Last week, as I was talking with residents in Dumfries, I found it fascinating that so many people were unaware of the class size issue in Prince William County Schools. Not only were they not aware of our county having the distinction of having the highest class sizes in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, but the vast majority of them were not aware of the actual benefits that come with having smaller class sizes. But, before I delve into a discussion about the actual benefits of smaller class sizes, allow me to quickly re-cap a few facts about Prince William County Schools.
Prince William County Schools have the largest class sizes in the entire commonwealth. Not just the Northern Virginia region, but out of over 2,000 school districts. There are over one million students in our commonwealth’s public schools, and our children have the misfortune of sitting in classrooms with well over 30 students. In fact, The Washington Area Boards of Education conducted a study for 2014, and the comparable numbers with our neighboring school districts is utterly appalling.
The same Washington Area Board of Education study reveals that Prince William County has the highest students per classroom average in our middle schools, second highest in high school and second highest in elementary schools. In addition, Prince William County spends the least amount of money per pupil when compared to all of our neighbors in Northern Virginia. How can we even dare to think we can compete with Fairfax County when they spend well over three thousand dollars more per pupil?
The harsh reality is that Prince William County schools and its leadership has ill-served our students by failing to increase school funding proportionally for size and student population. How can a county boast about being “world-class” when the average Prince William County middle school teacher has an average of seven more kids per classroom compared to our competitors in Loudon and Fairfax County?
There are many who will say that small class sizes aren’t the be all and end all. But reducing class sizes is the right step toward increasing student achievement across Prince William County. There is ample amount of research available to support the assertion that smaller class sizes lead to higher achievement. For example, a 2014 conducted by the National Education Policy Center at Northwestern University concluded that increased class sizes harm children’s test scores, and dramatically harm the learning and achievement of our most vulnerable low-income and minority children. Besides the obvious benefits of more interaction between the teacher and student, and the fact that teachers can devote more time to student interventions, decreased class sizes provide teachers the opportunity to better establish relationships and connections to each individual student.
While small class sizes are proven to be effective at all grade levels, they are an absolute must for students between the grades of kindergarten to third grade. Another study conducted by the Douglas D. Ready and Valerie E. Lee and published in the Brookings Papers, found that class size has a direct impact on both literacy and mathematic scores for elementary students. Students in smaller class sizes scored nearly two points higher in annual learning, when compared to their peers in larger class sizes. The long-term achievement rates and the impact small class sizes have on these students is even greater. A 2005 study conducted by the University of Buffalo and The State University of New York discovered that students with four years in small classes in K-3 were 80% more likely to graduate from school when compared with students in larger class sizes. In 2014, Prince William County averaged 23.3 students per elementary classroom. This number is, on average, two students higher than Fairfax elementary classrooms, three students higher than Arlington elementary classrooms and a whopping four students higher than Manassas Park City schools.
These higher averages make it difficult for teachers to be effective when they have less time to tailor their lessons to so many students with so many specific learning styles. No wonder the achievement gap between at-risk students and students who are meeting standards is so high in the county. As a former teacher, one of my greatest challenges was meeting the needs of students with different academic abilities and learning styles. Smaller class sizes would have better enabled me to provide the necessary support and services to these students.
Prince William County is at a major crossroads. The people of the seventh wealthiest county in the nation should demand an actual “world-class” education system from our public school system. There is no reason why our county should lead the entire state in average class sizes. I encourage parents, students, and all other residents of Prince William County to question our elected leaders, and conduct your own independent research about the positive impacts of class size.
Reducing class sizes is not going to cure all the ailments plaguing Prince William County Schools. In fact, our school system needs to also adequately provide the school building infrastructure for an increasing school population and increase teacher salaries to attract the best teachers to our school district. The School Board can provide the necessary funding to meet these goals by consolidating spending on administrative positions, building more school buildings in a fiscally responsive manner and by curbing discretionary spending at the individual schools. All of these are practical solutions to providing more funding and investment to reducing class sizes, and actually providing a world-class education system to our students.
Justin Wilk is a former Prince William County Teacher. He is currently working for a private firm that focuses on transforming school districts into organizations that grow trust capital.