Rationale for opposing the 10-year plan

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November 29, 2007 by realrenewal

Rationale for Opposing “Renewing Regina Public Schools: A 10-year Plan”
Regina Public Schools
Remarks by Dr. J. F. Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5

Mr. Chairperson, fellow Trustees, members of the Administration, and supporters of Regina Public Schools, first let me begin by requesting that all decisions on the recommendations of the “Renewing Regina Public Schools: A 10-year Plan” document be made by recorded vote tonight.

Tonight I wish to go on record in opposition to the vision and strategy presented to us in this plan.

When this process leading up to tonight began, after the failure of the school closure plan of 29 November 2005, we were assured that this plan would not be primarily about school closures.  As you can see, the plan is indeed about school closures.  No matter how you spin it, that is the core of the plan, and one of most long term consequence for this system.

There are differences between the two plans, however.  The previous plan proposed closing 11 schools – 10 elementary schools and 1 high school – over two years.  This plan proposes the closure of 14 schools – 12 elementary schools and 2 high schools – over 10 years, half of these to take place in the first three years.  Certainly this plan is less draconian than the last, but only because the timeline is longer.  In another way, however, it is more draconian since the total proposed closures is 14.

Further, this plan is much more comprehensive and it contains many things we can all support – refurbishing and renovating schools, replacing old schools with new, a focus on improvements in learning outcomes, the Scott facility, a series of important policy and program studies and reviews.  I particularly look forward to the study on lunch hour supervision, since I have long advocated a universal lunch hour supervision program funded and staffed by the Board, and open to all parents.  Perhaps we will get one this time.  Unfortunately, I note the absence of a study on a universal pre- and after-school supervision program, another matter I have raised a number of times over my years on the Board.

These are all good things.  And they should happen – indeed, will happen – regardless of the final decisions on school closures.  Unfortunately, since the plan is presented as a package with 14 poison pills – the school closures – I will not support it and I hope that on March 15, 2008 the school closure proposals in the plan will be defeated.

I will tonight simply present the foundation for my general opposition.  The detailed arguments will be the subject of ongoing debate during consultations with the public between now and 15 March 2008.  I will not seek to score debating points tonight against my colleagues on the Board who support the plan, but simply state my position for the record.  We have discussed this plan for many, many hours in closed sessions and I must say it is a great relief to finally have it in the public realm for a thorough airing.

You will notice that the plan refers to two documents which lay the important foundation for the school size guidelines that inform the entire 10-year plan.  One is the Linnen report on the phase 2 consultation process, which was released in June 2007.  The other is the Leithwood review of the research on school size effects which documents the many advantages of small schools.  The Linnen report deals with consultations with the public on the school size ranges approved by the Board in March 2007 – 200 to 400 for elementary schools; and 600 to 1200 for high schools.  The plan notes that a majority of those attending the consultations supported the size options.  The plan also comments that the Leithwood report recommended schools size ranges of 300 to 500 for elementary schools, and 600 to 1000 for high schools.

I opposed the school size ranges when the Board approved them in March 2007, and I still oppose them.  Further I challenge the Leithwood recommendations on school size ranges, which Leithwood bills as “optimum,” since research on optimum school size tends to recommend much lower size ranges in order to gain the many advantages the research associates with small schools.

I have a limited number of copies of my more detailed critiques of these two reports here tonight, and you are welcome to pick one up.  You can also get one from me electronically by requesting one in an e mail to John.Conway@uregina.ca.  They will also be posted on the RPS web site in due course.

Tonight I want to deal with some of the flaws in these reports.  I do so because the whole 10-year plan is guided by these school size ranges and the fact is these ranges contradict the “best practice” evidence on optimum school size.  Further Leithwood’s policy recommendations on school size are not in fact evidence-based and should not be used to guide planning in this division.

First, the Linnen report.  The phase 2 consultation report had two stages.  First, an estimated 1000 people attended 57 information meetings where members of the administrative team laid out the issues and options.  Following those meetings, Linnen held 14 “feedback” meetings to gather responses and opinions regarding the options.  About 175 people participated.  Of the 175, 120 submitted a survey on the elementary option of 200 to 400, while 119 did so on the high school option of 600 to 1200.  Of those, 39 indicated low or very low support for the elementary option, while 60 indicated high or very high support.  For the high school option, 36 indicated low or very low support for the high school option, while 65 indicated high or very high support.  In both cases, 18 respondents indicated a neutral view.

A number of things are very clear.  First, 120 respondents are hardly sufficient to gauge public opinion in Regina.  Second, the numbers themselves indicate a fairly deep division on the size question.  Third, since the school size options were limited to those two, the survey did not probe the respondents’ alternative views on school size.  Clearly opinion at the feedback meetings was quite divided on the size question.

Another limitation of the list of options was the narrow focus on school size only, excluding other major choices available to deal with the system’s problems of declining enrolments, deteriorating infrastructure and available resources.  The other most obvious choice is to raise local taxes, since the Board has taxing powers and is elected by the community.  This option was not presented as a clear choice, though a number of participants raised it during discussions.

A further limitation was that the feedback meetings included 10 school-based public meetings and 4 meetings with “stakeholders.”  Regrettably the list of stakeholders consulted did not include the Regina Labour Council, though the Chamber of Commerce was included, nor did it include the many community associations active throughout the city.

I respectfully submit that this report should not be a major guide in planning the future of the system.

Now, the Leithwood report.  Based on a review of 59 empirical studies published since 1990, as well as some widely cited pre-1990 studies, and four literature reviews, the report largely supports the growing consensus that “smaller is better” on a variety of outcome measures.  Due to limitations of time tonight, I will not enumerate each and every one of those outcomes, except to note that greater academic achievement is one of the most consistently documented advantages of small schools.

A reader, based on the report, might understandably have expected recommendations urging Regina Public Schools to retain its many existing small schools, particularly those serving the more disadvantaged areas of the city.   The whole thrust of the research reviewed in the report is clearly “smaller is better,” so the fact is Regina Public Schools already has considerable bragging rights about its current situation with regard to school sizes.  But the Leithwood report does no such thing.  Rather, Leithwood makes some unexpected policy recommendations, which he describes as “optimum school size:” a maximum of 300 for elementary schools serving disadvantaged students; a maximum of 500 for elementary schools serving relatively advantaged students; a maximum of 600 for high schools serving disadvantaged students; a maximum of 1000 for high schools serving relatively advantaged students.

One looks in vain in the report for a summary of the research studies on optimum school size on which these figures are based.  There are none.  The only size numbers mentioned in the research serve as counting categories for the purposes of running comparisons.  Only one cited study refers with “optimal size,” one having to do with teacher retention in Norway.

The blunt truth is that the report does not survey the research on optimum school size.  The recommendations made are therefore not evidence-based.  This is unfortunate since these policy recommendations are being used to rationalize the proposed closure of many small schools in Regina.

I have had a look at some of the research on optimum school size in order to better enjoy the small school advantage documented in the research.  Information on that research is in my longer critique of the Leithwood report.  I make no claim that my review is exhaustive, but it does suggest we should look more carefully into the evidence available on the optimum size of schools.

The research on the optimum size of small schools I examined suggests an optimum size in the various following ranges, depending on the study:

High schools:

less than 400, optimum 200;

optimum size less than 400; 300 to 600;

maximum size, 400 to 450;

less than 500;

less than 400

 

Elementary schools:

less than 350;

200 to 350;

maximum, 250-300;

less than 400.

What most of these figures have in common is that they tend to be considerably smaller sizes than the Leithwood recommendations.

When we combine the insights provided by the findings of the general research on small schools present in the body of the Leithwood report, with the evidence from research on the optimum size for small schools I have looked at, some fairly clear and dramatic conclusions with significant policy implications emerge.

It is clear that “smaller is better” when a variety of impacts and outcomes are examined, including most importantly, given the core mission of schools, academic achievement.

But the evidence allows us to go even further and conclude that “the smaller the school, the better the outcomes.”

And the evidence allows us to add another general conclusion: for greatest success among disadvantaged students, small schools, often schools considered very small by existing standards, are not only best, but are perhaps absolutely essential.

A constant theme in the research on small schools is that one of the reasons small schools have such better outcomes relates to the reality that smaller schools typically have smaller classes.  This advantage has been somewhat undermined in Regina Public Schools by an effort to maintain the system-wide class size guidelines as closely as possible by double grading strategies.  Further, one of the arguments used to persuade people to accept the need to close small schools is to note that adherence to class size guidelines on teacher allocation will result in triple grading or worse, if small schools are kept open.

The whole issue of class size policy needs close examination.  The evidence in the research on class size echoes that on school size: smaller is better; and the smaller, the better.  Benefits show up as class sizes are reduced from 40 to 30 to 20, but the strongest benefits begin with classes of 15.  It is at 15 that both quantitative measures and qualitative assessments reveal a marked and unambiguous increase in successful outcomes.

Hence, the “best practice” evidence clearly suggests the wisest course to follow is to combine a small schools policy with a small class size policy.  Rather than a long range plan to close schools and to consolidate students in fewer schools with large classes, the Board might more wisely pursue a long range plan to retain small schools while systematically reducing class size standards across all grades until optimum targets are reached in both school size and class size.

Accordingly I make the following alternative policy recommendations for your serious consideration.

Regina Public Schools should adopt a comprehensive “small schools” policy, establishing maximum optimum enrolment guidelines for elementary schools of less than 300, and for high schools of less than 500.  Existing schools beyond these guidelines should be “grandfathered,” but future school construction should adhere to these guidelines.  Furthermore, these guidelines should inform program delivery decisions within existing schools.

Regina Public Schools should “shelter” existing small schools from closure, particularly those serving socially and economically disadvantaged students.

Regina Public Schools should adopt a comprehensive “small class size” policy and develop a 10 year implementation strategy to reach the following class size goals: K, 10; grades 1 to 8, 15; grades 9 to 12, 20.

As a first step in achieving the 10 year goal, Regina Public Schools should begin the immediate implementation of this class size policy in those schools serving socially and economically disadvantaged students.

What I would like to see then is the following: the surgical removal of the 14 school closure proposals at the heart of this 10 year plan and the insertion of the small schools and small class size policies I have suggested.

I will have much more to say as the public debate unfolds over the next weeks and months.  My remarks tonight merely lay out the basis for my opposition to this plan.

I close tonight by reminding you we live in a democracy, and this Board is elected by the community.  In a democracy, anything that is done can be undone.  If this unwise plan is approved by the Board in March 2008, perhaps the new Board elected in October 2009 will decide on a quite different course for the future of Regina Public Schools.

Thank you for your attention tonight.

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