Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Letter to Richard Mills on DOE Violations of Class Size

Commissioner Richard P. Mills

New York State Education Dept.

Education Building

Albany NY 12234

December 22, 2008

Dear Commissioner Mills:

On Friday, Dec. 12 the NYC Department of Education released class size figures nearly four weeks past the November 15 deadline. [1]

Instead of reducing class size, as required in its Contract for Excellence plan, the data reveals that class sizes increased at all levels this year – for the first time in ten years. (See Chart and data table A: Reductions in class size 1998-2008.)

Increases occurred in grades K-3, grades 4-8th, and grades 9-12th. (See Chart B: Class size averages and class size reduction targets 2006-8). As a result, the city failed to achieve its state-mandated class size targets, by a considerable margin.

DOE claims that class sizes will be lower by the end of January, by about 1.25%, because by then LTA (long term absent) students will have been discharged from the registers – and others will have dropped out. We object to the notion that the DOE would try to claim credit for reducing class size that results from high discharge or dropout rates. Moreover, in previous years, significant declines between Oct. 31 and January have occurred primarily in high school, where these rates remain unacceptably high – not in the early grades, where decreases are minimal.

Yet even if 1.25% is subtracted from averages in all grades, as the final column in Chart B shows, class sizes will have increased at all levels except grades 4/5, and average class sizes will remain far above the city’s class size reduction targets.

The increases in class size this year have occurred despite more than $378 million in additional state Contract for Excellence funds that could have been used to reduce class size, and DOE’s pledge to use $146.5 million for these purposes. [ii]

According to this data, increases in class size have been particularly large in grades K-3, where classes rose to an average of 21.4 students, instead of falling as promised to 20.3 students per class. In grades 6-8, average class sizes increased to 26.3, instead of declining to 24.3, as promised.

Moreover, the only grade in which non-special education classes appear to have been added compared to last year was Kindergarten, where there were fifteen new classes over last year’s figure. Overall, there were 143 fewer classes in grades K-3 and 183 fewer classes in grades 4-8th, despite the infusion of new funds supposed to form new classes so that class sizes could be lowered. [iii]

In September, the NY State Education Department admonished the city for failing to meet any of its class size targets for 2007-8, though citywide, class sizes did decline fractionally, from between one tenth and one half student per class.

Instead, as the Department noted, class size or pupil-to-teacher ratio increased in 53.9% of schools, 40% of elementary schools with the largest class sizes failed to lower class size, and for 70 schools that received over nearly $20 million in class size reduction funds, both class sizes and student/teacher ratio increased.[iv]

And yet, as the Department also pointed out, DOE’s enrollment targets and hiring decisions had been made before its Contract proposal was submitted in July 2007, and thus DOE’s “ability to fully implement the 2007-8 class size reduction plan was impacted.”

Accordingly, the Department warned, the city would be “required to improve implementation of the second year of its class size plan.”

Now we have seen the results, and the city’s record in the second year of its plan is far worse that last year’s– with no decline in class size at any of the grade levels.

Given these disturbing facts, it is critical that the state require DOE to improve its internal class size monitoring and ensure that the city has procedures in place to achieve its mandated targets. Currently, we do not believe that such a plan really exists.

We see several major flaws in the city’s current class size reduction proposal:

1. The city has failed to allocate specific funds towards class size reduction.

Instead, it has left it up to principals to decide whether they would like to use a portion of their share of the total C4E funds for these purposes. Even then, there is little or no oversight on the part of the DOE to see that schools have used the funds appropriately.

2. There are no specific class size targets that any school is supposed to achieve, making it unclear why any citywide declines should be expected.

This is true even for those limited number of schools in the DOE’s “class size coaching” program, causing more than half of these schools to remain in the top quartile of class size, according to the DOE’s own figures.

3. The city continues to communicate to principals in ways likely to discourage them from attempting to reduce class size.

Throughout the class size memo sent to NYC principals last spring, for example, there is an overwhelmingly negative tone: “Implementing reduced class size requires complex tradeoffs and decisions. The purpose of this memo is to help you to weigh these tradeoffs as your school conducts its comprehensive planning …. we hope that you find the following to be a useful framework for weighing the benefits and constraints associated with class size reduction as you develop your overall education plans and priorities.”[v]

Nowhere in this memo or in any other document provided by DOE to principals is class size reduction encouraged or stated to be as citywide goal, no less explained to principals as a legal mandate that the city is required to achieve.

4. The city is continuing to pursue policies that conflict with the goals of class size reduction.

For example, the administration continues to place new schools and charter schools in buildings where this decision interferes with the ability of the existing school or schools, already housed in these buildings, to reduce class size to the appropriate levels. In a recent survey, more than one quarter of all NYC principals said that overcrowding had increased because of new schools or programs moved into their buildings in recent years.[vi] Moreover, many principals reported that when they tried to reduce class size, DOE’s Office of Enrollment Planning and Operations simply sent them more students, undoing all their efforts

5. The city has mandated that CTT (collaborative team teaching) classes be increased to their maximum size.

While substantially increasing the number of inclusion classes, DOE has also issued a directive to principals, mandating that the size of these classes be increased to their maximum contractual level, or else funding for the unfilled seats will be subtracted from the principal’s budget.[vii] If enforced, this will likely prevent the city from meeting its class size targets in the future.

6. The city has failed to align its capital plan with its class size reduction goals.

According to state law, NYC is required to have a capital plan in place that would provide the space necessary to achieve its class size reduction goals. A few weeks ago, the city submitted a proposal for its next five-year capital plan for the years 2010-2014. This plan has only 25,000 new seats. The administration projects that another 33,000 seats will be carried over from the current plan, and completed by 2012.[viii]

Based on estimates made by adjusting the DOE’s own 2006-7 utilization figures, these seats will provide only about 35% necessary to eliminate overcrowding and reduce class size to the goals in its class size reduction plan.[ix]

7. The city has failed to align its formula for estimating school capacity and utilization or its reporting of new seats with its class size reduction goals.

In the DOE’s “Blue Book”, that contains estimates of school capacity and utilization for each school, the city continues to assume significantly larger “target” class sizes of 28 students per class in grades 4-8, and 34 in high school. The fact that the DOE refuses to align its school capacity estimates to the class size goals in its Contract for Excellence plan is yet another indication of a lack of commitment to follow through on its proposal to reduce class size. As pointed out in an October 29 letter from NYC Council Speaker Quinn and CM Robert Jackson, chair of the Council Education committee to the Mayor and Chancellor Klein:

“In determining the need for new capacity, it is a priority of the Council that the DOE address the class size reduction goals for K-12 as laid out in the contract for Excellence….The Council requests that the Blue book “target” methodology be immediately updated to reflect the Contract for Excellence target of 23 students per class for grades 3-12.”

In its reporting on how many seats will be created in new schools, the DOE assumes even larger “historical” class sizes of 25 in Kindergarten-3rd grades, 29-31 in 4th and 5th grades, 28-30 per class in middle schools, and 34 in high schools. Thus, even in new schools, it is evident that the DOE does not intend to reduce class size to the targets in its plan.

9- The city has failed to adopt a C4E complaint process.

As part of the Contract for Excellence requirements, approved by the Legislature in the spring of 2007, all school districts were supposed to adopt specific grievance procedures, so that parents and other stakeholder groups could complain to district administrators and/or the Chancellor, with an appeal to the State Commissioner of Education, if their school had not properly implemented smaller classes or other approved programs. Not only has DOE failed to adopt any such process, more than a year following the law’s passage; we have yet to see a draft proposal that parents and others might comment upon.

10 -The city continues to report inaccurate class size data.

For the purpose of this analysis, we have assumed that DOE’s class size data as reported to be accurate, although there still appear to be numerous errors, especially in the reporting of high school classes which would tend to make the data for these classes smaller than they really are.

In many high schools, each CTT class is still reported as two separate classes, one composed solely of general education students and another of special education students. This approximately halves the actual size of these classes. The DOE claims to have adjusted these figures by subtracting a certain number of general education and CTT classes, and adding back half the number, but it is unclear to us as to whether this adjustment yields accurate figures. To a lesser extent, there also continue to be serious errors in the elementary school data, in cases where mixed age groupings are reported as separate classes. Finally, according to DOE officials, class size data is missing from as many of one third of all middle schools.

The NYC Department of Education has placed great emphasis on accountability in the form of test results and other outcome data, and is intent on closing schools that do not perform up to its standards. Accountability also means abiding by its legal obligations, particularly when it comes to reducing class size, one of the primary determinants of student achievement.

Conclusion: What the state should require

We urge you to require that the city improve its performance and immediately develop a real plan to reduce class size in all grades, and see that this plan is followed.

Specific class size goals by school should be adopted, sufficient to achieve the citywide targets. Enough funding should be allocated to carry out this plan, and careful oversight employed, to ensure that the funds are spent appropriately and new classes are formed. DOE policies that conflict with class size reduction, such as mandating maximum class sizes for CTT classes and/or placing new schools in buildings should cease, where the existing school will be prevented from reducing class size to the citywide goals.

The city should be obligated to adopt a capital plan that creates the necessary space to achieve its class size targets and it must also be required to align its capacity estimates and reporting of new seats with the targets as well.

And finally, the city should be required to improve the accuracy and the breadth of its class size reporting so that all public schools are included.

Until and unless this occurs, the Department of Education will continue to fail in its legal and moral obligations to provide NYC children with an equitable chance to learn.

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson

Executive Director, Class Size Matters

Randi Weingarten

President, United Federation of Teachers

Lillian Rodriguez Lopez

President, Hispanic Federation

CC: Deputy Commissioner Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the Board of Regents, Speaker Sheldon Silver, AM Cathy Nolan, Senator Malcolm Smith; Speaker Christine Quinn, NYC Education Chair Robert Jackson, Chancellor Joel Klein and Garth Harries, Chief Portfolio Officer, NYC DOE.


[1] The excel files showing class size averages by school, district and citywide are posted on the DOE website are here:

The City Council approved legislation in December 2005, requiring the Department of Education to report on average class sizes per school, district , and citywide, twice annually, on or before November 15 and February 15 of each year. This legislation was signed into law by the Mayor on December 29, 2005, and is now is contained in § 522. c of the city’s consolidated laws. The DOE’s November 15 class size report is supposed to contain data on class sizes as of the audited October 31 register.

[ii] More specifically, $46.3 million of these funds was allocated by principals for class size reduction proper, $37.9 million was allocated by principals for team-teaching, and $62.3 million was allocated centrally by DOE to create more CTT classes; the latter two programs do not actually reduce class size. See NYC’s 2008-9 Citywide Proposed C4E Plan., Approved NYCDOE 5-Year Class Size Reduction Plan, (November 8, 2007) posted at

[iii] We have not tried to calculate the overall number of classes in high school, since the data is presented in too confusing a manner. More specifically, the DOE has attempted to adjust for overcounting of actual CTT classes by subtracting a portion of them and readjusting the class size figures, more on this on p. x.

[iv] See NY State Education Department, “State Education Department Complete Contracts for Excellence Monitoring; Vast Majority of Districts Implemented Contract Provisions, but Exceptions Must be Corrected,” Sept. 15, 2008; also NYSED, “Contracts for Excellence–Monitoring Report,” Sept. 8, 2008, and In April of 2008, the UFT released a report with many of the same findings, showing that nearly half of the elementary and middle schools that received state class size reduction funds did not lower class sizes, and in 34% of these schools, class sizes increased. See “Class Size and the Contract for Excellence: Are we making progress in NYC’s public schools?” The United Federation of Teachers, at

[v] NYC DOE, “2008-09 Class Size Reduction Guidance Memo”, memo to all NYC principals from Garth Harries, dated May 28, 2008.

[vii] See NYC DOE, "Resource Guide to School Budgets," pp.42- 44 at;

[viii] NYC DOE, “PROPOSED 2010 – 2014 FIVE-YEAR CAPITAL PLAN,” November 2008; at

[ix] “A Better Capital Plan”, October 2008; a report from A Campaign for a Better Capital Plan, the Manhattan Taskforce on School Overcrowding, Class Size Matters, the United Federation of Teachers, and The Center for Arts Education;

Chart and data table A: Reductions in class size 1998-2008

Chart B: Class size averages and class size reduction targets 2006-8.

Class Size Averages citywide

Click to Enlarge

in bold are class sizes which increased or remained constant

*as of 01/23/08

**as of 10/31/08

Data sources: Class size averages 2008-2009 from NYC DOE, 2008-9 Preliminary Class Size Report, Dec. 2008; and NYC DOE City Level Detail Report at

Class size averages 2007-2008 from NYC DOE 2007-2008 Summary Report, Feb. 2008;

Baseline and annual class size targets from NYC DOE, Approved NYCDOE 5-Year Class Size Reduction Plan, (November 8, 2007) posted at

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