Report Finds Overcrowding in New York City Schools at Crisis Level

Overcrowding in the New York City public schools is seriously eroding instruction and learning, especially for children who live in poverty, concludes a new report from the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College.

The report--released on Jan. 30 together with recommendations of the Citizens' Commission on Planning for Enrollment Growth--is the first to document consequences of recent overcrowding on the learning atmosphere in the City's schools.

P. Michael Timpane, former president of Teachers College, is cochairman of the Citizens' Commission.

Using data for elementary and middle schools, the study found that overcrowding has a strong negative impact on student achievement in schools with a high proportion of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Among these schools, the proportion of students passing the minimum standards for tests for reading proficiency and mathematics competency in 1993 was between two and nine percentage points lower than in schools that served similar students but that were not overcrowded.

These results are striking, according to Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz, associate professor of economics and education at TC and coauthor of the study. "This means that, if underutilized schools have 80 percent of their students pass the minimum standard in a reading test, then, holding other things constant, only between 71 and 78 percent would pass the same exam in an overcrowded school," he said.

Rivera-Batiz is Director of IUME. The other coauthor, Lilian Marti, is a research associate with IUME.

Overcrowding is not associated with lower academic achievement in all schools, the report said. Among schools with low proportions of students who live in poverty, the study actually finds a positive correlation between overcrowding and achievement.

"What happens is that schools which have high academic achievement attract more students and therefore are overcrowded," explained Rivera-Batiz.

Among these schools, overcrowding is a result of quality, the professor said.

A survey of overcrowded schools in New York City by the researchers indicates that overcrowding is viewed by students and teachers as an extremely serious issue, perhaps the most important problem confronting them.

"Students and teachers feel overwhelmed, discouraged and often disgusted with the space shortage and its consequences for learning," said Marti.

Part of the study includes results of interviews conducted at four overcrowded schools. The schools--located in the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens--were randomly selected among a group of overcrowded schools (all of which were operating at or above 130 percent utilization rate).

At these schools, students, teachers and administrative staff were interviewed and questionnaires were distributed to both students and teachers. Five hundred ninety-nine students and 213 teachers were involved in the survey.

Some 62.6 percent of students surveyed felt there were too many students in their school, and almost 50 percent said there were too many students in their classrooms. According to the researchers, it is significant that nearly half of the students reported that their assignments were not checked daily nor were they able to participate in class discussions or special projects.

Although some students could still find places to study quietly in school, more than 40 percent said they could not find such a place if they wanted to. Close to 40 percent said they had problems concentrating in their classes when they were learning something new.

Judging the overall quality of life in these schools, 41.9 percent of the non-graduating students surveyed did not want to remain in the same school next year, even though an overwhelming majority (88.3 percent) said they had a lot of friends in their school.

In spite of the overcrowding, 64.9 percent of all students surveyed said that, if they needed to talk to teachers privately, they could find a place to do so.

Teachers were deeply disturbed by overcrowding. When the researchers asked teachers to rank in importance a number of items they felt should be addressed in the school, the three items receiving the highest rankings were: 1) student overcrowding (which 87.8 percent of teachers indicated was a very important issue); 2) the need for adequate classroom space (87.3 percent), and 3) staff stress management related to overcrowding (62 percent).

By comparison, only 29.6 percent of the teachers responded that they felt physical fights between students was a very important issue that should be addressed.

More than 75 percent of the teachers reported that overcrowding affects classroom activities, instructional techniques and student achievement. More than 70 percent felt the administration of daily activities has been seriously impacted by the overcrowding, leading to staff burnout. Only about 50 percent of the teachers sampled looked forward to each working day at the school.

The Commission on Planning and Enrollment Growth, which authorized the TC study, was entrusted by Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines to supply recommendations relating to overcrowding in the City's public schools.

Among the Commission's recommendations--also released Jan. 30--were a test of the feasibility of year-round schooling, the placement of future magnet and special program schools in significantly under-utilized facilities and the continuation of the practice of relocating administrative officers from school space.

Serving with Timpane as the cochairman of the Commission was Ricardo Fernandez, president of Lehman College of CUNY.

The Teachers College report, titled "A System at Risk: A Study of the Consequences of Overcrowding in New York City Public Schools," is available from IUME. Those wishing more information may call 678-3780.

Columbia University Record -- February 17, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 17