Does class size matter?

Are smaller classes really better for kids? Here's what happens when politicians decide to save money by cramming more students into one classroom.

Photo: Eric Putz

If anyone was ready for junior kindergarten, it had to be us. My son had already transitioned to daycare at the age of three without a tear. He had a May birthday and was beginning to write his name. Heck, I was a senior adviser to the Ontario premier who helped shape the education system he was about to enter. He’d be fine, right?

We got our answer three weeks into the year. I was leading a meeting with 20 officials from the Ministry of Education when my phone transcribed a voice mail from the principal into a text: “Hi Kate,” it read. “Your son is under a picnic table he has been there for a while and he won’t come out.”

On its own, this kind of thing would be minor—funny, almost—but these messages kept coming. Our shy, gentle, quiet, well-behaved four-year-old was tipping over chairs, bolting from the classroom, yanking jackets off their hooks and ransacking the cubbies. He didn’t want to talk about it, but he did eventually tell us that he didn’t like school and that his classroom was “too noisy.” With a class of 28 kids, who could blame him?

We worked closely with his teacher—who was fantastic—and over the course of the year, my son learned to cope with the din of his classroom, but he was always a bit reluctant to go to school.

The next year, just by luck, he was assigned to a class of 16 kids and he immediately formed bonds with his classmates and teacher. He didn’t wince or drag his feet in the morning anymore.

It can’t be discounted that he was also a year older and had more experience with the school environment. But I keep coming back to the fact that our family had every advantage on our side, and even still, a smaller class size made a huge difference for our kid.

Our experience has been on my mind as the provincial government announced sweeping changes to class sizes in Ontario earlier this year. Starting this fall, elementary schools will see gradual increases over the next four years. In grades four through eight, classes will climb by about one pupil, to an average of 24.5 students. High school classrooms will grow dramatically, from an average of 22 students per classroom to 28. (And that’s just an average size, so it’s important to note the biggest classes will likely have between 35 and 40 students.) For younger kids, the head counts should remain the same. Full-day junior and senior kindergarten classes have a hard cap of 29 students (with a teacher and an early childhood educator, or ECE, in the classroom). Grades one to three only have one teacher (no ECE) but a hard cap of 23 students.

The class size increases are part of a slew of austerity measures introduced by Premier Doug Ford, aimed at helping the province tackle a debt burden of about $350 billion. With these changes about to take effect, there have been massive protests on the front lawn of Queen’s Park, and the stage has been set for a highly contentious round of bargaining between the Ford government and the teachers’ unions.

As the new school year begins, the question on the minds of many parents is, What does any of this mean for my kid and my kid’s school? How much do class sizes really matter?

When I worked in the Minister of Education’s office as a policy adviser, I dove into the research. On principle, I was a strong advocate for smaller classrooms. But in the end, I found the math of making sweeping changes to class size was hard to justify. I remember reviewing a cost analysis of a modest cap on class size and realizing it would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. The change was so small I was unsure it would be felt in a meaningful way by students, and that money was badly needed elsewhere in the system—to fund special education supports, to keep rural schools open and to repair aging buildings. Even in the years the Kathleen Wynne government spent balancing the budget, I never heard anyone seriously consider increasing class sizes, at any grade level, in order to save money.

Kids learning in a classroom This is why young children need to explore gender identity in the classroomThe relationship between class size and student achievement contains lots of variables, but a few key points are irrefutable: Investments in class size in the early years pay the best dividends, and class size has to be quite small—around 15 students—to show measurable learning improvements. Perhaps the most conclusive data comes from a study that followed more than 7,000 students for four years in Tennessee in the 1980s. The study, known as the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (or STAR), randomly assigned students in kindergarten through grade three into smaller classrooms of about 15 or larger ones of about 24, and the results were dramatic: Students in the smaller classes outperformed their peers in language and math. The advantage persisted when they were tested again in grade eight. The STAR results suggest the strengths of these effects diminish in higher grades, and as group size climbs much beyond 15.

By the time Ford’s changes are implemented, the province will reportedly have saved $851 million, high school students in Ontario will be sitting in some of the largest classes in the country, and there will be 3,475 fewer teachers. (School boards and teachers’ unions dispute this figure, by the way. They say more than 5,000 teachers will have to retire or be laid off in order to meet the new targets.)

It’s important to understand the difference between an “average cap” and a “hard cap.” Most Canadian provinces have hard caps on class sizes, meaning a classroom can’t exceed a certain max. But Ontario has average caps, meaning school boards must reach a target average class size, but there’s no limit on how big any one class can be. In order to offer smaller specialized courses, such as shop or computer programming, and still meet an average of 28, schools will have to balance it out by having larger core courses, such as English and math.

Ontario’s new average is almost as big as Nova Scotia’s maximum allowable class size—a cap of 28 students in grades seven through nine, and a cap of 30 in grades 10 through 12. In British Columbia in 2017–18, the average high school class had 22.1 students. In Alberta, there were about 23 students per classroom.

When Ford defended the changes, he said he was bringing Ontario in line with the rest of the country, but 22 or 23 kids is a lot lower than 28. In fact, Ontario will be more in line with class size averages in the US, where the average high school class size hovers near 26 students, according to data collected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“The accumulative effect of these cuts is there are going to be fewer adults in our schools,” says Carol Campbell, an associate professor of education at the University of Toronto. “Fewer custodians, fewer education workers to provide support, fewer teachers in classrooms and fewer teachers to be coaches or to lead band. All of these changes are going to be negatively felt by students.”

Ontario high school kids will also be required to take four online credits, which means even less interaction with teachers.

Student achievement is usually measured quite narrowly, using standardized test scores, but Campbell worries more about student engagement, graduation rates and outcomes after graduation.

One of the most concrete effects we’ll see immediately is the cancellation of elective courses.

Brandon Cook, the guidance counsellor at Ascension of Our Lord Secondary School in Malton, Ont., had to give his students the bad news that 14 elective courses—including student favourites such as English media studies, world history, environmental science and economics—were being eliminated. “That’s a crummy conversation to have with a kid. Sitting across from them and saying, ‘I know you really were interested in doing that, but we’re not offering it anymore.’” Cook worries most about the kids who are “borderline university-bound,” students with marks in the 60s and 70s who require an extra push to stay motivated. “You need time with that student to learn about them and build trust,” he says.

Cook also taught English for 12 years, and his classes were rarely bigger than 33 or 34 kids. Even then, it was a struggle to make sure no one slipped through the cracks. This year, the same English classes will have between 35 and 40 students.

This strain on resources is already familiar to rural Ontario, says Gerald Kleist, vice-chair of the Keewatin Patricia District School Board in Kenora, Ont. “All we’ll be able to deliver will be core courses. We can’t afford a full-time physics teacher for four or five kids.”

In fairness to Ford, there is no way to find savings in the provincial budget without reining in spending in education, the second-largest ministry. But these class-size savings come at a cost—a human cost. They are the kids who won’t have the course options they need for university and they are the kids like my son, who will get lost at the back of a crowded, chaotic class of 40.

“I’m worried,” says Cook. “In the end, it’s the kids who are going to lose out.”

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