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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Making sense of the class-size debate

A recently released Lesson in Learning bulletin from the Canadian Council on Learning confirms what teachers already know: smaller class sizes are better for student learning. The council summarizes the work of Biddle and Berliner (2002), which shows that:

  • long-term exposure to small classes in the early grades generates substantial advantages.
  • the longer the exposure to smaller classes, the greater the gains.
  • extra gains from small classes in the early grades are larger when class size is reduced to less than 20 students.
  • gains are retained at upper grades and in the middle- and high-school years.
  • gains are made by all types of students and are greater for those traditionally educationally disadvantaged.

After a vague discussion of class size as a mechanism for informing cost-effectiveness of class-size reduction, the document outlines class-size policies in three Canadian jurisdictions: the Yukon, Ontario, and Alberta.

The main lesson in the research, according to the CCL, is that smaller is better in the primary grades.

Also worth noting are the lessons learned in California, which "pursued an aggressive class-size reduction policy, ignoring the fact that the system could not provide a sufficient number of qualified teachers. The gains anticipated from smaller classes did not materialize as expected because the classes were often staffed by inexperienced teachers who would not meet the more rigorous standard of certification in Canada."

Using information in the British Columbia Public School Act as an example, the bulletin concludes with a tidy discussion of the difference between student/educator ratios and class size, pointing out that there is a vast difference between the actual number of students in an individual teacher’s class and a ratio based on a district or province average.

The document does not address the issue of class size in conjunction with class composition. A recent study of 14,000 teachers in B.C. shows that not acknowledging the diversity of students within classes ignores a large part of the conversation. Yes, Canada needs more research on class size—on class composition as well.

"Making Sense of the Class Size Debate" is available at www.ccl-cca.ca/english/bulletin/default.asp.

An overview of results from the BCTF Teaching and Learning Conditions Study 2005 is available at www.bctf.ca/bargain/wlc/.

Colleen Hawkey, BCTF Research Division, chawkey@bctf.ca

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