Where are the reductions in class sizes that we were promised?

By Robert Green

A slightly edited version of this Op-ed appeared in the March 4 edition of the Montreal Gazette

When the Quebec government makes a commitment to reduce class size, should school boards have the ability to subvert such commitments in order to protect their bottom line? This question is at the heart of a grievance filed recently by the Pearson Teachers Union (PTU) against the Lester B Pearson school board.

In the context of its last round of negotiations with the province’s teachers, the government of Quebec offered to make significant reductions to the maximum size of most classes in Quebec’s public schools.

Although the reductions focused mainly on the elementary level, they did extend up to the second year of high school. Schools in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods would see even greater reductions than those applied system-wide. By the end of its implementation in 2013/14 the plan would see most class size maximums reduced by 3 or
4. Classes in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods would be reduced by as many as 9 students.

This offer by government came as a welcome surprise to teachers and their unions. Most teachers have experienced the difference between a class of 26 and one of 30 and know the enormous impact a few additional students can have. Smaller groups allow teachers to make connections with each of their students and keep them all on track. Conversely, in larger groups students feel more anonymous and are hence more likely to act out or withdraw. In other words, larger groups force teachers to focus more on behaviour and discipline, while smaller groups allow us to focus on what we love, teaching.

But reducing class size is not merely about improving the working conditions of teachers; more importantly it is about improving the quality of public education. Indeed the body of evidence documenting the benefits of class-size reductions is enormous, particularly with regard to reductions at the elementary level. Reducing class size has been shown to have lasting positive effects on academic achievement, absenteeism and drop-out rates. It has also been found to be one of the only factors capable of closing achievement gaps based on socio-economic status. In small classes, poor kids do just as well as rich kids. Class-size reductions have even been found to have long-term public health benefits.

With so many potential benefits, it is not only teachers that should be concerned that classes in Quebec’s large English school boards do not seem to be getting any smaller. This is particularly true in a context where English school boards have been losing numbers to their French counterparts and the private sector. Ensuring that class size reductions are properly implemented ensures that the quality of education in English public schools is not merely protected, but improved.

School boards are able to avoid implementing class-size reductions by exploiting a clause in the teachers’ collective agreement which they claim allows them to pay teachers a tiny amount of compensation for oversized classes. It is this interpretation that is being challenged by the PTU, which contends that the collective agreement only permits oversized classes in very specific circumstances, none of which apply to large urban schools.

Although these same arguments would presumably apply to EMSB schools, there has thus far been no move by its teachers to launch a similar grievance. With scheduled class size reductions now into their second year at the high school level, the ratio of teachers allocated to EMSB high schools in 2012-2013 remains unchanged. The only thing that has changed is that teachers will be receiving a tiny bit more in compensation for oversized classes.

The sad result of school boards failing to implement class size reductions is that in many of Quebec’s urban English public schools rather than seeing improvements to their working conditions and the learning conditions of their students, teachers are essentially being bribed to subvert the government’s intentions to improve the quality of public education.

Ask any teacher, however, and most will tell you that they would gladly give up the pitiful amount paid in oversized class compensation (teachers typically receive just over a dollar per class for every student over the maximum) in exchange for smaller classes.

Given that the amount of compensation being paid is indeed so tiny, this raises the question of whether school boards have received funds to hire new teachers, and if so, where that money has gone.

Either the school boards have not received additional funding – in which case government is not funding its own commitments – or the school boards are not allocating the funds as they are intended. In either case, the public should be concerned as it is the students in our public schools who stand to benefit most from real reductions in class size.

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