I do not like to admit this often, but my smallest class ever had just two students. Trust me, this was exceptional. The class was Math 31 and only met for two hours a week compared to the normal six hours. It was essentially a tutorial, and the students were expected to complete significant amounts of work on their own time between classes.
The largest class I ever had was a Physical Education 10 class with 42 students. This was a common dichotomy for a rural high school like the one where I taught, that had to make trade-offs and sacrifices in order to provide some course variety to the students. Interestingly, the average size of those two classes was 22.
The unenviable task of school administrators is to take finite funding, manage trade-offs and create the best possible educational experience for as many students as possible. Unfortunately, these trade-offs often result in less than ideal situations for many students and classes.
Administrators often try to protect the sanctity of small class sizes. There is probably no issue in education studied in greater detail than that of class size. While some people argue that the impact is not significant and some studies exist to support those claims, the vast majority of research supports the benefits of smaller classes.
My colleague, Phil McRae, recently wrote about the research in The Learning Team, wherein he cited two recent comprehensive reviews of class size research that said, “all else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes” (Schanzenbach 2014, p. 10) and “ample research has indicated that children in smaller classes achieve better outcomes” (Baker, Farrie and Sciarra 2016, p. 5). Both studies noted that class size reductions benefit vulnerable (low socio-economic status, immigrant and minority) students the most.
Alberta’s Commission On Learning
On February 4, 2002 the largest teachers strike in the history of Alberta commenced. Teacher discontent was boiling over after years of education cutbacks, (including funding cuts, lost teaching positions, lost resources and salary reductions) followed by ongoing underfunding through the 1990s. Teachers sought through collective bargaining to improve long-standing concerns about deficient classroom conditions. Large class sizes were a key concern.
The dispute was ultimately settled with two resolution mechanisms: a fair arbitration process to look at teacher compensation and an independent learning commission to examine classroom conditions and other matters affecting education Alberta. With that, Alberta’s Commission on Learning (ACOL) was established.
After conducting extensive hearings and receiving numerous submissions, the commission released its final report, Every Child Learns. Every Child Succeeds., in October 2003. In the report the commission stated, “no other issue received more attention during the commission’s public consultations than the issue of class size.” The commission weighed the feedback and conducted its own thorough research on the matter.
At the time, the most recent survey from Alberta Learning (the then version of Alberta Education) showed average class sizes of 19.5 students in kindergarten, 23.2 students in Grades 1 to 6 and 25.5 students for Grades 7 to 9 (Alberta’s Commission on Learning 2003, p. 67). There were no provincial guidelines. The commission felt strongly that guidelines should be established but did not recommend “hard and fast legislated rules” (Alberta’s Commission on Learning 2003, p. 71). And so it established its now oft-cited recommendations for jurisdictionwide averages of 17 students in division one, 23 in division two, 25 in division three and 27 in division four.
The commission also had recommendations related to junior kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, supports for students with special needs and access to counselling—all things highlighted in the Association’s current Pledge for Public Education campaign.
Within two months of the report’s release, the government accepted the recommendations on class size, and in July of 2004 it introduced the Class Size Initiative, committing to an additional $149 million in funding over the next three years to hire 2,265 teachers and reduce class sizes. It worked.
By 2008, class size averages reached their lowest point, with the average K–3 class having 18.2 students (Office of the Auditor General 2018, p. 49). The provincial averages were met for Grades 4 to 12 and almost all school jurisdictions were meeting the targets for those grades as well.
But division one remained a problem. The provincial average was still above the guideline of 17, and only about a quarter of school boards were meeting the target on a jurisdictionwide basis. That was the best we got. After that the global recession hit, and class sizes started to increase.
Here We Grow Again
In February 2018, Alberta’s auditor general (AG) released a report entitled Processes to Manage the Student Class Size Initiative. The AG’s office examined Alberta Education’s processes related to funding, collecting data and providing oversight and accountability from the inception of the class size initiative in 2004 through to the fall of 2017.
The data contained in the report showed the rapid climb in class sizes from 2008 to 2015. The report noted that the government, at the request of school boards that found it burdensome to report class size data, changed reporting requirements and allowed boards to simply post the jurisdictionwide average for each grade group. It also highlighted how funding was restructured in 2010–11 to provide an equal per pupil allocation instead of targeted funding to reduce large class sizes.
By 2017–18, the government had spent $2.7 billion on the class size initiative, but the number of jurisdictions meeting the targets was actually lower than when the program began.
The AG’s office concluded that class size funding had essentially became another layer of base instructional funding. It recommended that Alberta Education should develop an action plan and improve processes to monitor and report on the initiative, and if that did not happen then “the department will continue to invest money without knowing if it is effectively achieving the desired results of the initiative” (Office of the Auditor General 2018, p. 47).
The Problem With Averages
The AG also stated that the use of averages “obscures the actual number of classes that have not met the ACOL suggested targets” (Office of the Auditor General 2018, p. 47). This was a point of contention for teachers going back to the original ACOL recommendations from 2003.
Edmonton Journal reporter Janet French wanted to know the reality of large class sizes in Alberta. After months of extensive research, the Journal published a week-long series of articles examining the situation. Using freedom of information requests, French obtained hard data from six Alberta school jurisdictions (two in each of Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer). The finding: more than 85 per cent of K–3 classes in these districts were oversized.
French’s investigation found a Grade 10 math class with 45 students, a Grade 11 science class with 47 students and a junior high physical education class with 67. In Red Deer, one Grade 5 class had 37 students in it.
Edmonton Public had 457 classes with between 36 and 40 kids and Red Deer Catholic had three classes in division one with 35 or more students.
The obscurity created by using averages was undeniable. As a result of this reporting, the Government of Alberta posted the full set of data with every class size in every school in the province from 2004 through 2018 on its open data portal (open.alberta.ca).
An internal analysis of the data by an economist employed by the Alberta Teachers’ Association highlights the K–3 problem. Eighty per cent of division one classes are above the ACOL recommendation and, on average, the oversized classes are nearly 30 per cent larger than the recommendation. In total, nearly 17,000 Alberta division one classrooms are oversized by more than 20 per cent. In higher grades, 11,000 classes are 20 per cent larger than recommended.
In order to calculate the severity of overcrowding, we combined the number of oversized classes and the degree to which they are oversized. The resulting metric has jumped substantially between 2008–09 and 2015–16.
Sixteen years have passed since Alberta’s largest ever teachers strike, and the biggest issue in that dispute, class size in Alberta’s schools, is as bad as ever. Teachers, and their supportive parents, were taking a principled stand to protect the quality of education for Alberta’s students. Unfortunately those students never got to enjoy the small class sizes they were promised. The students that were entering kindergarten in 2002 are now graduating from university, and a generation of children have missed out on the benefits of small classes.
Alberta’s Commission on Learning. 2003. Every Child Learns. Every Child Succeeds: Report and Recommendations. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Learning.
Baker, B.D., D. Farrie and D.G. Sciarra. 2016. Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding and Achievement Gaps. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Office of the Auditor General of Alberta (OAG). 2018. Report of the Auditor General, February 2018: Processes to Manage the Student Class Size Initiative. Edmonton, Alta.: OAG.
Schanzenbach, D.W. 2014. Does Class Size Matter? Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado.
From the report
Recommendation 14: Establish and implement provincewide guidelines for average class sizes across school jurisdictions.
• Rather than set legislated limits or hard and fast rules, there should be flexibility in the size of classes.
• School jurisdictions should be expected to meet the guidelines for average class sizes across their school jurisdiction. That means the guidelines would not necessarily be met in each and every classroom but should be met on average across the school jurisdiction.
• The suggested provincial guidelines should be
- Junior kindergarten to grade 3: 17 students
- Grades 4 to 6: 23 students
- Grades 7 to 9: 25 students
- Grades 10 to 12: 27 students
• Class composition should be considered by schools in setting class size. Generally, classes with special needs students, students whose first language is not English, and vulnerable and at-risk students should be smaller than the suggested guideline. Classes should also be smaller in cases where there are safety considerations such as vocational classes.
• School jurisdictions and the province should be required to report annually on average class sizes and should be accountable for explaining whether or not the guidelines have been met.
• The province should provide adequate funding to enable school jurisdictions to meet the class size guidelines. Information on average class sizes should be included in school jurisdiction profiles and used to determine provincial funding levels.
Alberta’s Commission on Learning 2003, p.8
Because of the significance of the findings described below, we conclude that the Department of Education did not, in all significant respects, have effective processes as of July 2017 to define the desired results of the Class Size Initiative, to develop an action plan to achieve those results, and to measure, monitor and report on the initiative. Based on our audit findings, it appears the department has, over time, converted Class Size Initiative funding to additional base instruction funding.
Office of the Auditor General 2018, p.2
Jonathan Teghtmeyer is the associate coordinator of communications for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.