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.