Rezori: The tug-of-war over class sizes

Do smaller classes make for better students? The research suggests that this is so, but the issue is still a political football, writes Azzo Rezori.
Class sizes in Newfoundland and Labrador are among the smallest in the country. (CBC)

During Ontario's recent provincial election campaign, Tory leader Tim Hudak promised to increase class sizes in his province's schools as one way to save money and turn a balanced budget.

The Tories lost 10 seats, placing an even poorer second to the Liberals than they did four years earlier. How much Hudak's proposal to increase class size contributed to that is anybody's guess, but it must have drilled at least one of the holes that sank his campaign. 

Tim Hudak, the former Tory leader in Ontario, appeared to find little electoral support last month for his views on class sizes. (The Canadian Press)
The union representing elementary teachers in Ontario has since called on the re-elected Liberal government to reduce class sizes even further. At the same time the Toronto Catholic School District has confirmed that it expects to increase class sizes in grades 4 to 8 as part of a larger plan to trim spending by 10 per cent.

In British Columbia, teachers have gone on strike over the issue. Their government disputes that size makes a difference. It also maintains that average class size in the province is already at an historic low. 

And so the tug of war continues, with much confusion being pulled either way.

Looking at the evidence

There are still writers who stoutly dismiss any notion that smaller classes lead to improved learning, but they're getting fewer.   

Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know? is a relatively recent publication (2010) by the Canadian Education Association, and it confirms the growing body of evidence that smaller classes do make a difference. 

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils says it's time for the province's school board to re-visit the policy preventing teachers from giving students a zero grade. (CBC)
Smaller classes, the report concludes, allow teachers to teach more creatively and to interact more with students; they also produce an environment where students learn more both academically and socially, are more engaged, and tend to be less disruptive.

But there are costs involved.

The B.C. government estimates that implementing the smaller classes the striking teachers' union are holding out for would run into more than $2 billion over four years.  

The report by the Canadian Education Association backs this up in principle. "There are significant costs associated with reducing class size," it states.

Smaller classes, it goes on to say, will only work as they're meant to if new approaches and more innovative practices are allowed to flourish. Those include giving students more freedom to express themselves, equipping teachers with the appropriate teaching skills, and introducing the necessary curriculum changes. 

The quality of existing class rooms would also have to be improved. More resources would have to be made available. And there would have to be a commitment to the full costs. 

"Failing to account for them may compromise the quality of the reform and may even have a negative impact," the report cautions.

A universal goal

After more than a hundred years of accumulated research into how children develop and mature, it`s an accepted fact that individual learning is complex. 

Universality has always been the overall goal of public education, but there's no universal formula yet for giving all students the fairest crack at learning as best as their individual gifts and shortcomings will allow.

While most research supports smaller class sizes, the policy comes at a hefty cost. (CBC)
There are so many roads. The high roads of theory and expectations. The low roads of tight budgets and institutionally entrenched resistance to change. The broad middle roads of various degrees of practice, from best to worst. 

This province ranks as one of the leaders in the country when it comes to reducing class sizes. The report by the Canadian Education Association puts it in third place behind Alberta and British Columbia. The last minister of education to speak publicly on the issue (Darin King in an interview with the Telegram in 2010) claimed second place. 

Caps set six years ago

Current caps on class sizes here were set in 2008. They stand at 20 for kindergarten, 25 for grades 1 to 5, and 27 for grades 7-9. So far the government has resisted limiting class sizes in high school.

Things will get more confusing before they get simpler.

All over the province, school officials are struggling with changing populations, closing and amalgamating schools here, building new ones there, depending on the latest shifts in the current mass migration from small communities to larger centres. 

How all that will play itself out remains to be seen. For now the last word goes to Diane Schanzenbach of the National Education Policy Centre at the University of Colorado. 

She writes, "While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the most cost-effective policy overall."

Notice the "may."

About the Author

Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.