Court Decisions, Smaller Classes and What Research Can Teach Us

In November 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) made a landmark ruling in favour of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). The court confirmed that in 2002 the BC provincial government violated the teachers’ constitutional rights when it removed class size and composition language from their contracts. The result will be an opening of the current contract to renegotiate class size andcomposition provisions – a move that will likely result in an increase of hundreds of teaching positions and smaller classes. Putting aside the logistical and financial challenges it will present, this is a good opportunity for a review of what research says about the impact of class size on student achievement.

But first, it will be helpful to distinguish between teacher working conditions and student learning conditions. There is little doubt that class size and composition is a genuine working condition issue for teachers. More students and more complex classes equal more work and more stress for teachers. As a union, the BCTF rightly fought for and has now won better working conditions for its members. But over the years, part of the union’s argument has been that class size is also about learning conditions – that it’s not just about the teachers, it’s about the kids. On the surface, there is some merit to this point. Smaller classes should mean more teacher time for individual students, and a less stressed teacher should result in a more effective teacher.

But do smaller classes actually improve student achievement?  The answer, based on a lot of research over several decades, is a definite maybe. Some studies say yes and some say, not so much. One of the reasons research is not definitive on class size is that it is very difficult to show cause and effect in education settings, particularly over the long term. If you try to study just about anything in education you are met with the reality that what might make a difference in one setting may not in another because the conditions are not the same. Gold standard research tests ideas in repeated samples under identical  and controlled conditions. But classrooms are not laboratories and students are not mice. Every classroom is different, comprised of students with different backgrounds and abilities, different teachers, different learning resources, etc. etc.  There are just too many variables to be able to say definitively that because you did X it caused Y. Now, that doesn’t mean that research has nothing to offer here – just that we have to be very cautious with any blanket statements, expectations or policies on whether spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce class size across the board will make a difference for students.

If you are interested in a trustworthy, unbiased review of research on class size a good starting place is the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, focused on providing accurate and timely research to the education community. You can access the findings yourself at https://goo.gl/8buBbG but a brief summary based on a meta-analysis of several studies shows:

  • Smaller classes in the early grades (K-3) can boost student academic achievement;
  • A class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits;
  • A program spanning grades K-3 will produce more benefits than a program that reaches students in only one or two of the primary grades;
  • Minority and low-income students show even greater gains when placed in small classes in the primary grades;
  • The experience and preparation of teachers is a critical factor in the success or failure of class size reduction programs;
  • Reducing class size will have little effect without enough classrooms and well-qualified teachers; and
  • Supports, such as professional development for teachers and a rigorous curriculum, enhance the effect of reduced class size on academic achievement

 

Given the above why did I say that the research on class size is ambivalent? Researchers have been clear that the positive impacts on student achievement are there but are restricted to fairly specific conditions. The most benefit is seen in the early primary grades and when the reductions are well designed and properly implemented, including improved teacher preparation and learning resources.

So what guidance can this provide for the upcoming discussions between the BCTF and the government? Improved working conditions notwithstanding, if we are mainly interested in improving student outcomes we should consider spending the additional money in specific areas rather than across the board class size reductions. We should be focusing on larger reductions in the early primary grades rather than small reductions in all classes. We should focus the money on students who are struggling with poverty, language and cultural challenges. We should focus the money on schools that are showing lower learning outcomes, without blaming the teachers or administration. Let’s provide those schools with smaller classes, additional resources, more teacher assistants and increased professional development.

Second only to health care, public education takes up the lion’s share of our tax dollars – and rightly so. The recent SCC ruling will require the government to significantly increase that investment. So let’s make sure that we are spending the money as wisely as possible, based on what research tells us has the best chance of actually improving learning outcomes. If this is just about working conditions, then fine. The BCTF won that battle fair and square, so spread the additional money evenly to bring about slightly smaller classes for all teachers. But if it is also about learning conditions then let’s concentrate the money where it will do the most good for the most students.

Stephen Hansen

 

 

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