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Teacher Jaime Fernie reads to her all-day kindergarten and Grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., in 2010. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation believes that class size is fundamental to quality education. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Jaime Fernie reads to her all-day kindergarten and Grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., in 2010. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation believes that class size is fundamental to quality education. (Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)

Smaller classes don't necessarily make a difference Add to ...

An era of austerity is a poor time to be demanding much of anything.

In B.C., the province’s teachers are the latest public-sector union to be discovering this. There’s no money for wage increases. There’s no money for extra time off. And there’s certainly no money for reducing class sizes – an issue that has sparked contentious debate in recent days.

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The B.C. Teachers’ Federation believes that class size is fundamental to quality education. The fewer kids in the classroom, the better the learning environment for students – or so the argument goes.

Intuitively, it makes sense. This is why teachers, or at least their unions, have enjoyed success getting the public to accept this shibboleth. Polls consistently show that Canadians support the idea of reducing class sizes. It’s as apple pie as universal health care.

By focusing on class size and equating it with better outcomes, teachers’ unions have been able to divert the conversation away from more uncomfortable and thornier subjects such as teacher quality and the far greater role it plays in student attainment levels.

I could endorse the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to reduce classroom numbers in B.C. if there was conclusive proof that it made a difference. But that proof doesn’t exist. In fact, most of the research suggests the gains from smaller classes are marginal and often only materialize if there are outstanding teachers involved.

Even in 2012, the most cited study in support of smaller classes is one that was done in Tennessee in the mid-1980s. Project STAR found that students in small classes (between 13 and 17 students) did better on standardized testing than students in regular classes (of between 22 and 25 students).

But subsequent analysis of the STAR study revealed that pupils benefited from smaller classes primarily in kindergarten and Grade 1. By the time the students finished Grades 2 and 3, those benefits mostly disappeared.

Eric Hanushek, an economist and public-policy professor, has analyzed more than 300 studies on class size (including the STAR project) and concluded that across-the-board reductions in class size are simply not worth it.

B.C. has limits on class sizes for kindergarten (22 students) and Grades 1 to 3 (24 students). Beyond that, classrooms are not to exceed 30 students except in exceptional circumstances. But here is the figure that the public rarely hears in the class-size debate: to reduce the average number of students in B.C. classrooms by one would cost $150-million.

Would a teacher – or the students in the classroom – notice any tangible difference (or benefit) with one less student? Unlikely. The same could be said for two, three, even four less students. (The BCTF has asked that class size be reduced to 20 for kindergarten, 23 for Grades 1 to 3 and 28 for Grades 4 to 7). But are teachers with 28 students instead of 30 going to radically alter their approach to a standard lesson?

Are students suddenly going to get individualized attention that wasn’t there before? Maybe in a few cases, but not in most. And certainly not to the extent that it could ever justify the millions it would cost to make a reduction in class size by one or two students.

Now, it might help alleviate teacher workloads some. But the teachers’ preferred pedagogy – teaching to the whole class – would continue to be the dominant model. With two less kids in the classroom, educational outcomes are unlikely to be affected much if at all.

Where the B.C. teachers’ union has it right, is around class composition. The makeup of the classroom – the number of students with special needs or with language deficiencies, as examples – can have a profound impact on a teacher’s ability to focus and educate students effectively. This is one area where the government seems to be listening.

The $165-million it has promised over the next three years for its so-called Learning Improvement Fund is designed to help educators who could use assistance in the classroom with students who have unique, time-consuming demands. The money will be used, in large part, to hire more teacher assistants.

(The government has also said it wants to put the $33-million in savings from the recent, three-day teachers’ strike into the improvement fund.)

It’s a start. And a sign that the province’s education minister, George Abbott, seems to have his priorities right.

Throwing dollars at reducing class sizes is the biggest dead end in the world, to quote writer Malcolm Gladwell, another who has taken a deep look at the issue. Better to spend taxpayers’ dollars helping teachers and students who need help the most.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 
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