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Teacher layoffs mean larger class sizes in Moorhead

Carla Smith makes the rounds in her crowded language arts class at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead. (David Samson /The Forum)1 / 2
Chart: Moorhead's average class size2 / 2

MOORHEAD -- This school year, Rob Bye's son, Erik, a Moorhead High sophomore, surprised him by taking an Advanced Placement history class.

Erik, his father says, is more of a math and science guy, so his choice of elective seemed counterintuitive. He liked the teacher, Erik explained. And besides, "There are fewer kids in that class," he said. "It's easier to learn when there are fewer kids in your class."

On the heels of teacher layoffs last spring, the Moorhead district is adjusting to a marked average class size increase in some middle school grades and an unprecedented number of high school classes with attendance in the upper 30s and lower 40s. Meanwhile in Fargo, school officials are exploring whether lowering elementary class sizes might be a worthwhile investment.

For decades, education researchers have failed to reach agreement over the relative importance of class size in improving student achievement. But parents and classroom teachers tend to rally around Erik's take.

"I know what the data says, but when you think about your own child sitting in a classroom, emotions tend to overrule that," says Moorhead Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak,

whose daughter will start kindergarten next year. "Intuitively, we feel it has to make a difference."

Moorhead officials cite the increase in class sizes as a major argument for why the district can really use an influx of funds from a proposed $850 per-pupil levy referendum. A parent pro-levy group sponsored a "Class Size Matters" float, with students crowded onto a trailer, in a Friday homecoming parade.

"This is what we needed to do to balance our budget," Kazmierczak says about the teacher cuts. "If and when we have the resources, that's one of the first things we would do -bring the class sizes down."

In Fargo, which boasts much more sparsely populated classrooms, officials will be watching class sizes too this year. Bob Grosz, the assistant superintendent of instruction, says he and colleagues will track those elementary classrooms that have 17 or fewer students in particular.

Earlier this year, Grosz presented studies to the Fargo School Board that showed size makes a difference in the early grades - but mostly if you have no more than 17 students per classroom.

"Class size does matter, but it's only when you get down to a really low level that it has a statistically significant effect," Grosz says.

Now, district officials will look into whether the estimated $3.2 million and logistical challenges involved in reducing elementary classes from the current average of 20 students would be worth it.

The research itself can send mixed messages.

"The evidence out there is really inconclusive," says Teri Walseth, dean of Minnesota State University Moorhead's College of Education and Human Services. "One study says it has an impact. Another study will say it has no impact at all."

Stacy Duffield, an associate professor at the North Dakota State University School of Education, says data shows that class size has some impact in the early grades, especially for at-risk students. But, to her, a marked increase at the middle school level would be troubling as well: "Middle school is such an essential time. It's the time in life when you experience the most dramatic changes developmentally."

The research does seem to overlap on one thing, she adds: The effectiveness of the teacher is the key factor.

Jeff Offutt, a teacher at Moorhead's Horizon Middle School and the head of the district's teacher's union, says large class sizes mean cutting down on proven teaching tools, such as class discussion and small-group work. Big numbers change the dynamic of a classroom, making it harder for kids to focus. And they mean more grading and more energy spent on keeping discipline.

"You'll end up with teachers who are just more worn out at the end of day," Offutt says. "If I am not feeling well, kids are not getting my A-game."