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You Cannot Improve Student Outcomes with Larger Class Sizes

Article from the September/October 2016 issue of the Bulletin
In 2014 the Globe and Mail reported that one of the major factors parents consider when deciding whether to enrol their children in private school is class size. “For parents considering enrolling their children in private school, class size has become synonymous with education quality. Ms. Axelsson says class size was a deciding factor for many other parents with children at her daughter’s school.” (Sept. 25).

As the father of five, I know first-hand the quality of our public education system. As a professional with 25 years of experience in the educational system as a teacher, school principal, school district manager and as an advocate for teachers, I know that the public education system has never been as stretched to it limits as it is today. It is a testament to school-based personnel that the system is as high achieving as it is. That being said, it is becoming unequivocally apparent that the parents opting out of the public education system are not wrong about class size and the impact it has on their children’s learning.

A review of the major research that has been conducted on class size by Dr. Diane Schanzenbach and published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado makes clear that class size does indeed matter. According to the report:

Small classes have been found to have positive impacts not only on test scores during the duration of the class-size reduction experiment, but also on life outcomes in the years after the experiment ended. Students who were originally assigned to small classes did better than their school-mates who were assigned to regular-sized classes across a variety of outcomes, including juvenile criminal behaviour, teen pregnancy,  high school graduation, college enrollment and completion, quality of college attended, savings behaviours, marriage rates, residential location and homeownership. p.4

Interestingly one of the major studies reviewed by Dr. Schanzenbach, the Tennessee Student Achievement Ratio Experiment, compared the educational and social impacts of small classes with 13-17 students with those of regular classes of 22-25 from kindergarten to grade 3. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the “soft” cap class limits are significantly higher than those of the regular classes cited in the research.

Dr. Schanzenbach’s report makes the following recommendation that policy makers in this province would be prudent to keep in mind:
• Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.
• The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short term, but also their long-run capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
• The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increase in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
• Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.

At the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association we know that parents are concerned about the public education system generally and class size specifically. In a recent study of Newfoundland and Labrador parent’s opinions and attitudes the following data was collected:
• 93% of parents believe that the recent budget will have a negative impact on education;
• 83% of parents believe that increasing class sizes will negatively impact quality of children’s education.

Parents understand intuitively that reducing class sizes would be beneficial for children. When asked what they believed to be the acceptable maximum class size per grade level the response was as follows:

Parental Response Current Provincial
Class Size Caps (soft)
 Kindergarten = 18  Kindergarten = 20-22
 Grades 1-3 = 22  Grades 1-3 = 25-27
Grades 4-6 = 23 Grades 4-6 = 28-30
Grades 7-9 = 25 Grades 7-9 = 29-31
Grades 10-12 = 26 Grade 10-12 = No cap in place

It is not surprising that the recent Panel on the Status of Public Education in Newfoundland and Labrador, which did extensive consultation with educators, parents and community groups made the following recommendation:

That Government and the School District(s) in cooperation with the NLTA and other stakeholders establish a new class size cap for classes with a composition diversity of greater than 10% in primary, elementary, intermediate and senior high schools.

Increasing class sizes and inadequate resourcing of inclusive education are a major concern. This is particularly true when one considers that 21 violent incidents by students against teachers were reported last school year. If our teachers are not safe, how can they ensure the safety of their students, let alone enhance their learning experience.

It would seem that those with the financial ability and opportunity can ensure their children the benefits of small classes. Should children of the public education system be disadvantaged by larger class sizes? It is a public policy question.

Steve Brooks is Executive Director of the NLTA.