Class size hiccups

September 13, 2011
Gordon Thomas

The impact of the loss of 1,000 or more teaching positions is each teacher’s reality this week in Alberta classrooms. In addition, the loss of support positions further complicates teachers’ professional lives in that teachers’ relationships with students are important elements of professional practice. This is why comments made by Dr. Sharon Friesen, vice-dean, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary, and cofounder and president of the Galileo Educational Network, are particularly infuriating to teachers.

As reported in this newspaper, Friesen has suggested that “the public, the province and the school boards have become too focused on the issue of class size.” She stated that research shows that class size, no matter how big, has no effect on student learning. I’ve reviewed Friesen’s U of C website profile and I don’t see “class size research” as an area of academic expertise, and I’m not aware of any research on class size undertaken by Friesen.

Friesen’s assessment of class size is wrong. Although some studies that suggest that class size reduction is not worthwhile, on balance, there is overwhelming evidence to conclude that reduced class size has positive academic benefits. While teachers are always interested in smaller classes, parents, students and the public also believe that classes should be smaller.

Alberta’s Commission on Learning strongly endorsed reduced class sizes in its 2003 report, noting that no other issue received more ­attention during the Commission’s public consultations: “The Commission repeatedly heard that if there is one change that should be made it is to ensure that all children have an opportunity to learn in classes that are not so large that teachers are unable to give their students—students with special needs and all the students in the class—the individual attention they need and deserve.” The Commission noted that more than 80 per cent of the respondents to the Commission’s consultation process wanted the province to “set a maximum for the number of children in a classroom, especially at the lower grades.” The Commission concluded that class sizes should be reduced, that provincewide guidelines should be set and that these directions were “backed up by a wealth of research reviewed by the Commission.”

Studies reviewed included Project STAR (Student Teacher ­Achievement Ratio) in Tennessee, initiatives in California, Wisconsin and extensive class size reduction efforts funded through the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI). Class size reductions were also supported by Alberta research led by Fern Snart, now dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. Political interest in these recommendations and the heat generated by overcrowded ­classrooms led the province to introduce class size guidelines more quickly than suggested by the Commission. In fact, the guidelines were in place two years ahead of the proposed schedule. Teachers, parents and the public do not want classes so big that they diminish students’ opportunity to learn.

Alberta’s teachers continue to expect the government of Alberta to honour its commitment to maintain reasonable class sizes by fully implementing the recommendations of Alberta’s Commission on Learning. Contrary to what Friesen believes, there hasn’t been “too much focus” on the issue of class size—teachers, parents and the ­public continue to favour small classes. During a time of transformation of the education system, we need to preserve what we know has worked to enhance student learning—class size reduction is one ­strategy that supports a highly qualified and professional teaching force and is worth the “focus.” As Premier Stelmach noted in his letter to ATA President Frank Bruseker as part of the five-year historic pension agreement in 2007: “Our government recognizes that reducing class sizes goes a long way in laying the foundation for a positive learning environment for our students.”

I welcome your comments—contact me at gordon.thomas@ata.ab.ca.