Data firm’s conclusion on class-size reduction: Nevada should actually try it

Findings presented to state board make case for more investment in K-12

empty classroom
When Nevada class sizes are compared to the 1980s Tennessee study that kicked off the nationwide push toward class-size reduction, “our smaller class sizes are their larger class sizes.” (Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay)

Nevada’s investments in early literacy and supplemental funding for students with specialized needs is paying off, according to a new analysis of statewide education data. But those investments are also only a fraction of what’s needed in the state’s struggling K-12 system.

Data Insight Partners, a Las Vegas-based data analytics company, presented their findings to the State Board of Education late last month. Their 170-slide presentation focused on class-size reduction — a talking point and source of contention within the education system since the 1990s — and why Nevada hasn’t seen more results from its hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.

First, though, Data Insights cofounder Nathan Trenholm made the argument that “Nevada is a system worth investing in.”

To make that case, he pointed to Nevada’s improvements on fourth grade reading levels in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a standardized test conducted every two years by the U.S. Department of Education. From 2003 to 2009, Nevada’s fourth graders were performing about a year behind the national average. In subsequent years, that gap narrowed. The biggest jump occurred in 2019 and brought Nevada to the national average.

That year, contends Trenholm, is significant because fourth graders in 2019 were the first cohort of students to have full exposure to a slew of early literacy and supplemental funding infused into the system by state lawmakers.

In the last six years, Nevada has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into various education programs that supplement schools’ base per-pupil funding. Among those initiatives: full-day kindergarten and Read by Grade 3. Those years also saw the launch of Zoom and Victory programs to fund schools with high percentages of English language learners or low-income families, respectively. Additionally, class-size reduction initiatives targeting elementary schools were funded.

Hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t an insignificant number, but Trenholm told the state board that to see true progress, investment needed to be an order of magnitude greater.

Statewide, second grade classrooms had 20 students on average during the 2019-2020 academic year, and fourth grade classrooms had 27 students.

In 2018, the state board of education set the recommended students per teacher. For first through third grade, it’s 15 students. For grades 4 through 12, it’s 25 students.

According to Data Insights, that translates to 87 percent of all Nevada students having a class size that is larger than recommended.

And when you compare Nevada class sizes to the 1980s Tennessee study that kicked off the nationwide push toward class-size reduction, “our smaller class sizes are their larger class sizes,” said Trenholm.

The Tennessee study considered 15 students a ‘small’ class and 22 students a ‘regular’ class.

Trenholm’s takeaway was that class-size reductions in Nevada haven’t been large enough to improve student outcomes.

Compounding the issue is the state’s persistent teacher shortage, which Nevada has also struggled to address, and the fact that low-rated schools typically have less experienced teachers at the head of their classrooms.

This system is inequitable. Data Insights found that Black and Hispanic students have significantly less access to experienced teachers, as do students within low-rated schools, which are correlated with low-income neighborhoods.

None of the data presented surprised Michelle Booth of Educate Nevada Now.

“We’ve always known all this,” she told the Current, “but it’s good to see it all detailed out because the understanding that we get from the community and from lawmakers is, they want the data, they want all the background.”

Adds Booth, “Now that they have that, the only logical step is to provide resources to resolve this issue.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.