A Sizable Issue: Reducing class size matters

September 13, 2011
Gordon Thomas, ATA Executive Secretary

The class size issue

The fallout from education funding shortfalls has parents, teachers and trustees concerned about possible increases in class size.

An article in the Calgary Herald (August 29, 2011), “Parents fear impact of fewer teachers, support staff in Calgary schools,” addressed parents’ fears that fewer teachers—the result of government underfunding education by as much as $100-million—will mean larger classes.

In 2010/11, some Calgary high schools had close to 40 students per class before the funding cuts. This year those numbers will swell with the loss of approximately 1,000 teachers across the province, all while the composition, diversity and complexity of the Alberta student population continues to shift.

Although parents, teachers and trustees are concerned larger classes will adversely affect their children’s education, Sharon Friesen, vice-dean of the faculty of education at the University of Calgary, disagrees. The Calgary Herald quotes her as saying: “We’ve spent a lot of money reducing the number of children per classroom, so one of the questions we need to ask is why is the impact so small on reducing class size?” The article said that ­Friesen claimed that more than 96 peer-reviewed studies found no significant influence on student learning in K–12, even in classes with up to 80 students.

If we follow this line of thinking, then it is also worth noting that in John Hattie’s recent meta-analysis of class size (2008) the other influences on student learning that are listed as having an even smaller effect than class size are: problem-based learning, diet, out of school curricula experiences, web-based learning, and teacher training.

Friesen said: “You can’t say if we merely reduce the number of students in front of teachers then we’ll have increased student learning. We can’t say that. It doesn’t happen that way. The assumption is that the teaching will change because of the class size and that’s not borne out by research.”

These comments renew a conversation on class size reductions at a time when the Alberta government is underfunding the education system, and confirms previously held beliefs and biases for some about the value of small classes. Although Friesen offers the caveat that multiple factors influence student learning, this significant and critically important statement is lost on those who would prefer to zero in on class size as a sole determinant of education quality. Incidentally, Friesen is a board member of the Calgary Science Charter School, where classes are capped at no more than 25 students per ­teacher throughout the school.

Teaching students or crowd control?

Let’s bring class size and composition within Alberta schools into focus. A high school teacher might begin her day with a class of 37 students. Four of these students have learning disabilities, five have just moved to Alberta for the booming economy, one has serious behaviour issues, three are repeating the course from last year, seven are below grade level, two arrive late to class on a regular basis, and one is not attending class at all due to instability in his home life. This is just the first of several large classes she will teach this day. In the past, there may have been relief in the form of support staff in the classroom, funding for reducing class sizes across the K-12 system or ­personnel to provide a comprehensive approach to services that meet the diverse learning needs of all students, but these all appear to be vanishing with the instability associated with funding for education in Alberta.

Now, does this learning context of 37 diverse individuals set the stage for a constructive, personalized, and rewarding learning environment for our children? How frequently might positive teacher-student interactions occur? To what extent could a strong sense of belonging and community among students be created in this classroom? How often would innovative pedagogical practices be undertaken by a teacher to transform the learning in such a challenging context?

Pat Cochrane, chair of the Calgary Board of Education, acknowledges in the Calgary Herald article that fewer teachers this year means “there will be changes at the school level, no question. …. [students] will have more fellow students that their teacher has to look after.”

What does the research say?

The research on class size is highly contested given that schools are diverse and the measures used to compare student achievement vary widely. However, recent Canadian research sends a clear message—class size reduction initiatives, when undertaken thoughtfully and carefully alongside a highly qualified professional teaching force, improve student learning.

In 2010, the Canadian Education Association and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto published a report on Ontario’s primary class size reduction initiative.

The study concluded that the evidence suggests that in smaller classes “students learn more, are more engaged, and are less disruptive” (Bascia 2010). The research team summarized its findings, stating:

Class size reduction can provide the environment in which teachers can interact with individual students more frequently and use a greater ­variety of instructional strategies, create more opportunities for higher-order co-construction of meaning by students, and interact more frequently with other teachers and adults in support of classroom teaching.

Closer to home, a study by the University of Alberta, Edmonton Public Schools and Alberta Learning (now Alberta Education) examined the effect of small class sizes (15 students or fewer) on student growth and achievement in Grade 1. The Alberta study by Haughey, Snart and DaCosta (2001) noted 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.”

In the U.S., the Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ration (STAR) project found that small class size effects persist over time. This research found that elementary students in small classes during Grade 3 were afforded greater achievement all the way up to Grade 8. This study, along with many others, also indicates that small classes provide specific benefits for minority students. In California, the California Class Size Reduction (CSR) program introduced a statewide voluntary program to keep classes at no more than 20 elementary students per class. The results of this large study demonstrated there was more time for parent-teacher interactions and less time spent distracted by discipline related issues.

In 2003, Alberta’s Learning Commission recognized the importance of reducing the average class size and the government implemented class size reductions in accordance with the commission’s recommendations. The commission found the research to be clear and, just as significant, that parents and students wanted class sizes to be reduced. The commission’s recommendations on class size were implemented in their entirety two years ahead of schedule.

The sustainable impact of class size reductions can really only be achieved if it is implemented with attention to other conditions of teaching practice that support innovative learning environments.

Let’s be clear—reducing class size is complex. It is neither a quick fix nor is it a silver bullet to instantly transform the education system. Enduring changes that improve student learning are incremental, painstaking, community supported and classroom based.

Parents, teachers and the public at large all hunger for, and have a vested interest in, keeping class sizes small to enhance student learning. To suggest otherwise is nonsense.

Additional information related to the issue of class size is featured in the on-line version of this article posted on the ATA website  (www.teachers.ab.ca).

Alberta’s Commission on Learning
Every child learns. Every child succeeds. Report and recommendations

Calgary Herald (August 29, 2011):
 Parents Fear Impact of Fewer Teachers, Support Staff in Calgary Schools

Canadian Education Association
Dr. Nina Bascia, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?

University of Alberta
Drs. Margaret Haughey, Fern Snart, Jose da Costa 
Literacy Achievement in Small Grade 1 Classes in High-Poverty Environments  

Academics Challenge Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement: