The ‘50 Students Per Classroom’ Myth: Detroit Class Sizes Are Normal

Only about 30 of district’s 13,000 academic classrooms have excessive student-teacher ratios

For years, Detroit’s public school district has had a problem hiring enough teachers who want to work there. While the state’s largest school district says it currently has 171 vacant teaching positions, the shortfall does not seem to have resulted in excessive student-to-teacher ratios in classrooms, according to data it released.

The average class size there this school year is 21.59 students. The median class size is a bit higher at 24 students per classroom.

The figures are based on data that covers the 13,039 classes that have at least two students. Classes with just one student, 706 in all, were not included in the calculations.

Media reports in October raised concerns over higher class sizes but were short on specifics. A Detroit Free Press article stated, “Some classes have as many as 50 students.”

The Detroit public school district has 51 classes with 50 or more students enrolled. That represents less than 1 percent of its classrooms. Eighteen of them, or one-third, are gym classes.

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But Noble Elementary/Middle school has several academic classes with 52 students each. Their subjects include reading, writing, social studies, algebra and science.

The largest class in the district is a “team sports” class at Cass Tech High School with 108 students.

One constraint on crowded classrooms is a teachers union contract that limits class sizes based on grade level. For K-3, it’s up to 25 students per teacher; for grades 4-5, the limit is 30 students, and 35 students for grades 6-12. The district has also set aside $250,000 to provide “compensation for oversized classes,” money that gets distributed to teachers who have more students than the contract prescribes.

“I wouldn't necessarily classify it as overcrowding; we are addressing large classroom sizes,” said Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community School District.

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Detroit Prep is a top-rated and economically and racially diverse charter school in the city. It's growth means it needs to move out from a church basement and into a new location. Nearby is a former Detroit Public Schools building, sitting empty for years. But, worried about competition, the public school district refused to sell. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.

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