Editorial: Send a message to your MLA about class size

November 7, 2017
Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Fort Vermilion, Horizon, Northland, Nord-Ouest Francophone and Prairie Land.

These are the five school divisions where the average K–3 class size is meeting the target adopted by the government nearly 15 years ago. Every other school division is exceeding the target.

And these are not exactly huge school divisions. Nord-Ouest is Alberta’s smallest school division with just 450 students. Prairie Land has only 1,400 students. Collectively these school divisions teach a total of just over 11,000 students.

More than 98 per cent of students in Alberta are enrolled with a school division that is unable to meet the government-approved targets for average K­–3 class size. That target, by the way, is 17 students.

Put up your hand if your class size is larger than 17 students.

Better yet, grab an index card, write down your class size in big, bold numbers and circle that number. Now give that card to your MLA and tell them that the time has come to reduce class size as promised years ago. (More on this later.)

When the Alberta Commission on Learning issued its recommendations in 2003 after almost a full year of extensive research and study, teachers said that the metric it recommended — jurisdictionwide averages — would not capture the reality of certain classes that far exceeded the averages. Nonetheless, we were happy to get a clear recommendation that class sizes needed to be reduced. And the government, facing public pressure on the issue, agreed to meet that flimsy target.

We never got there.

In 2004, class sizes boomed after the government chose not to fund arbitrary salary increases. Eventually the government did fund the salary increases and the class size initiative and, for a few years, class sizes went down.

Targets have been mostly met at higher grade levels, but teachers have always said that the class-size reductions were most important at the earliest grades, where students were building their foundations for literacy and numeracy.

Then the global recession of 2008 hit and things changed. Government revenues took a hit and class-size funding was gradually scaled back.

In the same time period we saw changes to inclusive education funding and we continued to see rapid student population growth — including many immigrant and refugee children who came to Alberta with very little knowledge of English or French.

Class complexity is an equally important part of this conversation.

Alberta’s schools are some of the most complex schools in the world. According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), our schools are twice as likely as those elsewhere to include a significant number of students with special needs and a significant number of students who are learning the language of instruction.

Large class sizes plus undersupported inclusion adds up to complex classrooms that allow too many students to fall through the cracks.

We are not alone in our concerns. The Association has conducted public opinion polling that demonstrates broad public agreement on these issues.

More than half of Albertans agree that class sizes in Alberta are “too big,” and 85 per cent agree that maximum class-size standards are needed. On inclusion, three-quarters of residents are concerned about the levels of support for students with special needs and English language learners, while 84 per cent would support additional funding for better supports for those students.

So, if teachers are concerned and the public is concerned, what is the problem? Government finances and political will.

These can be affected. The government is making choices that ensure that its revenue remains insufficient to sustain adequate service levels. Adopting the tax regime of British Columbia would still leave us as the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in the country while bringing in nearly $9 billion in added revenue.

So, really the problem is political will.

MLAs need to hear from teachers about this issue. The ATA’s Provincial Executive Council has initiated a co-ordinated advocacy effort to help teachers inform MLAs about this issue. We’ve made it quick and easy. Get a #MyClassSizeIs advocacy card, describe your classroom and get that card to your MLA (see more on page 16).

Let’s deliver the message to MLAs. ❚

I welcome your comments — contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.