can lead to large increases in student learning.”

If that is the case, Winona could save a great deal of money that it is now spending on reduced class sizes. The public school administration here estimates that it could save $110,000 by adding two students to its target class size. Raising class sizes by two will still, in some cases, result in class sizes below those of other Big 9 schools.

If there seems to be no evidence that smaller class sizes are an effective and economical way to deliver a better education, which is the conclusion of this U of M study (along with several other studies it cites), why not raise class sizes even more? I don’t advocate going back to the 40 students per class of the Baby Boomer days, even though for the most part it worked just fine. I do think, though, that class sizes in the teens and low 20s result in spending money we could use on more effective teaching methods. It is hard to dissuade administrators and teachers that raising class sizes is a smart thing. It is an uncomfortable move for the public schools after nearly 30 years of belief in the effectiveness of small class sizes.

However, the proof is not there. It is time to shake up the status quo. We must be looking for effective ways to increase the success rate of our students, and redistribute the funds we do have.

Don’t miss it!

I have been cast in a small part (I have all of five lines!) in a local play.

In conjunction with the upcoming Rockwell Kent Centennial Celebration slated for February 6 - 10, Lynn Nankivil of Winona has written a play, “Angels in the Trees: Rockwell Kent in Winona,” that will be performed at the Masonic Theater on February 8, 9, and 10.

Kent was a celebrated artist, adventurer, author, and generally a larger-than-life character. He spent a year in Winona as project manager of the building of Briarcombe, twin mansions in Pleasant Valley. The play chronicles his stay here, where his antics (and those of his horse, John Brown) were not always appreciated by the locals.

Carew Hallack, usually seen at Mugby Junction, which he owns, will play Kent, compellingly, and with much energy. Kent’s wife, Kathleen, is played by Keara Hannan. Kent and Kathleen rented a house at 676 E. King Street during their stay here. GRSF actor David Coral is Alex Geckler, a German house painter, who, along with his wife, Martha (played by Karen Dulak), befriended Kent and Kathleen.

The rest of the cast is made up of Jeff Lueck, Ken McCullough, Burt Svendsen, Steve Bachler, Daryl Lanz, Colleen Halleck, Teri Tenseth Market, Jessica Hosch, Colin Cada, and yours truly. If you must know, I play a “lady of the evening,” an old one, who I am assuming was the boss lady. I am trying to envision how I will be dressed, and find myself hoping that whatever it is I wear is all black, up to my neck and down to my toes. (The play is set in 1912.)

The play is directed by SMU’s Judy Myers, with designers Rachel Kwiecinski, Matt Schneider, Cynthia Jennings, and managers and technicians Kathleen Bryant, Nikki Christensen, John Goblirsch, Bob Steuber, Karina Kim, and Margaret Shaw Johnson. Music director is Nancy Edstrom Bachler, with musicians Tom Dukich and Rachael Ryan Dahl.

There are probably others I have missed. But as you can see, it is going to be an entertaining production featuring both professional and amateur actors. If you saw Theatre du Mississippi’s production of “East Side Story,” also written by Nankivil, and you can anticipa-te just as interesting a play this time.

Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com. You can save yourself a little money by indicating you will pick the tickets up at the door at the Masonic Theater. And, in fact, tickets may be purchased at the door.

See you there. And it’s OK if you laugh at me. I am supposed to be funny.



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