As students go back to school, parents worry if their children will get enough of their teacher's attention. While class sizes
are a hot-button issue, the jury is still out on whether smaller
Five-year-old Bodhi Krauser thrived in junior kindergarten, a class of 22 children, where he learned the alphabet and basic addition, started identifying common words, waited his turn and paid attention to his teacher and early childhood educator.
But the situation is about to change – and it makes Bodhi's mom nervous.
Although Bodhi will walk into the same classroom and see the same instructors this year, his class at Clinton Street Junior Public School, near Bathurst and College streets, will balloon to almost 30 children.
"My fear," Tonia Krauser said, "is that there will be times where [Bodhi's] voice won't be heard. I picture him saying, 'Excuse me, Ms. X,' and the teacher is unable to respond because she's dealing with two or three other issues. I fear that the classroom will shift from a primarily learning environment to a primarily disciplinary environment, which isn't good for anyone."
New provincial regulations this fall require school boards to cap kindergarten classes at 30 pupils, but there are still many large classrooms that parents and teachers believe have too many young children in one room. At the Toronto District School Board, almost 10 per cent of kindergarten classes this year – 130 of 1,370 rooms – have 30 students, which could change as students settle into the academic year. The research, though, is conflicted about how much large class sizes matter when it comes to student achievement.
The issue is particularly contentious at Clinton. It used to be an even split of kindergarteners across three classrooms. Now two of them, including Bodhi's, will have 28 students. The third one, though, will have just 15 children but will lose its early childhood educator, as classes with 15 or fewer students don't require an ECE under provincial regulations.
Ms. Krauser heard of the sudden change on the playground in May. She and other moms quickly mobilized and collected 200 signatures, asking that the class numbers remain evenly distributed. They organized a meeting with TDSB officials and their trustee.
The response, according to Ms. Krauser, was frustrating: Financial constraints meant nothing would change for Clinton's kindergarteners.
"Yes, we know the TDSB is stretched for dollars. And yes, we know that the board and the school administration are working within their constraints. But at what cost?" Ms. Krauser asked. "Are we doing the best thing for our kids at one of the most critical learning times? That's our concern."
Few other education issues get parents so riled up. Politicians use it to their advantage, campaigning on the promise to cap class sizes and scoring political points among parents and teachers' unions. Private schools feature small class sizes prominently in their marketing. School boards juggle the demands of families with the needs of the system, all within budgetary constraints.
But the research on how much class size matters is not as definitive. It is beneficial to reduce class sizes, especially in the early years, but the impact on academic achievement is small, and studies show that the key to quality education is spending money on developing strong teachers and a high-quality curriculum.
John Hattie, a leading international education expert, has found that reducing class sizes does not make much difference to how students fare, because teachers don't necessarily change their approach in smaller classes. Teacher expertise and training matter far more, his research found.
"Yes, [lowering class sizes has] helped, but the cost relative to return or use of these resources to invest in expertise of teachers is hard to justify," said Prof. Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Prof. Hattie published a meta-analysis of research in 2009 – and has updated it since – in which he studied the influences on learning and achievement. His work involved combing through more than a thousand studies and producing a ranking of 195 factors. Class size ranked well behind feedback and providing formative evaluation – interventions, he found, that are more likely to affect student achievement.
"My belief is that class size is a proxy," he said. "For parents, [it's] a proxy that their child will get more individual attention. But they do not."
The Ontario government has pointed to smaller class sizes as a key education platform, saying children get more attention and do better in school. In the primary grades, at least 90 per cent of classes must have 20 or fewer students. A spokesman for Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter said smaller classes in the primary school years give teachers more time with each student and, according to one study, help children perform better in reading and math.
The government agreed to cap full-day kindergarten classes at 30 as part of its contract with elementary teachers. The cap will be lowered to 29 next year. (School districts in British Columbia are scrambling to hire thousands of new teachers in the wake of a court decision to restore smaller class sizes.)
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said there is still more work to do in lowering class sizes in the province. "ETFO members consistently raise concerns about the challenges of setting up activity-based programs for that many young children," according to a statement from the union.
Ms. Krauser said she understands that kindergarten caps are in place, but still worries that 30 students, even with two educators in the room, are too many.
"What are you putting first? The best interest of kids, especially kindergarten kids, who are at one of the most critical points in development? Or are you leaning back and saying we only have finite resources and this is all we can do?" she said.
Pat Rocco, the TDSB's executive superintendent of employee services, said he understands the plight of parents at Clinton. But in his role, he has a budget to manage and provincial regulations to adhere to, all while figuring out how to equitably distribute teaching resources across the system. The loss of Clinton's ECE, for example, will help another school where children have physical challenges or special needs and require an extra educator in the classroom, he said.
Mr. Rocco said the number of children in classrooms may change as the school year begins, especially as new students walk into buildings. Provincial regulations allow for 10 per cent of kindergarten classrooms to have more than 30 children, but he said the TDSB will try to prevent that from happening. Each school board in the province also must have an average full-day kindergarten class size of 26.
"It's personal for these parents. They're seeing it and they want equitable distribution [of the children over three classrooms], and I understand that," Mr. Rocco said. "But I only have obviously so much funding to work with and we have to try to be as equitable as we can in the system."
Charles Pascal, the architect of the province's early learning plan and a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said parents tend to forget that in kindergarten classrooms there are usually two adults – a teacher and an ECE – guiding the children. So even in a classroom of 30, the ratio is 15 students to one educator, making Ontario's class sizes among the smallest in the country.
Prof. Pascal said Ontario's full-day kindergarten program is also unique. It incorporates two years of play-based curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten. The children move more freely across a larger classroom, exploring and problem solving at workstations.
"By itself, class size isn't a deal maker or a deal breaker. It depends on how the [educators] are working together and, in turn, providing support for each individual child," Prof. Pascal said. "I can completely understand why parents are shocked when they look at a room and they see 30 kids. It's also important to see how the 30 kids are distributed across the physical space."
Kindergarten teacher Sally Ghaemi has spent the week preparing that physical space for her class of 28.
The larger class size can have its challenges, but Ms. Ghaemi, a teacher at Hillside Public School in Mississauga, said it also allows her to rethink how she will connect with each student.
When parents show concern over the numbers of children in the classrooms (she had more than 30 students last year), she invites them in to see how two educators can work together and respond to student needs.
She said that despite the numbers, she can spend time with one child knowing that the others are engaged in different purposeful activities.
"I don't find it difficult, to be honest with you. I find it challenging. … It makes me think about how I can increase opportunities for these children to develop empathy, an interest to try new things," Ms. Ghaemi said.
"The size is not the focus. It's the program. It's how we're implementing it."