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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Spin on class size

by Charlie Naylor

The Vancouver Sun editorial, May 9, 2005, alarmingly misrepresents the available information on class-size research. Consider the following:

The Sun provides a single source to support its claim that researchers have been unable to link class size to student performance. The source is Eric Hanushek. No other research is referenced. Hanushek’s work has been widely challenged by, for instance, Alan Krueger (Economic Policy Institute, 2000), who found exactly the opposite results using Hanushek’s own data: lower class size is linked to higher student achievement. He also found that some of Hanushek’s samples were misinterpreted and miscoded. Hanushek has also been criticized for the methodologically inappropriate use of teacher-pupil ratios by Finn (2002), who argues that such data do not reflect class size. While Hanushek appears ‘persuasive’ to The Sun’s editorial writer, his many challengers do not rate any mention at all.

As Dr. Wayne Ross of UBC pointed out in his letter to The Sun, Hanushek ignores studies that show the opposite of what he claims to be true. These include not only the most thorough research anywhere in the world on class size, Project STAR, but also studies conducted or reviewed by Glass and Smith (1978), Mueller et al (1988), Robinson (1990) and Ehrenberg et al (2001). He does not reference the Indiana Prime Time or the Wisconsin SAGE project. All of these studies, over four decades, concluded that smaller class size increased student achievement. The Sun did not shine any light on these studies. It does not mention them at all.

Project STAR, widely renowned for its academic rigour and scale, has been reported in hundreds of research articles and presented widely at international conferences. This study found that in every grade level students in small classes outperformed students in larger classes in every achievement test administered. This study was not referenced by The Sun.

Even The Vancouver Sun’s own education reporter has stated that small classes benefit student learning. In an article of April 5, 2005, Education reporter Janet Steffenhagen, reported findings from B.C. School District 23’s small-class pilot project, stating that:

"The performance of children involved in the study in eight Kelowna schools has improved, which wasn’t unexpected given that similar trials in the U.S. have made the same discovery." She also stated: "The schools noticed an immediate improvement among students in the smaller classes."

The Sun is therefore totally wrong in stating, "researchers have been unable to consistently demonstrate that reductions in class size yields an increase in student performance." Researchers have done so over four decades, and in the largest and most comprehensive class size study in the world (STAR). The benefits of small class sizes are not myths, as claimed, but well-researched facts. Yes, there are many debates around the issue of class size, and it is not the cure-all for the whole education system, but the research is clear and definitive: smaller class sizes result in improved student achievement.

The most worrying aspect of the editorial is in considering whether the writing of it reflects incompetence or malice. If one believes that The Vancouver Sun is incapable of accessing the hundreds of articles, major studies, and conference presentations, that provide the evidence (or even unable to read its own education reporter’s article written barely a month earlier), then the newspaper is clearly incompetent. If one believes that the article reflects a desire to condemn a political party whatever the evidence, then The Vancouver Sun is malicious because it ignores all the evidence simply to make the case it wants to make.

Charlie Naylor is a researcher in the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

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