Editorial: Class size campaign strikes a nerve

November 21, 2017
Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

In the last issue of the ATA News, I wrote an editorial to talk to you about the new My Class Size Is… campaign the Association launched to raise awareness of the issue of class size and complexity.

We are sending more than 10,000 advocacy cards to teachers and are asking them to deliver the completed cards to their MLAs. Your response to our initial rollout has been phenomenal. Clearly, the campaign has struck a nerve.

We are being inundated with requests for thousands of additional cards. On Facebook, our material is being seen by tens of thousands of Albertans each time we make a post. The most engaging post on Facebook generated more than 500 reactions, 222 shares and 122 comments.
One teacher said she had 34 students in a split Grade 5/6 class, while the teacher across the hall had 29 students in Grade 3. One respondent reported on a science class with 45 students in it.
And of course, teachers talked about complexity and composition factors that aggravate the challenges of large classes.

One teacher noted that her Grade 1 class may have only 21 students, but that includes two students with autism, four students with behaviour IPPs, three English-language learners and two that are well below grade level.

Since 2009/10, the student population has grown by nearly 100,000 students.
The hiring of teachers has simply not kept up.

“What I would give to be able to spend 15 minutes a day with each student in my class,” said another teacher. “Fifteen minutes just the two of us, to focus on struggles or to push their learnings further ahead.”

Teachers are clearly upset by seeing students falling through the cracks, knowing that they could help more students succeed if only they had more one-on-one time with students.
Let’s look again at how we got here.

Alberta identified a significant problem with class size back in 2003 when Alberta’s Commission on Learning (ACOL) studied the issue thoroughly and said clearly that class sizes in Alberta should be reduced to averages of 17, 23, 25 and 27 for divisions I, II, III and IV respectively.
In September of 2003, the average K–3 class size was 21.7 students.

The government accepted the ACOL recommendations and introduced funding to reduce the number. Over the next three years, 2,300 additional teachers were to be hired. By 2004/05, class sizes were brought down to 19.3 and then to as low as 18.5 in 2009/10, but that was as good as it got.

Now, I know I am focusing on K–3 without addressing the issue at other grade levels. But the problem was always more acute in division I, and the data on averages is more obscure for higher grades where there are more optional and specialty classes that skew the averages downward.
That is also part of the story. You see, since 2009, the government started to roll back its targeted funding for class size reductions. It started with cuts at the higher grade levels and worked its way down. Currently, class size funding now exists only for K–3 classes and for high school CTS classes, like construction, where safety is a special consideration.

Other grants were also scaled back, and school boards felt a general funding crunch.
At the same time, Alberta has experienced a fertility and migration boom. Since 2009/10, the student population has grown by nearly 100,000 students. The hiring of teachers has simply not kept up.

While successive budgets have provided funding to cover the costs of enrolment growth, they have not adequately covered inflationary pressure, have introduced cuts elsewhere and have done nothing to further improve the class size situation.

Similarly, changes to how inclusion is funded mean teachers are seeing more complexity in their classrooms with less visible supports for unique student needs.

The class size average is now higher than it was in 2004/05, and getting closer and closer to the average in place in 2003 when ACOL said we needed to reduce class size. We estimate that around 2,000 to 3,000 teachers will need to be hired to meet the class size averages recommended by ACOL.

So, let your MLA know. Class size plus inclusion equals class complexity. And class complexity needs to be addressed in order to ensure students aren’t falling through the cracks. ❚

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