The accepted wisdom is that smaller classes improve academic outcomes. As early as 1980, the province of Alberta lured striking Calgary teachers back into schools with the promise of fewer students in the classroom. In October 2005, British Columbian teachers walked off the job; among the reasons cited was the failure of the province to confirm (smaller) class sizes. The Ontario government initiated a four-year class size reduction program in 2004 and in June 2006 also created an online class size tracker to show parents the progress school boards are making in reducing the size of primary classes.1 Class size remains a critical issue for teachers, boards and parents alike, all in spite of a lack of consensus about its effect on academic outcomes. Countless studies have attempted to produce definitive answers, to no avail. The most agreement lies around the younger years – a class size cap at 17 students for children from kindergarten to third grade may produce some increased benefit in academic outcome.
The bigger question is whether the attention given to class size caps overshadows other important initiatives to improve schooling. A 1997 Canadian Education Association report concurred with previous findings regarding class size in the primary grades, but warned that caps are not the most efficient way of improving overall achievement.2 Teaching methods, “teacher quality,” parenting and finally parental involvement can significantly affect academic outcomes. And then there are finances. At a time when school boards and provincial education ministers are attempting to offer more with limited resources and are legally obligated to operate a balanced budget, do the purported benefits of class size caps justify the financial cost and sacrifices to other education programs? Class size debates should not overshadow other important elements of improving education.
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