Small Class Size Matters: Why the SCC Decision Won’t Go Far Enough

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Small Class Size Matters: Why the SCC Decision Won’t Go Far Enough

by Sandra Mathison

Ask any parent if they want their child in a classroom with 15 students or 30 students and the answer is obvious. Ask any teacher if they would prefer to teach a class of 15-20 students or one with 35 students and again the answer is obvious. The obvious answers are not reflected in class sizes in British Columbia’s schools.

With the Supreme Court of Canada decision will come restoration of class size and composition for BC schools. That means restoring class size to 2001 levels: 20 for Kindergarten, 22 for Grades 1–3, and in most districts 30 for Grades 4–12. Rolling back class size is a good thing, but even this much needed remedy will not go far enough in taking full advantage of the benefits of small class size.

What we know is that smaller classes lead to positive student outcomes. And this is so because students are more engaged, spend more time on educational tasks, and gives teachers the opportunity to tailor instruction to the needs and abilities of students.

Students in small classes are more engaged in what they are learning, have greater opportunities to express themselves and to participate. (See, for example, here.) And, as a result, student peers tend to trust each other and to be less disruptive. (See here.)

The benefits are not only apparent in academic indicators like test scores and grades, but also longer term educational and life outcomes like high school completion, less juvenile criminal behaviour, and increased post-secondary enrollment.

This is common sense, but the research bears this out as well. One of the best designed studies to inform our understanding of class size is Tennessee’s STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, and from this study we have learned much about the benefits of small classes. (The previous link summarizes the STAR study, but see also, Mosteller, Frederick (1995). The Tennessee study of class size in the early school grades. The Future of Children, 5(2), 113-127.)

The smaller classes performed substantially better by the end of second grade in test scores, grades, and fewer disciplinary referrals. The gains lasted. The students that had been assigned to smaller classes were more likely to graduate in four years, more likely to go to college, and more likely to get a degree in a STEM field. The positive effect was twice as large for poor and minority students, and thus narrowed the achievement gap.

This research suggests we should work toward small classrooms and give teachers the opportunity to provide instruction tailored to students’ needs, to give consistent and individual feedback, and to use class time for educational goals rather than on discipline.

Not only do we know that small class sizes are beneficial, we also know that is especially so for early grades and for students who come to school with disadvantages, such as poverty, limited English proficiency, and minority status.

Small class size benefits teachers as well by improving working conditions, increasing job satisfaction, and retention.

How small is small though? The research evidence suggests that any reduction in class size will likely have some positive effect, but that optimally small classes sizes are between 15 and 20 students. (Small classes in the STAR study were between 13 and 17 students.) For BC schools to take advantage of the benefits of small class size this means much further reductions are needed, indeed class size for all students ought to be at least at the level set for BC Kindergarten classes in 2001… 20 students!

This will be a struggle for BC schools already having difficulty finding enough teachers and classroom space to operate at the 2001 class size limits. The process of recovering the status quo of 16 years ago will take some time, but everything we know about quality education tells us this is not the place to stop. More resources for both infrastructure and personnel is necessary. Make no mistake that reducing class size is an expensive educational reform, but research suggests this will be money well spent.

Sandra Mathison is a Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia and Executive Director of IPE/BC.

 

Change Comes to BC Schools… It’s Just a Beginning

There is no doubt the Supreme Court of Canada decision to uphold the BCTF appeal against the former provincial government’s legislation means, among many other things, a dramatic improvement in educational services and opportunities available to British Columbia children and families.

There will be thousands of additional teachers in BC classrooms this September. So, tens of thousands of children will get additional one to one help. Students’ individual learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses will be easier to spot. Assessment will be more straightforward. Teachers will be better able to diagnose the specific needs of individual students and develop programs, materials and processes that fit those needs. Classroom discussions can be deeper, richer and include the active participation of more children.

Like parents, students, teachers and other educational workers, IPE/BC welcomes these real and important improvements. Still, there are at least three important things to remember as we watch this new era of increased resources roll out.

First, for 15 years increased funding that should have been there wasn’t.  So incremental improvements didn’t happen as they should have. Quite the opposite. Year after year, cuts made teachers’, principals’, and school boards’ jobs much harder. So when all at once a decade and a half of disruption is partly remediated, it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. There will inevitably be glitches, tensions and frustrations. It will be tempting for some, and ideologically convenient for others, to put the blame for bumps in the road on the province’s teachers and their insistence on achieving justice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, responsibility will properly lie with the government that promulgated the offending legislation in the first place and then fought tooth and nail for fifteen years to defend it.

Second, while reports from most School Boards around the province indicate the Court’s ruling is being implemented quite smoothly, we are hearing from some Boards and schools that there are some inequities and uncertainties about staffing and resource allocation.  The Ministry, the Boards and the BCTF should see to it that every child gets the support required by the letter and the spirit of the SCC decision.

Third, the previous provincial government failed to provide funding for deferred maintenance, seismic upgrades, and new school construction. This meant districts were forced to close schools, mitigate space shortages with portables, and address only the most egregious maintenance issues. While new teachers can be brought in relatively quickly, it will take time and resources for districts to rebuild their space capacity and upgrade facilities to adequate seismic and instructional standards.

Though it is perhaps difficult to remember, the situation in BC schools in January 2002 (when the infamous laws were passed) wasn’t close to perfection. Resources and funding were sadly lacking in many important areas. Simply bringing the situation back to where it was fifteen years ago, while a significant achievement and well worth celebrating, is just the beginning.

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education. Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows to share their ideas in short, accessible essays.

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

By E. Wayne Ross

The Institute for Public Education BC is committed to public education for the good of all children, families and communities and this is reflected in its tag line, “public education is a public interest.”

This proposition may seem obviously true, but it’s not.

Public education in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally faces serious challenges when it comes to serving the common good. Over the last half century, the dominant world view has privileged the individual over the well-being of the general public.

This view and the policies that flow from it are referred to as “neoliberalism.” Governments across the political spectrum, both the politically conservative and liberal, share belief in the major tenets of neoliberalism, including fiscal austerity, privatization of public goods and services, government deregulation, and free trade.

In education, neoliberalism is manifest in what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which:

  • prioritizes and imposes a business model on public education;
  • increases competition among students, teachers and schools (test-based accountability; performance-related rewards; league-tables; attacks on teacher unions);
  • supports an audit and accountability culture that takes education out the hands of teachers, students, and the public;
  • commodifies education via “school choice,” which positions students and parents as consumers in an education marketplace;
  • promotes the privatization and marketization of public schools (education becomes a service sector open to trade and investors; off-shore schools; and selling seats in schools and universities on the international market);
  • sees public education as an opportunity to maximize human capital (i.e., a narrowly educated workforce) as opposed to maximizing the common good and social cohesion.

These reforms are backed by many governments as well as The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Despite rhetoric linking GERM to benefits for all within the vast constituency of public education, the fact is that those who regulate both knowledge and the economy work for their own political and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

GERM in British Columbia

GERM has infected public education in British Columbia and the symptoms are obvious.

  • School closures – In the past 15 years, over 200 public schools have been closed in BC.
  • Government destruction of agreed upon guidelines on class size and composition, which have had deleterious effects on learning and teaching conditions.
  • Reduction in the number of teachers, teacher-librarians, and classroom aides. Educators in BC are responsible for more children on average, than educators in the rest of Canada, a gap that is widening.
  • Selling school and universities seats on international market has become a major source of income growth for schools and universities in BC.
  • Off-shore schools – BC public school districts have been encouraged to create private business companies that are owned by school boards and operate to sell education overseas.
  • An estimated $5 billion in deferred maintenance for school buildings.
  • School rankings that oversimplify the characteristics of good schools; commodify education; and rely primarily on standardized test scores, which advantage schools with students from wealthy families.
  • Commercialization – Corporate incursion into schools that encourages competition; injects corporate advertising, exploiting underfunded schools.
  • Expansion of private tutoring companies, many of which are owned by international corporations.
  • British Columbia now spends $1000 less per student than the Canadian national average.
  • Reduction in government spending on public education. In 2001, the BC government put 20% of its total spending into education, now it spends just 11.8% of its budget on education.
  • Reliance on parent fund-raising via Parent Advisory Committees; it is estimated that parents now spend $132 million yearly in subsidies to public education.

Examining BC education funding trends, we can see how neoliberal education policies shift social costs on to individuals. These same trends can be found in other public services such as the health care and transportation.

At the same time, the BC government gives public money to subsidize private schools, many of which serve the rich and charge thousands of dollars in tuition.

Public Funding of Private Education is Undemocratic

Public funding for private schools is at odds with creating a more equitable, just, and democratic society.

It is a policy that almost always privileges families with more disposable income over the less wealthy and poor, and often privileges religious education over secular education. Moreover, public funding of private schools supports a two-tiered system of education that allows some schools to cherry-pick who attends, and undermines the concepts of the public good and community in favour of individual gain.

Public-school budget cuts result in closed libraries, reduced special-education services and increased class size, while private schools are publicly subsidized to provide the advantaged with more benefits. These advantages include smaller class sizes allowing teachers to be more responsive to student needs, to customize learning activities, and to provide private-school students with enriched curricula in art, sports and music programs.

For the first hundred years of British Columbia history there was no public funding of private or religious schools. The Social Credit government introduced public funding of private education in 1977 and only then did private school enrolment begin to increase, taking a larger share of the provincial education budget.

Under the BC Liberals, British Columbians have been subjected to a steady stream of ideologically driven public-policy decisions that shift responsibility for providing and financing public services from the public to the private domain. As with other public assets, their aim is to privatize the commonwealth of the province.

Public funding of private schools is a form of privatization consistent with fundamental ideological positions of the BC Liberals in particular and neoliberalism in general. Privatizing public enterprises, goods and services is usually done in the name of increased efficiency, but mainly has the effect of concentrating wealth in fewer hands (the gap between the wealthiest and the majority of BC families has grown dramatically over the past 30 years) and making the public pay more for its needs (see, for example, BC Ferries).

Not unlike academy schools in England or charter schools in the US, public funding of private schools in BC is privatization through the back door.

Elite private schools are subsidized by the public, while public schools are told to look to the market — recruiting tuition-paying international students, setting up school-district business companies, or opening their doors to corporate programs — or to parent-fundraising, to solve a budget crisis imposed by government’s distorted priorities.

The fundamental idea of public funding for private schools is based on the false premise that private schools do a better job. In reality, public-school students outperform private school students. A 2012 study of first-year physics students at the University of BC found that those who had graduated from public schools in Metro Vancouver outperformed their private-school peers. This finding is reiterated in a study just published by the University of Chicago Press, which concludes public schools achieve mathematics results the same as or better than private schools with demographically similar students. In 2006, the Educational Testing Service reached similar conclusions, finding that US public-school students outpaced private-school students in both reading and math.

Private-school enrolment is soaring because it is encouraged by public policies that divert public money to support private interests and by ideologies that promote individualism and private gain over community and shared interests.

It is time for education policy in BC that recognizes public education is a public interest.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.