Public education in all of Canada’s provinces, with the exception of Alberta, seems to be entering a new “Age of Austerity.” Education is front page news with headlines screaming some familiar lines: Budget Cuts! Teacher layoffs! Bigger classes! With Education Cuts on the agenda and shrinking enrollments in many provinces, it’s not surprising that parents are worried about the impact on their children’s schools. The current “Austerity Drive,” exemplified by Don Drummond’s Ontario report on Public Services (February 15, 2012), has also put the critical question of class size back on the public agenda and sparked intense debate, particularly in Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba.
Former bank economist Don Drummond addressed the matter of Class Size and contended that class size reductions are costly and do not significantly improve student learning. http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/reformcommission/chapters/ch6.html#ch6-f As a key component of his Education Restructuring Plan, he urged Ontario to revisit the 2003 Class Size Reduction Initiative and to increase class size without compromising student learning:
The critical passage from the report explains the reasons for that recommendation:
“The [Ontario] government has emphasized the importance of smaller classes in promoting improved education outcomes. Since 2003, the government has maintained that smaller classes yield better results through greater teacher-student interaction. In its “2011 Progress Report,” the government said that “[s]tudents in smaller classes get more individual attention from teachers and other educators, helping improve literacy and numeracy and are more likely to succeed.” Indeed, Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes.
“Empirical evidence of the benefit of smaller class sizes on education outcomes presents a more complicated picture. A review of Ontario’s primary class-size policy by the Canadian Education Association notes that class-size reductions typically yield at least modest quality improvements, but questions of “what size class is ‘small enough,’ how and why reducing class size works, and under what conditions it works, are all under-explained.” Research by the C.D. Howe Institute suggests that “no solid evidence exists to show that smaller classes improve student achievement in the later primary and secondary grades in Canada.”
“International evidence of the educational benefit of smaller class sizes offers similar conclusions. Studies have suggested that positive and negative impacts of class sizes were observed in the same proportion of classes (14 per cent each), while nearly 72 per cent of results showed no statistically significant impacts. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that “[a]mong systems with comparatively high levels of spending on education that prioritize small class size, performance patterns are mixed.” This evidence suggests that small class sizes are not a key determinant of educational outcomes, and certainly small class sizes alone are an insufficient measure to achieve these outcomes
“The debate over the impact of smaller class sizes continues to this day, with conflicting conclusions and no definite outcome. However, evidence suggests that, in terms of value for money, investments in lower class sizes do not provide the greatest possible benefit. The PISA finds that “raising teacher quality is a more effective route to improved student outcomes than creating smaller classes.” Similarly, the C.D. Howe Institute notes that resources devoted to class-size reduction could have a greater impact if reallocated elsewhere in the education system.
“While it is true that Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes, there is no evidence of causality. Even if the reduction of class sizes had some impact on outcomes, the evidence suggests that investments in smaller classes do not offer the most efficient means of improving results in the education system.
“Given the lack of convincing empirical evidence to support a policy of reduced class sizes, the Commission believes that scarce resources should not be applied to this goal.”
The Drummond report’s call for larger school classes flatly rejected the Ontario Ministry of Education-financed research of Dr. Nina Bascia (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) widely disseminated by the Canadian Education Association. http://www.cea-ace.ca/publication/reducing-class-size-what-do-we-know Little wonder, because those studies all start with the assumption that “smaller class sizes are an intuitively good idea” and are primary based upon opinion research, drawn mainly from teacher surveys and samplings of parental perceptions. You will also find the OISE “Small is Good” research dutifully posted on the People for Education website.
Teacher unions are in the forefront in the defense of class size reductions. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), representing 78,000 teachers, continues to staunchly defend the OISE research, while recommending significant cuts to Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. http://www.etfo.ca/Publications/BriefstoGovernmentAgencies/Documents/SubmissionJan%202012.pdf Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson reacted strongly to Drummond’s report targetting his proposal to increase class sizes. “What does an Ontario economist know about class size?” he asked in a March 5, 2012 Opinion piece for the Winnipeg Free Press. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/what-does-an-ontario-economist-know-about-class-size-141397833.html
Most of the education research in support of Small Class Size is decidedly mixed and Drummond’s analysis is reasonably sound. Yvon Guillemette’s research report for the C.D. Howe Institute, released in August 2005, remains the most authoritative Canadian study. http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_215.pdf That report does tend to support the claim that reducing class sizes below 20 in Kindergarten and Grade 1 does make a difference for student achievement, but noting — that’s where it stops. “Many provinces are spending millions on class size reduction initiatives,” he concluded, “with no solid evidence that they raise student achievement. The money could better be spent elsewhere.”
Class size research in the United States simply confirms these findings. Education columnist Andrew J. Rotherham, the widely-respected c0-founder of Bellwether Education, claims ( Mar. 3, 2011, TIME.com) that “smaller isn’t always better when it comes to class size.” Two Harvard NBER researchers, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, have now analyzed 35 New York charter schools, allowing greater flexibility in terms of school structure and strategy., and confirmed that class size made little difference, compared with new performance criteria. “Frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explain approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.” http://nber.org/papers/w17632
Reducing school class sizes was once touted in most Canadian provinces as a kind of panacea, urged on by teacher unions. After a decade or more of implementation, targeting the elementary grades, the independent research is now coming forward. What is the real advantage of smaller class sizes — and who really benefits? Where’s the sound research to support lower class sizes above Grade 1 or Grade 3 in Canadian schools? When it comes to class sizes and student performance, why is it that smaller is not always better?