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Vancouver’s Madrona School is a one-room school where children of different ages learn together.

Madrona School

Five years ago, Tracey Axelsson, a Vancouver mother of two, wouldn't have imagined that she would one day have a child in private school. But last year the staunch supporter of the public education system came to believe that if she left her daughter, then in Grade 3, in the public system, she wouldn't have a chance at academic success.

At the core of her decision? Class size. "My daughter needs a little help with not learning, but focusing," she says, explaining that she has been diagnosed with a mild attention disorder. "When we hired tutors, she had no problem learning. But in a class of 28, you end up with a teacher yelling across the room for her to focus. She was only getting half the content and she was bored."

Ms. Axelsson's rationale was that if she could find a school where her daughter could learn about her own learning process and strategies for focusing, she could re-enter the public system in high school equipped with the skills to succeed. This year, she enrolled her in The Westside School, at the cost of $10,000 a year, where she is in a class of eight students.

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Ms. Axelsson says that her daughter's Grade 3 teacher was doing the best she could, but the circumstances in the public system made her situation impossible. This issue was at the heart of the teacher strike in B.C. that extended the summer vacation for students by weeks. The B.C. Teachers' Federation argued that underfunding has led to chronically overcrowded classrooms where children with special educational needs don't receive the attention they need.

British Columbia has an average Grade 4 to 7 class size of 25.7, above Ontario's 25-student maximum and Alberta's average of 23.2 in Grades 4 to 6. The government volleyed back by pointing to B.C.'s education outcomes, including relatively high graduation rates and performance in literacy and science. (The labour dispute was resolved and a $400-million fund was created to address the class size and composition issue.)

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. But if B.C.'s public system manages to maintain high education outcomes, is class size really that important?

Arnold Grimm, principal of the Vancouver Waldorf School, taught for many years at Waldorf schools in Germany, where he says class sizes of 40 were standard (and so were much shorter days, eliminating the extra work of preparing so many students for lunch and recess breaks, he points out.)

But even in Canada, where students take part in a typical six-hour day, Waldorf schools traditionally have fairly large classes, says Mr. Grimm. At his school, classes of 26 to 30 students are the norm.

Meghan McCrone, a teacher at Cedar Valley Waldorf School in Squamish, B.C., says that larger class sizes can be beneficial in their own right. "There's a larger social pool, there's an energy that is enlivening," she says.

Mr. Grimm argues that class size isn't the primary determiner of education quality; rather the learning environment is most important. He says that a great teacher who can steer children between structured work and play-based activities can achieve impressive learning outcomes in large groups. When kids aren't made to sit in one position all day, he says, they are less likely to act out and demand the teacher's attention.

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A growing body of academic literature sheds some light. In 2009, John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and a leading international education expert, published a meta-analysis of research in which he pinpointed influences on the classroom that have the largest impact on student achievement. He combed through thousands of studies and produced a ranking of 138 factors by effect size. Reducing class size ranked 113th.

"If you take a teacher from a class of 60 and put them in a class of 30 or 15 and they don't change what they do, who would be surprised that it wouldn't make a difference?" he asks.

When reduced class size is paired with effective teaching and learning strategies, it can have a larger effect, Dr. Hattie's research suggests. So what should parents look for in a school?

High on Dr. Hattie's ranking is feedback. Students who receive continual formative evaluation and peer feedback rather than a letter grade twice a year are more likely to succeed. At Waldorf schools, this takes the form of a portfolio, where students collect work and evaluations that they can reflect on. According to Mr. Grimm, portfolios allow children to progress at their own pace, which can vary widely during the early years, rather than be compared against other children their age through a letter grade.

"Our feedback to the students is individualized," Mr. Grimm says. "We look at how does [their performance] relate to what they did last time – not how does your progress compare to the progress of the student beside you."

For Lisa Pozin, a Vancouver mother of three, personalized learning was much more important to her than class size. Her son Rylan, now seven years old, was disruptive during preschool so, at the recommendation of teachers, the Pozins held him back a year. But when he continued to act out, they decided to enroll him in Madrona School, at a cost of $16,000 per year.

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For the Pozins, the selling point was that Madrona, a one-room school where children of different ages learn together, would allow Rylan to learn at his own pace. He is now studying a higher level of math than he would be in the public system.

Ultimately, individualized attention, whether in a class of 12 or 30, is key, which is why class size matters for parents.

Pat Dawson, head of Crofton House School in Vancouver, says that parents want to know that their child won't be lost in a sea of students. "Research is very, very clear that what's important is great teacher," Dr. Dawson says. "But we have chosen 20 students as the right size because what we are looking for is a balanced load where the teacher can really know each of her or his students."

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