How important is size?

Job action by Ontario’s teachers is entering its third month, with an ever-increasing impact on classrooms. Few debate topics to come out of negotiations are as polarizing as class size. The Province has proposed increasing average class size for secondary students from 22.5 to 25 and increasing Grades 4-8 classes from 23.8 to 24.5. Because those are averages, the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation has maintained that many classes, particularly compulsory classes, could be upwards of 40 secondary students to one teacher.

Supporters of the increase are quick to point out that university courses can be hundreds of students in a lecture hall, and secondary students should be getting prepared for that reality. Others allege that classes were far bigger “back in the day,” and that they turned out just fine.
However, only a percentage of Ontario graduates plan to attend University. College, trade school, online degrees and direct employment are all options.

With such a wide variety of learners, facing such a wide variety of futures, placing such a laser focus on tweaking class sizes up or down a student or two misses the opportunity to explore more dynamic, innovative approaches.

There is clear research from the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard and others, showing that smaller class size has a positive impact in the early years, especially for minorities and low-achieving students. But class size isn’t the only factor. Many of those studies also noted the importance of well-trained, experienced teachers, and a high quality curriculum.

Not all students need small classes. A typically developing pupil, with a well-trained, attentive and engaged teacher, in a distraction-free environment, could arguably withstand much higher ratios. In Quebec, average class size is pegged at 30-1, but high ratio classes are created for struggling students, who require extra accommodations. Typically developing children are in much larger classes, yet Quebec students consistently outperform Ontario in PISA testing – particularly in math. In fact, Alberta and BC also beat Ontario, despite both having larger classes on average, according to a study published by the Fraser Institute. In contrast, Saskatchewan places last, despite having the smallest classes.

Education may be the great equalizer in our society, but that doesn’t mean everyone flourishes in an equal system. While unions and ministers play tug-of-war over class size, we may be missing an opportunity to build a better system. Creative brainstorming requires trust and vulnerability. In such a polarized and politicized debate, those are often the first casualties.

Teachers’ unions and the province need to realize they’re on the same team in this debate. Both want an innovative and world class, yet cost-effective, education system. It’s time to put down the boxing gloves, shake hands, and hammer out a deal that works for our kids.