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Nowhere is the question of whether size matters more contentious than in education circles.

It's an issue at the heart of the current labour dispute between the B.C. government and the province's teachers. It's difficult to find a teacher in the country who won't tell you that class size and composition are inextricably linked. One, they will tell you, can affect the other dramatically and consequently have an enormous impact in the classroom.

(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)

The B.C. government takes the view that class size has little effect on learning outcomes. And it can reference a raft of studies that would seem to back up this claim. Recently, author Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize this view in his book, David and Goliath. In it, Mr. Gladwell cited academic reports that appeared to show class size had little bearing on how a child did in school.

In fact, Mr. Gladwell went further, suggesting that classes can actually be too small, because they make the less-capable students in them feel more isolated.

However, a new paper published by the National Education Policy Centre at the University of Colorado suggests that the one academic analysis of class size that Mr. Gladwell based many of his conclusions on was statistically flawed. The author, Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, says that Mr. Gladwell couldn't have been more wrong about the assumptions he made. In fact, she insists the most academically rigorous investigations into this area of education policy have all concluded just the opposite.

"Policy makers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds," says Ms. Schanzenbach. "While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall."

All things being equal, Ms. Schanzenbach says larger class sizes harm student grades. And she adds that studies continually show that the payoff for class-size reduction, at least in the United States, is greater for low-income and minority children.

Like almost everything in education, the question of class size is complicated, and certainly not as cut and dried as those on either side of the debate suggest. I agree with Education Minister Peter Fassbender that, generally speaking, the skill of the teacher is the greatest determinant of student results. That said, I don't think the minister fully understands how a teacher's ability to impart knowledge can be compromised by classroom dynamics.

And this speaks to the core of the class size/class composition debate.

A teacher can have a classroom of 30 students that includes one English Language Learner (formerly ESL) and three students classified as special needs. Another can have a class with 24 students, including three categorized as ELL and five with special needs. The workload for the teacher in the class with fewer students is likely much greater than the one with more. And while education assistants provide some support, it is still the teacher's responsibility to develop and deliver the individualized learning plans for those special needs students.

They are the ones getting much of the focus when it comes to the discussion around class composition, but ELL kids can also demand a lot of extra time and attention as well. In B.C. there are 4,636 classes with seven or more ELL students in them. In Vancouver alone, there are 1,097 classes that include seven or more ELL kids.

Provincial class-size averages also don't tell the complete picture.

Take Grades Eight to 12, where the provincial average is 23 students. Sounds pretty reasonable. Except a closer look reveals that this year there were nearly 8,000 classes with 30 students in them and almost 5,000 with 29. Only 2,000 had the average 23 in them. Reality skews the picture with provincial averages in other grade categories as well.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation wants the class size and composition language that was illegally stripped from their contract by the government in 2002 reinstated. It is looking for hard caps on size in all classrooms and not just around a provincial average. (There are flexibility provisions that would allow the numbers to exceed the cap in certain circumstances). The government, not surprisingly, is balking at that proposal, insisting that it would be too costly. Beyond that, it believes the impact of high class numbers on education performance is overstated.

With the government adamant that there is no money for the kind of pay hikes teachers are seeking, then class size and composition is where the government has to make some concessions in order to get a deal done. It can't have everything its way.

Maybe offering to mandate an end to overcrowded classrooms in the province would go some ways to getting the teachers to sign a deal that helps those who should be the priority in all this anyway – students.

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