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Class Size Matters

Striking teachers rally outside the Alberta Legislature, Edmonton, February 7, 2002.

In February 2002, 21,000 teachers in Alberta went on strike calling for increased funding for education. They demanded classroom conditions that allow them to do their best work with children. They also laid claim for wages and benefits they consider acceptable, in particular claims that meet the needs of younger teachers. Jonathan Techtmeyer described the situation in a recent post on the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) website as follows:

"On February 4, 2002 the largest teachers strike in the history of Alberta commenced. Teacher discontent was boiling over after years of education cutbacks, (including funding cuts, lost teaching positions, lost resources and salary reductions) followed by ongoing underfunding through the 1990s. Teachers sought through collective bargaining to improve long-standing concerns about deficient classroom conditions. Large class sizes were a key concern."

Instead of taking up its social responsibility and providing the needed increased funding for education, the Klein government used its police powers to declare an "emergency" ordering the teachers back to work 19 days after the strike began. Two weeks later the Alberta Chief Justice ruled that the government had not demonstrated an "emergency" and declared both the back-to-work order and the arbitration process contained in the decree null and void.

What followed is called "rule of law" in Canada. The government quickly brought in Bill 12, described by then-ATA President Larry Booi as "one of the most gratuitous and draconian pieces of labour legislation in Canadian history, rushed through the legislature in only a few days." The legislation imposed a rigged arbitration process and stripped existing clauses from collective agreements protecting hours of work and class size, prohibited strikes by teachers for an extended period, and banned activities that could be deemed to be promoting labour action.

Teachers responded by challenging the legislation in court, withdrawing voluntary services, and carrying out a vigorous campaign to inform Albertans of what was at stake. Outrage at the government's actions and broad support for the teachers forced the government to amend the arbitration process and agree to establish a Learning Commission to shine a light on classroom conditions.

The final report of Alberta's Commission on Learning (ACOL) was released on October 7, 2003. The report, Every Child Learns, Every Child Succeeds, listed 95 recommendations for achieving the commission's vision for education and identified the increased investment needed at $600 million. It established province-wide guidelines for average class sizes across each school jurisdiction, but no recommendation that would require school boards to meet those sizes.

The report identified class size as one of the most studied areas in education and stated that "a wealth of research" backed up views supporting smaller classes: "The critical point in all of the research reviewed by the Commission is that class size matters." This conclusion has been reinforced by all legitimate studies since that time, and is particularly true where the student population faces poverty, discrimination and marginalization.

The ACOL's suggested guidelines are: 17 students for K-3; 23 students for Grades 4-6; 25 students for Grades 7-9; and 27 students at the high school level. Class composition was also to be considered, for example classes with special needs and English language learners or at-risk students should be smaller than those set out in the guidelines.

Where does class size stand 17 years after the Learning Commission's report was released? According to the Alberta Auditor-General, by 2017-18, the number of jurisdictions meeting the targets was actually lower than when the class size initiatives began. The Auditor-General's office concluded that class size funding had essentially become another layer of base instructional funding.

The ATA points out that using averages is a way of obscuring the actual conditions of students and teachers. The ATA's analysis of Alberta government data found that 80 per cent of division one classes (K-3) are above the ACOL recommendation and, on average, the oversized classes are nearly 30 per cent larger than the recommendation. In total, nearly 17,000 Alberta division one classrooms are oversized by more than 20 per cent. In higher grades, 11,000 classes are 20 per cent larger than recommended.

An investigation conducted by Edmonton Journal reporter Janet French in 2018 obtained hard data from six Alberta school jurisdictions (two in each of Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer). The finding: more than 85 per cent of K-3 classes in these districts were oversized. French's investigation found a Grade 10 math class with 45 students, a Grade 11 science class with 47 students and a junior high physical education class with 67. In Red Deer, one Grade 5 class had 37 students, the ATA notes. Edmonton Public had 457 classes with between 36 and 40 kids and Red Deer Catholic had three classes in division one with 35 or more students.

The ATA concludes: "Sixteen years have passed since Alberta's largest ever teachers strike, and the biggest issue in that dispute, class size in Alberta's schools, is as bad as ever. Teachers, and their supportive parents, were taking a principled stand to protect the quality of education for Alberta's students. Unfortunately those students never got to enjoy the small class sizes they were promised. The students that were entering kindergarten in 2002 are now graduating from university, and a generation of children have missed out on the benefits of small classes."

Teachers have had fidelity to their demands for better teaching conditions, which are students' learning conditions, and it is clear that they will continue their fight in the coming years. By getting together, thinking things through, and speaking out, they are sure to find a way forward.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 13 - April 13, 2019

Article Link:
Class Size Matters


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