Disappointing class size trends

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February 1, 2009 by realrenewal

by Dr. J. F. Conway, Trustee
Subdivision 5, Regina Public Schools

The Regina Public School Board recently received two reports on class size trends, one for elementary schools (preK to 8) and one for high schools.  The news is bleak.  Although the trend is down in class size, the movement downward from 2005-05 to 2009-09 was really rather a pathetic achievement.  For preK to 8, average class size went from just over 22 in 2005-05 to just over 21 in 2008-09 – one pupil fewer in five years.  For high schools the reduction was even more disappointing – from almost 25 to just over 24 – less than one pupil fewer in five years.

A closer examination of the figures tell an even more disappointing tale.  In our preK to 8 program there are 348 class rooms over the average and just 204 below – and there are still 179 class rooms with 25 or more pupils.  In high schools there are 783 class rooms over the average and 1186 at or below the average – and there are still 199 class rooms with 30 or more pupils.

These figures clearly reveal that the Board’s often proclaimed desire for moving to smaller classes is not a central focus of the Board majority’s 10 year “renewal” strategy.  That strategy, as we all know, is to close schools and move to larger numbers of students in fewer schools.  The school size guidelines imposed by the Board majority of 200 for “small” schools and 400 for large schools – the minima set in the “renewal” plan – can only mean that class sizes into the future will remain unacceptably larger than they should be for optimum educational outcomes.

Ever since joining the Board in 1991 I have argued for making reductions in class size a central goal of our strategic plan.  If our plan included a goal of a reduction in average class size across the system of one pupil per year, the average class size in our elementary schools would have moved from 21 to 16 between 2004-05 and 2008-09, and, in our high schools, from 24 to 19.  But systematically reducing class size is not a central goal of the Board’s strategic plan and never has been.

The evidence in the research on class size echoes that on school size: smaller is better; and the smaller, the better.  Broad educational benefits show up as classes are reduced from 40 to 30 to 20, but the strongest benefits begin with classes of 15.  Often critics of the move to small class sizes point to quantitative data which do not reveal overly significant benefits among classes of 20 compared to those of 30 or even 40.  Quantitative academic achievement measures, like grades or reading or math levels, do not differ markedly.  But research on qualitative outcomes consistently records that teachers, students and parents perceive and report that the education received in smaller classes is of significantly higher quality.

But at the class size of 15, both quantitative and qualitative measures reveal a marked increase in successful outcomes.  Hence the “best practice” evidence tells us that the wisest policy course to follow is to combine a small schools policy with a small class size policy.  Rather than a long range “renewal” plan to close schools and to consolidate students in fewer schools which will limit the serious pursuit of a small class size policy, the Board would be better advised to pursue a long range “renewal” strategy to retain small schools while systematically reducing class size standards across all grades until optimum targets are reached.

If we were to declare that our goal is to move to an average class size across the system of 15, and that each year we would take a one pupil per class step toward that goal, we would reach it in our elementary schools in six years, and in our high schools in nine years.  It would be expensive.  It is no mean feat to reduce the average class size by one pupil per year in a system with 20,000 students.  But the investment in our children is worth it.

The first step is to elect a Board in October 2009 with a majority of Trustees with the political will and courage to act firmly and decisively, staying the course despite the inevitable enraged opposition of the anti-tax lunatics of the conservative business lobby.

1 February 2009


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