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April 30, 2019

Class Size Matters

Fostering Community

Changes are coming to public schools in Ontario this September, and chief among them is an increase in class size for Grades 4 through 12.  According to Minister of Education Lisa Thompson, employers and professors who took part in Ministry consultations expressed concern that students are lacking coping skills and resiliency.  “By increasing class sizes in high school,” said Thompson, “we’re preparing [students] for the reality of post-secondary, as well as the world of work.”

Regardless as to the rationale, class sizes are slated to increase.  So what exactly will the change mean for students?  Does class size really matter?  So much of the debate has gotten wrapped up in politics that it’s hard for parents to separate opinion from fact.  But there are a few things that parents should know.

Research on class size is inconclusive so those who advocate for a larger class size will argue that there’s no strong relationship between student achievement and the number of students in a class once we move beyond Grade 3.  And for some students, they may be right.  Stronger students  — the ones who jump out of bed ready to learn, the ones who are motivated to achieve, who are organized, hardworking, and follow the rules – they’ll likely be just fine.  That’s not to say their learning will be optimal, but they’ll likely survive unscathed.  For less strong students or even for some gifted students the research is unclear.

The thing about research on class size is that it treats class size as a singular factor and fails to take into account other parts of the system.  In other words, the research that says class size makes no difference to student learning assumes that class size is the only thing that would change.  It doesn’t consider what happens to students when an increase in class size is accompanied by other changes, such as more students with autism integrated into regular classrooms, or not enough science equipment to accommodate more students in the lab, or cuts to breakfast programs and mental health supports.  These things aren’t factored into the Ministry’s equation.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that an average class size of 28 is not the same as a maximum class size of 28.  With the Ministry providing no hard cap on enrolment above Grade 3, it is a mathematical certainty that we will see classes with more than 28 students, and no one should be surprised to find high school courses with 35 or more.  With numbers like this, it’s a given that teachers will find it harder to dedicate time to every student and, simply put, teachers will have less time to get to know each child in their care.

Research on class size might be inconclusive, but research on student-teacher relationships is clear.  Relationships matter.  The strength of the relationship between teachers and students influences student learning and overall well-being.  When students feel known, when they believe their teacher cares about them, and when the teacher has time to cultivate and strengthen the relationship, students learn better.  They feel more connected, more engaged, and are more open to feedback.  The problem with bigger classes, teachers argue, is that they’re left with less time to know each child.

I came across a lighthearted but instructive explanation of why many teachers are concerned about the proposed changes.  It goes as follows:

Imagine you have 22 goats in a pen. They’re happy, healthy and well fed.  Then imagine you’re told to take on 10 more goats.  You don’t have a bigger pen so adding more goats makes things crowded, and to make things worse, one of the new goats acts out and upsets the rest of the herd.  In addition, you only have enough food for 22 goats so, after a while, the goats lose weight and their health declines.  Eventually, one of the goats becomes ill but you don’t have access to medicine and have nowhere to isolate the sick goat so other goats become ill as well.  Now you have 32 unhappy, sick goats, fighting amongst themselves.  And to make matters worse, you’re informed that you must take your goats to the county fair where they’ll be judged. (The equivalent of EQAO testing).  Crazy, right?  That’s the argument teachers make when they say that class size matters.

Of course, children aren’t goats and classrooms aren’t pens.  But the message of the story is clear.  When you increase demands on an already overburdened system, stress mounts, problems emerge and some needs will go unmet.

I spent much of my early career in public schools and know firsthand the frustrations teachers feel when circumstances beyond their control make the already challenging work they do even more difficult.  One of the many benefits we have at the Castle is our ability to make decisions based on what we believe is best practice, and for that reason, we remain committed to keeping class size small and ensuring that every classroom is well resourced.

I know that, above all, it’s the connection between student and teacher that makes all the difference in a child’s ability to learn. We are blessed that Trafalgar is a community that works to provide students with that important connection and that special feeling of being known.  But we are also a community that cares for others beyond the walls of our school.  So as we look to September, let’s hope that every student in the province, whether they find themselves in a class that’s big or small, experiences some meaningful connection that leads to better learning.  The future of our province and our country needs children who are educated and who know what it means to be seen and heard.

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