Archive for the ‘Class Size’ Category

Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the regular classroom may be a worthy goal, but it makes teaching far more challenging and cannot satisfactorily meet the needs of all children.   A few Canadian provincial school systems, following the lead of New Brunswick, have elevated “inclusive education” to an exalted status. For many children and teens with severe learning disabilities or complex needs, it is not the most enabling learning environment. It’s also rendering today’s diverse classes, at certain times, nearly impossible for regular teachers to teach.

spedclasscompositionTeacher surveys identify class management as a fundamental problem and “class composition” as the biggest obstacle to professional satisfaction.  Building upon Canadian school research, it’s clear that special needs policy, designed by theorists, is not working and needs rethinking to achieve a better educational environment for teachers and students alike. That was the theme of my recent researchED presentation, October 29, 2016, in Washington, DC. 

Class size is a well-diagnosed and much studied question with much of the research driven by teacher unions. Back in September 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), used a class of 37 students as an example of the challenges facing stressed-out high school teachers. In his worst case scenario, out of the 37 students, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioural issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.

In such overcrowded classes, Thomas asked, how can we expect teachers to provide constructive and rewarding learning experiences, let alone introduce innovative practices? Coping in such diverse classrooms goes far beyond class size and raises the hidden issue of “class composition.”

Most Special Education researchers concur that “smaller classes have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.” (OISE-UT/CEA, 2010). It is now clear that both class size and diversity matter.

spedintensivesupportspedovercrowdedteacherToday teachers try to adapt their teaching to address the individual needs of the learners in their regular classrooms. As the classroom becomes larger and more diverse, this task becomes increasingly onerous. All of this has obvious implications for inclusive education. The success of “Inclusion” is, in large measure, determined by the extent to which teachers have the necessary supports and services to be able to effectively integrate students with special educational needs into their classrooms and schools.

Class size reductions from K to 3 and possibly beyond can produce student achievement gains (Canadian Council on Learning 2005), provided that the total context is conducive to such improvement. Three critical factors have been identified:

1.Complementary policies and practice supporting higher student achievement (i.e., raised expectations, positive discipline, regular assessment, teacher PD);

2. Contradictory policies and practice that undermines the potential benefit of class size reductions (i.e., full inclusion, social promotion, student competencies gap, language challenges);

3. Rising class sizes at higher grade levels – from grades 7 to 12 (i.e., removal of class size caps, integration of learning disabilities and ELL students).

Class sizes have actually dropped in all Canadian provinces except British Columbia over the past 15 years. At the macro-economic level from 2001-o2 to 2010-11, student enrollment has dropped 6.5%, the number of educators rose 7.5%, the student-teacher ratio declined by 12.9%, and spending per pupil rose by 61.4%. Class size reductions and caps from K to Grade 3 or Grade 6 may explain the overall smaller class sizes.

In the Spring of 2011, the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (CTF) conducted a national teacher survey on the theme of The Teacher Voice on Teaching and Learning to seek input from across Canada on teacher concerns. The CTF survey provided a snapshot of what class size and composition looked like across the country. The survey secured responses from  nearly 3,800 teachers representing 9,894 classes in English and French schools.  The sample teacher pool was drawn from 12 participating CTF member organizations.

Class Size Analysis: Average class size was 21.3 students, ranging from 22.1 students for grades 4-8 to 19 students for junior kindergarten or kindergarten (JK-K). English schools (including French Immersion) had an average class size of nearly 22 students, while French as a first language schools had a slightly smaller average class size of just over 19 students.

spedavpergradelevelctfClass Size by Grade Level: Over a third of the classes for all grade levels combined contained 25 students or more (8.3% contained 30 students or more). For grades 4-8, nearly 39% of classes contained 25 students or more (6.5% contained 30 or more); for grades 9 and over, 40.3% of classes contained 25 students or more (13.5% – over 1 in 7 classrooms – contained 30 or more students); for grades 1-3, just over 14% of classes contained 25 students or more; for JK-K, nearly 12% of classes contained 25 students or more.

Average Number of Special Needs Students: Students with identified exceptionalities (i.e., designated behavioural problems or mental or physical disabilities, as well as other special needs students including gifted students); and English Language Learners and French Language Learners (defined as students whose first language differs from the school’s primary language of instruction, and requiring supports).  The average number of students with identified exceptionalities per class was 3.5, ranging from 3.8 students for grades 4-8 to 1.9 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten.

Class Composition – Grade 4 and Over: Students with identified exceptionalities accounted for 16.3% of total students in the surveyed classrooms, ranging from respective shares of 17.1% for grades 4-8 to 10% of students for junior kindergarten and kindergarten. Of classes surveyed, over 81% have at least one student with formally identified exceptionalities, and 27.7% contain 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities. In grades 4 and over, not only were class sizes generally larger but almost 1 in 3 (30.6%) classes contained 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities.

Students with Language Learning Challenges: The average number of English Language Learners and French Language Learners (ELL/FLL students) per class was 2.6. The prevalence was higher the lower the grade, ranging from 4.7 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten to 1.7 students for grades 9 and over. ELL/FLL students accounted for an average 12.2% of total students in the classroom, ranging from respective shares of 24.7% for junior kindergarten / kindergarten to 8.2% for grades 9 and over.

The CTF survey looked at students “identified” as Special Needs, but did not include students who were undiagnosed or those with other glaring needs such as students from low-income families (with poverty-related issues of hunger, illness, instability), students with mental health problems, or immigrant and refugee students.

spednbclassroomMy researchED 2016 Washington  presentation also delved into two Class Composition case studies – Inclusive Education in New Brunswick, 2006 to 2016, and Class Size and Composition in British Columbia, 2012 to 2016. In the case of New Brunswick, a province recently honoured by Zero Project for its “legally-binding policy of inclusion” in Feburary 2016, Guy Arsenault and the NBTA are now demanding a full Special Education review to secure “positive learning environments” and come to the aid of teachers forced to “don Kelvar clothing in the classrooms.”  Out west, in British Columbia, a five-week 2015 BCTF teachers’ strike has produced only meagre gains in containing class sizes, while more and more classes have four or more and seven or more Special Needs students.

The real life classroom is not only far more diverse, it’s increasing challenging to manage let alone teach anything substantive. Class Size based upon Student-Teacher Ratios has long been accepted and used in staffing schools, but its utility is now being questioned by front line teachers. Student diversity, driven by “Inclusion” and the growing numbers of severely learning-challenged and disadvantaged kids is the new normal. The rise of “Coddled Kids” and “Helicopter Parents” has compounded the challenges. Tackling Class Composition is emerging as the top priority in teacher-led school reform.

Why is class composition emerging as the biggest problem facing front line teachers?  Why do we continue to focus so much on simply reducing class sizes? What’s standing in the way of us tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ — class composition in today’s schools? 

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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 Presshttp://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?

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