Myth: Class size doesn’t matter

June 1, 2015
J-C Couture

Controversial belief doesn’t stand up to research findings

Few other public policy questions have been more contested in the past couple of decades than that of class size. While there has been a large body of scholarship internationally on this issue, anyone familiar with the rich legacy of educational research in Alberta will point to the 2001 study Literacy Achievement in Small Grade 1 Classes in High-Poverty Environments, co-ordinated by Fern Snart, then associate dean of the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, and co-researchers Margaret Haughey and José da Costa.

Working with Edmonton Public Schools staff, the research team examined improvements in student learning when classes were limited to 15 students, and participating teachers were supported by professional development activities focused on balanced literacy and/or early literacy.

To acknowledge and draw on this legacy of important study, I interviewed José da Costa, currently a professor of educational administration and leadership at the University of Alberta. While the study was conducted close to 15 years ago, it has stood the test of time and reinforced subsequent national and international studies that clearly demonstrate that class size reductions augmented with supports for high quality teaching do in fact make significant improvements in student learning.

Q. In 2001 you were part of a landmark study on class size in the Alberta context. One of your key findings was that “reduction in class size produced various benefits, many of which have been previously recognized by researchers — less noise, fewer overt discipline issues, more space and hence a greater sense of ­autonomy, and sufficient ­resources. These benefits resulted in better learning, improved student interaction and positive social growth.” Can you tell us more about some of these key findings?

A. Our main finding showed that teachers with smaller class sizes had more time to devote to each child, to support and scaffold their learning more effectively. These characteristics you provide above were critical for teachers to create and focus on learning in their classrooms.

Interestingly, this didn’t just happen automatically as a result of reducing class size, which happened just after the Christmas break in the middle of the school year. It came about in the second year of the project after teachers had engaged in a variety of the professional development experiences, including coming together once a month to discuss their practices and reflect on insights from the research literature. This was facilitated by Fern Snart, Margaret Haughey and me as part of the research project.

In the first year of the project, during the first six months, teachers treated their small classes, which had literally been cut in half — taking classes of 26 to 32 and making them 13 to 16 students in size — as though they still had the larger groups. The teachers didn’t work differently with students in that initial phase. They simply were not familiar with practices for teaching these smaller groups differently from the approaches they had used for years with the large groups.

As with other education policy changes, the reduction in class size came about as a surprise, with most teachers not finding out about the change until the very beginning of January when they arrived at school. Furthermore, new teachers had to be hired to teach the additional classes that had been created. They had days to plan how they were going to teach their classes over the following six months. The teaching staff had almost no direct experience teaching groups of 13 to 16. Teachers felt they had to turn on a dime and reconsider familiar practices that worked in large classes but were not optimal for addressing the needs of all students.

In the second year of the project, however, teachers talked about changing their instructional practices as well as re-imagining learning experiences for the smaller groups of students they were teaching. They spoke of having far more time to devote to each learner to address questions and to provide formative feedback to support their learning. Many teachers shared stories of being able to identify students who performed adequately, but not to the best of their abilities. These students they then supported much more actively to “push” them to the extent of their abilities.

The teachers talked about, in very real terms, what we now commonly refer to as differentiated instruction. Without the significant reductions in class size, teachers were not able to meaningfully develop and support individual program plans. I recall one teacher who realized, with the switch to the substantially smaller class, that one student who appeared to be progressing with the class was in fact falling behind but was skilfully masking this by asking her classmates for help and borrowing other students’ work. This sort of falling through the cracks happens when we expect teachers to work with large numbers of students with complex learning needs.

Q. Your team’s study made an important contribution to the public policy discussion back then. Since that time there has been a lot more research and of course much more controversy and contestation. Looking back on the past decade, how if at all has your thinking changed on the class size issue?

 

A. I think where we saw the greatest shift as a result of our work and the work of many other researchers looking at the class size issue was in the recognition of the importance of smaller class sizes in the critical formative years in lower elementary school. This seems to be the time during which students develop their efficacy as learners. Even today, the per-student grant for students in the lower elementary grades is still considerably higher than the grants for upper elementary and junior high school. (High school is funded on a credit equivalent unit model that actually encourages large class sizes.)

If we’re serious about having students learn curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them and in ways that positively impact their communities, we can’t just herd them through a factory funding and mass-production model, allowing them to sort themselves. Every child who we fail to support to reach his or her maximum ability is a loss for our local communities and society as a whole. What is the loss to society when, because of excessive numbers in a classroom, a student gains only the knowledge required to get a good grade but fails to gain mastery that would allow deeper understanding of a subject at advanced levels of learning?

What have we gained as a society in the long term by saving education dollars by putting 35 students in a class when the child who had the aptitude and ability to be successful doesn’t learn in elementary and junior high school the nuances necessary for this success? If the government wants to increase class size because of its own fiscal priorities, then it must be clear with the public about the consequences — that scarce resources must be allocated and troublesome choices will be made that are not in the best interests of students.

Q. As you know, many pundits and policy-makers, citing international studies including those emanating from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, claim that the Alberta government should focus on quality teaching instead of class size reductions. Do you see merit in these claims?

A. The balance between quality of education and the number of learners in a classroom being taught by each teacher is one that seems to come up whenever governments are looking for a place to reduce expenditures. The education system we currently see in our publicly funded schools is the product of the Industrial Revolution, when an efficient mass production approach to education was put into place. The system then was meant to enable students to gain a sufficient but rudimentary understanding of reading, writing and arithmetic so they could be productive factory employees. These rudimentary skills are a far cry from our expectations of learners today.

Today’s classrooms cannot simply be places in which teachers, as talking heads, deliver their lessons and then have students regurgitate what they heard on meaningless worksheets. Today’s classrooms must be focused on individualizing instruction to facilitate meaningful learning, starting with what the learner knows and understands and what is meaningful — it’s about creating learner-centred experiences rather than teacher-centred experiences.

We also need to recognize the great diversity of our learners. These include abilities such as intellectual capacity and cultural and linguistic diversity. The diverse learning needs in our classrooms are accentuated by mainstreaming initiatives that have seen the desegregation of students with learning disabilities. This is a move in the right direction for learners, but this shift does place additional demands on classroom teachers to meet the learning needs of an even more diverse group of learners than ever before.

Of course quality teaching is critical. However, increasing class size beyond what the literature suggests as optimal — somewhere between 12 and 17 for the lower elementary grades and about 20 to 25 in upper grades — simply results in teacher time being spread more thinly across the increased number of learners. This simply results in a system in which students are seen to be learning as long as they meet whatever external benchmarks have been established. This takes away the focus from enabling students to learn and achieve to the best of their ability.

For example, the student who consistently achieves the standard of excellence on external tests but isn’t actually pushing herself to do so is achieving below her capability. Teachers don’t have the time, in large classrooms, to push that student to reach her individual capacity. If we fail to do this, we fail the student and our province’s future.

Q. As a researcher, you have seen decades of debate on class size in this province. How might we engage education partners and the public at large in a meaningful discussion around the class size issue?

A. This is a very difficult question. I think it is more a political question than a research one, although research can obviously inform the discussion.

Parents who see their children in classes with large numbers of other students with diverse learning needs are often the ones who notice their children aren’t getting pushed to the limits of their ability. Those parents who have the social capital and financial ability often enrich their children’s learning by providing them with enrichment activities outside of school.

Members of the general public who don’t have direct connections to contemporary schools are less likely to be sympathetic to the learning needs of students in large classes, or of students in smaller classes that have unprecedented numbers of children with a variety of individualized learning needs.

We can only understand schools from the point of view of our experiences with schools. People who are not directly connected to K–12 schools typically view the education system based on their own experiences as a learner in that system, even if that dates back four, five, six or more decades. While schools and education have changed drastically, even in the last couple of decades, our experiences are always grounded in what we know and what we think is still true. I believe the issue is, how do we challenge those preconceptions to the point where people understand that today’s classrooms are not what they experienced decades ago?

I think it would be useful for the profession to raise public awareness of what teaching and learning are about in 2015 and what we anticipate these being in the next decade or two. I don’t mean conducting surveys in which teachers tell everyone how busy they are. The public doesn’t want to hear that and, frankly, it just comes across as whining.

I think the public needs to see what educators are working toward in our publicly funded schools and what that looks like. We need to capitalize on the power of story. The public needs to see, not just hear, that how and what our children are learning in K–12 enables them to contribute meaningfully to society and will have a direct benefit for individual taxpayers. Let’s keep in mind that these are the people who support governments and who governments listen to.

That child who isn’t able to become an outstanding tradesperson, cancer researcher, engineer or teacher because we simply allowed her or him to “be good enough” is a loss to us all.

This kind of awareness campaign would serve the purpose of educating the public as to what contemporary classrooms are like and how increasing class size can only have a detrimental effect on the quality of learning experienced in our classrooms, which bears directly on the quality of life for members of society as they age. Once this groundwork has been laid, then I think we will be able to engage in meaningful dialogue and debate about how best to achieve the goals of education.

Dr. J-C Couture is the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s associate co-ordinator of research.