What gets left out of the class size debate

The Minneapolis teachers’ union went on a 14-day strike in March over stalled contract negotiations, with “smaller class sizes” listed as a bargaining priority. Smaller class sizes in schools are typically seen as highly desirable, but research into the effects of class size has generally proved inconclusive — with some studies finding benefits and some not. There is also the budgeting piece to consider, as smaller class sizes require more teachers, and more teachers increase school cost.

But that’s an article for another day. What I want to focus on are the numbers that don’t get mentioned in the class size debate: student-teacher ratios, the corresponding per pupil expenditures, and academic results.

What is a student-teacher ratio?

The student-teacher ratio is the number of students for every teacher in a school. While this number is often tied to class size, it is more than that. “The student-teacher ratio reflects the teacher’s workload and how available they are to offer services and care to their students,” according to a resource published by The Hun School of Princeton.

Average student-teacher ratios vary, depending on the type of school. The general thought is that the lower the student-teacher ratio, the higher academic achievement should be.

Return on investment?

The Minneapolis Public Schools district has struggled to help students achieve academic success, despite a student-teacher ratio of 14:1 and spending over $18,000 per student. According to 2021 MCA test data, 64.7 percent of students in the district are not proficient in math and 54.1 percent are not proficient in reading.

At North High, the student-teacher ratio for 438 students is 8:1, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. The community high school spends $21,365 per student. However, only one student demonstrated proficiency in math (tested in 11th grade) and four students in reading (tested in 10th grade). The four-year graduation rate in 2021 was 71 percent.

Heritage Academy High serves 118 students with a student-teacher ratio of 9:1. Per pupil spending is at $24,066. In 2019, only one student was proficient in math and only 11 students in reading. Test data for 2021 is not available because not enough students were tested.

How money is spent matters far greater than how much is spent

Down the road, Hope Academy — a private, classical academy serving similar student groups as the district — has a student-teacher ratio of 13:1 for its 550 students. Over 90 percent of students are performing at grade level in math and reading — far more bang for the education buck with tuition at $10,000 per pupil.

It is clear our education system has shortcomings, and students are unfortunately falling through the cracks because of it. Schools and students received historic funding in last year’s budget, and we must ensure those dollars get to students who need them most. Otherwise, we will continue being a high spending state with little to show for it, and students will continue to pay the cost.