14. Establish and implement province-wide guidelines for average class sizes across school jurisdictions.

  • Rather than set legislated limits or hard and fast rules, there should be flexibility in the size of classes.
  • School jurisdictions should be expected to meet the guidelines for average class sizes across their school jurisdiction. That means the guidelines would not necessarily be met in each and every classroom but should be met on average across the school jurisdiction.
  • The suggested provincial guidelines should be:
    • Junior kindergarten to grade 3 - 17 students
    • Grades 4 to 6 - 23 students
    • Grades 7 to 9 - 25 students
    • Grades 10 to 12 - 27 students.
  • Class composition should be considered by schools in setting class size. Generally, classes with special needs students, students whose first language is not English, and vulnerable and at-risk students should be smaller than the suggested guideline. Classes should also be smaller in cases where there are safety considerations such as vocational classes.
  • School jurisdictions and the province should be required to report annually on average class sizes and should be accountable for explaining whether or not the guidelines have been met.
  • The province should provide adequate funding to enable school jurisdictions to meet the class size guidelines. Information on average class sizes should be included in school jurisdiction profiles and used to determine provincial funding levels.

Perhaps no other issue received more attention during the Commission's public consultations than the issue of class size. The Commission repeatedly heard that if there is one change that should be made it is to ensure that all children have an opportunity to learn in classes that are not so large that teachers are unable to give their students - students with special needs and all the students in the class - the individual attention they need and deserve. That view was reinforced in a recent Ipsos-Reid survey where 90% of the respondents agreed that "class size makes a big difference in the quality of education delivered at public schools."47

"Parents, teachers and common wisdom favour smaller classes."
Milton (2003)

Clearly, parents, teachers and others believe that class size makes a difference. Responses to the Commission's workbook showed strong support for reductions in class sizes. Well over 80% of the respondents said that the province should set a maximum for the number of children in a classroom, especially at the lower grades.

Their views are backed up by a wealth of research reviewed by the Commission.48 In fact, the impact of class size on educational outcomes is among the most researched topics in education.49 Reducing class size in the early grades (K - 3) has been found to have academic benefits, especially for poor and minority children. Finn summarized research and documented the advantages of small classes, especially in the elementary grades and for students who attend small classes for two, three or four consecutive years.50 By 2002, 32 states in the US had implemented a class-size reduction program and/or introduced legislated limits on class sizes.51

One of the most important projects on the impact of reduced class size was Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) in Tennessee. Project STAR was a four-year, large-scale randomized experiment in which kindergarten students were randomly assigned to small classes (13 - 17 students), larger classes (22 - 26 students) or larger classes with a full-time aide. Key results with respect to academic achievement and classroom behaviour include the following:

  • Statistically significant differences were found among the three class types on all achievement measures and in all subject areas in every year of the experiment (K - 3). On average, students in small classes had superior academic performance to students in larger classes.
  • No significant differences were found between classes with teacher aides and regular classes in any year of the study.
  • The small-class advantage was found for both boys and girls.
  • The benefits were substantially greater for minority students or students attending inner-city schools in each year of the study.
  • Students who had been in small classes exhibited superior engagement behaviours in grade 4 including more effort spent on learning activities, more initiative, and less disruptive or inattentive-withdrawn behaviour.52

In addition to improvements in achievement and behaviour, Finn also noted the following results from Project STAR:

  • Teacher morale increased and teachers spent more time in active teaching and less on classroom management. There were fewer disruptions and fewer discipline problems.
  • Students' engagement in learning activities increased and the number of students who had to repeat a grade was reduced.
  • The problems teachers encounter in teaching and managing classes were not reduced when a teaching assistant was present.53

The Lasting Benefits Study, a five-year follow-up study on project STAR, demonstrated that the positive effects in the early grades result in math, reading, and science achievement gains that persist at least through grade 8.54

Another important study is the SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) program in Wisconsin, a five-year quasi-experimental study designed to help improve the achievement of students living in poverty by reducing class size in grades K - 3. This study found that students in smaller classes in grades 1 and 2 consistently outperformed students in comparison schools. No differences were found in different types of SAGE classrooms (e.g. 15 students with one teacher, 15 students and one teacher in a shared space, 30 students with two teachers team teaching, or 30 students with one teacher plus an additional teacher for reading, language arts and mathematics).55

An external evaluation of the SAGE program found that the achievement advantage persists as students move into higher grades.

  • When scores are adjusted for differences in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, attendance and prior knowledge, the SAGE advantage from the beginning of first grade to the end of third grade is shown on all subtests.
  • From the end of first grade to the end of third grade, a SAGE advantage is shown on all subtests.
  • From the end of second grade to the end of third grade, a SAGE advantage is shown in the third grade reading subtest.
  • Adding students lowers the average performance of the class. Each student added to a class beyond 15 students to one teacher results in a decrease of approximately one scale score point in the class average in all academic scores.
  • There were no significant differences in achievement gains between classes with 15 students with one teacher and classes with 30 students and two teachers.
  • The major classroom advantage of reduced class size was increased individualization.56

In Alberta, nine AISI projects undertaken in 2000-01 and 11 in 2001-02 focused on the impact of reduced class size. Increases in student learning for these projects have been small, but there were moderate effects on surveys about the positive impact of smaller class size.57

While the evidence clearly points to the benefits of smaller class sizes for younger children in the early grades, it's not clear why small classes work as well as they do. According to Finn, "The strongest hypothesis about why small classes work concerns students' classroom behavior. Evidence is mounting that students in small classes are more engaged in learning activities and exhibit less disruptive behavior."58 Other reasons include the fact that teachers are able to spend more time on instruction and less on classroom management. There is more time for interaction between students and teachers, more opportunities for small-group instruction, and better assessment techniques.

Class size matters - but students' achievements will not be improved by reducing class size alone. To achieve the full benefits of smaller class sizes it is essential for students to be engaged in their studies and taught by well-prepared teachers.

The critical point in all of the research reviewed by the Commission is that class size matters - but students' achievements will not be improved by reducing class size alone. To achieve the full benefits of smaller class sizes it is essential for students to be engaged in their studies and taught by well-prepared teachers. That means teachers have to practice effective teaching techniques and engage their students effectively in order to maximize the benefits of having fewer students in their classrooms.

The importance of other factors in addition to simply reducing class size is reinforced by the experience in California. The California Class Size Reduction (CSR) program introduced a state-wide voluntary program to reduce class size in K - 3 to a maximum of 20 students. About 1.8 million students were involved in this program. In the California experience, the relationship between class size reductions and student achievement was inconclusive.59 Analysis of the California program suggests that improvements could be made by:

  • Integrating and aligning it with other reforms
  • Providing more local flexibility by allowing a school-wide average of 20 students in K - grade 3
  • Providing incentives to a small number of districts to experiment with and evaluate other cost-neutral alternative class size reduction strategies
  • Further exploring why and how class size reduction works and identifying best practices
  • Ensuring that there are sufficient facilities and qualified teachers.60

In terms of the ideal class size for the early grades, no one knows what the optimal size is but some researchers suggest that beyond 17 students in K- grade 3, there is less likelihood that the benefits will be as positive.

Beyond grade three, the research is not nearly as abundant or as clear. In fact, the research conducted by the Commission turned up very few studies that address the impact of class size in the later grades. However, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study (2000) of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15 year olds in 32 countries found that as the student-teaching staff ratio rises above 25, there is a continuous decline in school performance in all three areas of reading, math and science. The PISA study predicted that a student score which is ten points higher in one school than another is associated with an average of 3.3 fewer students per teacher.61

While there certainly is stronger evidence to support the impact of class size in the earlier grades, it seems to make good sense that class size would continue to make a difference to students in later grades, although the impact may not be as significant as it is in the early grades. The PISA study clearly supports this conclusion.

Three provinces have implemented legislated guidelines on class size at all grade levels.

  • In Quebec, both maximum and average class sizes are set by the province. They range from an average of 18 and a maximum of 20 in kindergarten to an average of 30 and a maximum of 32 students in secondary schools.
  • In New Brunswick, the maximum class size for kindergarten to grade 2 is 25, the maximum for grade 3 is 30, for grades 4 - 6 the maximum is 32, and for grades 7 - 12, it is 33 students. Combined classes have smaller maximum numbers.
  • In Ontario, the average size of elementary classes in K- grade 3 must not exceed 24 on average across a school board. Average size for grades K- grade 8 must not exceed 24.5 and average sizes for grades 9 - 12 must not exceed 21.

In Alberta, there currently are no guidelines on class size. The most recent survey from Alberta Learning (2002) showed that the average class sizes were 19.5 for kindergarten, 23.2 for grades 1 - 6, and 25.5 for grades 7 - 9.62 These averages are down slightly from the previous year but are expected to be higher for the 2003-04 school year. Average class sizes were slightly higher in urban school jurisdictions than in rural ones. From a school buildings perspective, schools in Alberta are designed to accommodate 25 students in a classroom.

The Commission feels strongly that province-wide class size guidelines are critical for the early grades. While there is not the same body of evidence, the Commission believes that students in later grades should also have the benefit of smaller classes where they could receive more attention from their teachers and the classroom environment would be more positive. At the high school level, the range of class sizes may be more varied. Some classes, especially in the trades, will be small out of necessity, while in other classes, the number of students could be significantly higher.

The Commission does not recommend that hard and fast legislated rules be put in place. Setting maximum class sizes in legislation has the potential to cause all kinds of administrative difficulties when the maximum number is reached and there's no where else for a student to go.

Setting provincial class size guidelines provides reassurances to parents and teachers. In addition to research evidence supporting smaller class sizes at the lower grades, perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for implementing provincewide guidelines on class sizes is to build confidence among parents that their children have an excellent opportunity to learn and succeed in classrooms where their individual needs and learning styles can be addressed. It sets a standard for all school jurisdictions. And by requiring school jurisdictions and the provincial government to report annually on class sizes, there will be direct accountability for ensuring that the province-wide guidelines are met.

The Commission also suggests that, while class size guidelines are being implemented across the province, research should be undertaken to assess the impact on student achievement and specifically to address at what level smaller class sizes have the greatest impact, which students benefit most and under what conditions, what is the cost, and what factors need to be in place to ensure that the maximum benefits are achieved. This research should be done over an extended period of time so that the impact can be assessed and guidelines can be adjusted as necessary based on research evidence.

15. Abandon the use of pupil-teacher ratios and replace it with measures of class size and the range of professional and paraprofessional support available for classrooms.

"In practice, imposing strict limits on class size could force schools to adopt classroom configurations that do not effectively meet the needs of students, teachers and communities."
Alberta Teachers' Association
(2002, p. 10)

There is considerable confusion around the use of the term "pupil-teacher ratios." While many might think that this is a ratio of students to a classroom teacher, in fact, the measure includes a wide range of professional staff that might provide services and support to the class including counsellors, teaching assistants, and central office staff. The definition of which professional staff should be included in the ratios varies and the result is considerable controversy over what the ratio means and how it should be interpreted.

As an alternative, the Commission recommends that two separate measures be used on a consistent basis to monitor the education system:

  • Class size - Every school and school jurisdiction should report their actual class sizes, specifically the number of students in a class with a single teacher. Class size is a more direct measure of the teaching resources brought to bear on a child's development.63
  • Support for schools - A measure should be developed to track and report on the range of support available for students including specialist services, certificated central office support, counselling, teaching assistants, etc.

47 Ipsos-Reid (2003).
48 See Biddle & Berlinger (2002); Ehrenberg et al. (2001); and Finn (2002) for recent reviews of class size literature.
49 Finn (2002).
50 Ibid.
51 Education Week (2003).
52 Finn & Achilles (1999).
53 Finn (2002).
54 Nye et al. (1999).
55 Molnar et al. (1999; 2001).
56 Molnar et al. (2001, pp. 141 - 142).
57 Alberta Learning (2003f, p. 27).
58 Finn (2002, p. 23).
59 See Bohrnstedt & Stecher (2002) and EdSource Inc. (2002).
60 EdSource Inc. (2002, pp. 5 - 6).
61 OECD (2001a, pp. 202 - 205).
62 Alberta Learning (2003b).
63 Ehrenberg et al. (2001, p. 2).