Our Schools/Our Selves: Spring 2001

Class size in Alberta--an ongoing debate!
April 1, 2001

april 2001The debate over class size in Alberta's schools has sharpened significantly in the last few months. It has set parents and teachers against government. However, neither research nor polls seem likely to move the provincial government to enforce class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3. Some background The history of the class size debate in Alberta probably pre-dates 1980 but it was the 48 day Calgary Public teachers' strike in that year that brought the issue to the attention of the public. In September 1980 in an attempt to end the longest teachers' strike in Alberta history, the Minister of Labour established a Fact-Finding Commission "charged with the task of examining teachers' working conditions and how these conditions relate to the quality of educational programs and services provided." The report of the Commission A System in Conflict was issued in December 1980. It contained 12 recommendations, the first of which stated:

"Through incremental annual increases for three years, the Provincial Government should adjust its School Foundation Program Fund to school systems of Alberta, thereby enabling these systems to formulate annual policies which reflect these increases and which, at the end of three years, will result in:

(1) an average instructional work-week of 20 hours for each teacher, and

(2) an average ratio of 20 pupils for each on-site school professional (exclusive of school administrators)."

Part of the rationale for that recommendation, taken from the report, reads:

"All of those teachers who submitted briefs and made reference to teacher-pupil ratios felt that class sizes, on the average, are too large. A large majority of parents share the same concern. Both groups criticize the manner in which the ratios are calculated (indeed, the Commission has discovered that it is difficult to find a common formula for determining ratios). Inevitably, in considering ratios, one is forced to examine class sizes in conjunction with the activities of those on-site support professionals who regularly help teachers and pupils in a direct instructional sense. In other words, we are drawn again to the critical core of what we term the "primacy of instruction" and the need to examine how many essential and effective person-to-person interactions can feasibly occur and be directly supported within one classroom in a given period of time."

Reaction to the Commission's report was mixed. For the teachers it was a partial vindication of their prolonged strike. However, the provincial politicians were quick to dismiss the class size recommendation on the basis that the only research supporting limiting class sizes was American and therefore was not relevant in Alberta. In a debate in the Alberta Legislature, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Calgary McCall gratuitously pointed out the fact that he "was a product of 40 or more students in a room." At its Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) in 1981, the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) approved a policy stating that "maximum classroom enrolment should be 20 students." That policy remains on the books to this day.

The ATA tried to promote some Alberta-based research on class size. At the 1984 ARA then ATA president, Arthur Cowley, told the Minister that the ATA itself would fund the cost of extra teachers for a one-year experiment with classes of no more than 20 students in a small Alberta jurisdiction. The Education Minister, David King, rejected the offer.

The Klein era Decisions by the provincial government in 1993/94 to reduce spending in all areas, including education, resulted in class sizes, particularly in urban areas, increasing. Every study or survey undertaken by the ATA, its locals and the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF) in the last seven years has raised class size as a factor affecting the education of Alberta's children. The ATA's 1996 Report Card on Education reported that 67 percent of the 10,500 teachers who responded believed that their class sizes had increased since 1993 when government changes to education were imposed. In 1997, the Canadian Education Association released a study conducted by Suzanne Ziegler entitled Class Size, Academic Achievement and Public Policy. Ziegler concluded that lowering class size increased student achievement "so long as classes do not exceed 17 students' but she also warned that decreasing class size "is not necessarily the most efficient way of improving achievement, but more efficient ones can also have substantial cost implications." The release of that study coincided with an attempt by the ATA to make class size one of its major issues in the 1997 election campaign The Mar debate After the Progressive Conservatives re-election in 1997, the new Minister of Education, Gary Mar, proceeded to attack the class size issue in question period. For example, on April 29, 1997, the minister commented:

"one of the interesting things that is pointed out in the TIMS (sic) report is that some of the countries that participated in TIMS who did very well in their student results in fact had classroom sizes of 50 and 60 . . . . class sizes are an interesting question for me, Mr. Speaker, because we often hear about class sizes that are in the range of 32, 33, 34, 35 or more, but we don't often hear about class sizes where there are 12 or 13 or14 kids in a classroom."

On June 4, 1997, the Minister was asked again about class sizes, he responded:

"I think that among red herrings the issue of classroom size is the king of tunas . . . I can understand why in an automotive shop for safety reasons you would want to have smaller classes, but there are some classes where, frankly, you can have larger classes . . . in this province . . . the issue of classroom size is a decision that is made at the local level."

In response to another question, the Minister referred to a report produced by the University of Calgary which stated "that variables that have no practical effect on achievements include class size." Class size was one of the major issues on the minds of the teachers at the provincial teachers' rally at the Alberta Legislature on October 4, 1997 and the issue was also raised at a meeting between the Table Officers of the ATA and the Minister of Education at a meeting on November 6, 1997. In the brief to the Minister, the ATA representatives asked, as one of its priority items, that class size in kindergarten to grade 3 be limited to 17 students, at a cost of $50,000,000 annually. The request for additional funding was denied by the Minister. At its 1998 ARA, the delegates requested that the class size issue be researched and reported on to the 1999 ARA. The assignment was given to two members of executive staff, Co-ordinator of Communications, David Flower, and Coordinator of Teacher Welfare, Winston Nettleton. The document, A study of class size and its effects on learning," was finalized in April 1999 and released May 11. The release of the ATA's report and a government report in a few days of each other led to a flurry of debate. The Provincial Government tabled in the Legislative Assembly, May 5, an examination of research into reduced class size and pupil/teacher ratios and the effects on student achievement prepared anonymously for Alberta Education. The report was entitled "Class size and pupil-teacher ratio: exploring the myths." This report echoed the article that appeared in the April 1999 issue of the Fraser Forum. Both these reports quoted Eric Hanushek's conclusion that "in sum, while policies to reduce class size may enjoy popular political appeal, such policies are very expensive and, according to the evidence, quite ineffective." Once again there was a flurry of interest in the media, Flower and Ziegler were interviewed on CBC Edmonton's Midday Express, May 4; Jane Boyd Zaharias of the Tennessee STAR study was interviewed on CBC Edmonton, May 18; and Eric Hanushek was interviewed on CHED Radio (Edmonton) June 2. For a critique, the Alberta Education report and the article from the Fraser Forum were sent to Dr Charles Achilles, one of the principal researchers of the Tennessee STAR study for his assessment. Dr Achilles responded by letter saying "seldom have I read any document purporting to be policy related that is as much in error as is the Legislative library piece, followed by the two-page narrative that you sent about 'Don't cut class(size).' The material borders on research illiteracy. Besides the illiteracy, the ignorance, errors, and arrogance are unmatched in any piece supposedly professional or policy that I have read in a long time."

The Oberg debate On May 25, 1999, the Premier of Alberta announced a cabinet shuffle. A new department of government was created with the amalgamation of the Departments of Education and Advanced Education under the title "Department of Learning." The new minister for the new department was a medical doctor, Dr Lyle Oberg, whose previous portfolio was Social Services. The class size issue was still a concern. In the fall the Minister attended several school council forums in Edmonton and Sherwood Park where the issue of class size was raised by parents on a regular basis and from a variety of schools. In the fall the education partners were meeting together to try to formulate a vision for education for the province-something that was definitely missing from the government's agenda, obsessed as it was with debt reduction and lower taxes. The education partners included school trustees, superintendents, school business officials, home and school councils and the teachers. This group met frequently and were aiming at making a presentation to the Minister early in the New Year. At the same time the Liberal opposition launched a survey of teachers to find out details of class sizes across the province. The opposition education critic, Dr Don Massey, realized that without some concrete information on what existed everything was too theoretical. With this continuous talk about class size, the Minister moved to ease the tension by announcing on December 16, 1999, that his department would fund a $500,000 class size study with Edmonton Public Schools. The pilot program was to permit ten city schools to hire "an additional teacher in January so they could either split their combined Grade 1-2 classes or divide their Grade 1 classes." The Edmonton Journal article stated "Oberg says he'll consider cutting class sizes across Alberta if he sees significant improvement among the students involved." The success of the pilot program was to be monitored in a study led by the University of Alberta education professor, Larry Beauchamp. In January 2000, the education partners released A Vision and Agenda for Public Education. The document contained a series of priority initiatives supported by the statement that "there should be sufficient increases in base funding to allow school boards to put in place the following initiatives." The first of these four initiatives was:

"Class sizes small enough to allow teachers to meet the diverse individual learning needs of all students, especially those in Kindergarten to Grade 3, where research indicates class sizes of 17 or fewer students."

In question period in the Alberta Legislature in February, the opposition education critic asked the Minister about class sizes. He responded "there has been research done in the States that shows that in K to 3 we should drop class size to 17 or lower. There are a lot of variables in that, but as a general rule that is the class size I would like to aim for." On March 1 the Liberal opposition introduced, and the legislature gave first reading to, private members' Bill 215, which, amongst other things, would set a class size target of 17 students for Kindergarten through Grade 3. The bill died on the order paper when the fall session adjourned on November 28, 2000. However the Liberals had collected some hard data regarding class sizes. They had heard from 5,102 teachers in 245 communities across Alberta and average classes sizes from kindergarten to grade 6 across the province now had some real numbers attached.

The first indication of the outcome of the pilot study in Edmonton Public schools came with a front page story in the Edmonton Journal in September. The headline trumpeted "Province to reduce class sizes." The article included an interview with Dr Fern Snart, a University of Alberta education professor. Dr Snart was quoted as saying "I would definitely say the results were even surprising to us when it came to some of the student achievement gains . . . . In terms of having an impact on young learners in a way that will maintain itself, this seems to be the way to go." However, any hopes that there might be extra funding to reduce class sizes in K-3 classes across the province was quickly dispelled when the Minister was interviewed on the topic in early October. In that interview the Minister claimed he was "not convinced the evidence supports such spending" [money to lower class sizes] despite the study. Oberg went on to say that although K-3 was an area where "there has to be an active intervention . . . I want to know what is the best way to do it and there's a lot of conflicting evidence out now." In the same article parent advocate Donna White called the Minister's stalling tactics "a slap in the face," and ATA president, Larry Booi, expressed frustration, stating "if ever there was a case where common sense and research came together, it's here . . . for the life of me, I can't understand why we would need more evidence." The Liberal education critic suggested that although the Minister believed in the value of reducing classes he had a hard time convincing his cabinet colleagues. A later report in the same newspaper stated that "Learning Minister Lyle Oberg is waiting for the results of a study of small Grade 1 classes in inner-city Edmonton expected in the next few days."

The Minister apparently had a copy of the report on November 21, 2000, although he was claim on February 28 that "he just received the final draft of the study of Grade 1 students on Monday [February 26]." Despite this later assertion, on November 21, during question period in the Alberta Legislature, Mary Anne Jablonski, the Tory MLA for Red Deer-North, asked the Minister "if we know that smaller class sizes help teachers in delivering the highest quality of education, why do we not set a maximum limit on class sizes?" The Minister responded to "an absolutely excellent question, and it's great to get such a good question" by saying "I have looked at the issue of class size backwards and forwards and every way within. I recently received what is called a small-class project which deals with the whole issue of class size. This was the project that was done in Edmonton . . ." The Minister then continued to cite some of research that accompanied the study. The Speaker in the Assembly interrupted the Minister and asked "Hon, minister, I trust you have copies to table." At this point the Minister tore a section from the report and handed them to a page to be copied. The copies were then circulated to all members and tabled in the Legislature. The section comprised pages 53 to 75 of the report, Appendix IV: Review of the Literature. The Minister then went on talk about the fact that "when it comes to class size funding, school boards must have flexibility . . . as a matter of fact . . . when posed that question, they [school boards] said they would opt for flexibility as opposed to me enveloping funds and forcing class size upon them." There was certainly some evidence among the education partners that the coalition of January 2000 was beginning to have second thoughts about the 17 to 1 class size issue. The Alberta Catholic School trustees, for example, were under pressure from the Calgary Catholic School Board, whose members were expressing doubts about the priority in The Vision and Agenda for Public Education document. The Calgary Catholic board chairperson claimed that the recommendation to reduce class sizes to 17 students "reduces our flexibility, it limits our ability to serve the students in the best way possible."

However, in the section that the Minister tore from the report in the Legislature, on pages 69 and 70, there are two paragraphs entitled "Final Reflection." The first paragraph begins:

"The current initiative involving ten high-needs grade 1 classes provided an opportunity, over the course of six months, to note the effects of smaller classes on student achievement in reading and writing, and to analyze qualitative information concerning teacher practice and attitudes . . . "

The second paragraph is the more telling one:

"The findings of this study confirmed Nelson's (2000) conclusions in her recent review of program alternatives for young children:

Teachers with fewer students can spend more time doing one-on-one instruction, providing immediate assistance, and addressing minor concerns before they become major problems. They also can restructure lessons to be more individualized, using their frequent observation of students to know the strengths and weaknesses of each. Teachers report that they have fewer behaviour problems with small classes because they are able to monitor student behaviour more closely. Finally, small classes allow teachers to build close relationships with students."

The Minister's reluctance to release the full text of the report claiming "there is no concrete evidence to prove its (class sizes) benefits for students," directly contradicted the comments that appear under the section "Final Reflections." The Minister explained that he could mandate class size but that would cut down on the flexibility that school boards need. This was a strange argument from a minister of a government which took away school boards' right to tax, mandated achievement tests for students in grades 3, 6 and 9, and imposed technology. The government's sudden concern about school board flexibility seemed convenient.

In December a formal letter was sent by the ATA to Alberta Learning requesting a copy of the full report on class size. In response, a senior department official responded in January that "the Minister received the report late in 2000 and he has it under consideration at this time. It is my understanding that the Minister intends to recommend to Standing Policy Committee on Learning that the report be released by the end of January." In a follow-up story in the Edmonton Journal, education reporter Karen Unland quoted Alberta Learning spokesperson Randy Kilburn as saying that department officials wanted to meet with the researchers before releasing the report and that was not going to happen until the week of February 5, 2001. However, both ATA's David Flower and the Liberals' education critic Don Massey, questioned the delay in releasing the report, speculating that the government simply did not want to have the class size question as yet one more item on its list of election issues. According to Unland the study states "it seems the debate is no longer whether or not reducing class sizes has the potential to assist students in academic achievement and success in learning, the debate is, rather, whether the expense justifies the result."

The election On February 12, 2001, the provincial legislature in Alberta reconvened for the Speech from the Throne. The speech was woven around comments on a variety of issues made by Grade 6 students from Jean Vanier School in Sherwood Park. On the issue of class size the Throne Speech contained the following:

"Class size is on the minds of many, including the Jean Vanier student who wrote: 'Children are getting low marks because the teacher is too busy with 30 other students.' The government will respond to the issue by providing $68 million a year to school boards, through the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, earmarked to give boards the flexibility to reduce class sizes or take other measures to improve the classroom."

The Throne Speech was followed almost immediately by a long-expected election call. Despite some earlier thoughts that the government might choose to table a pre-election budget, instead it decided to go for an election based on its record.

The election issues had been decided, apparently, in the Progressive Conservative's candidates handbook Ammo 2001. Political columnist, Don Martin, having read the handbook, reported that the "hot issues" were itemized. He then went on to state that "there are dozens of side issues that appear low on the Tory radar screen, judging by the lack of factual material assigned to defending the record. Class size and school fund-raising are shrugged off as local school board decisions."

The ATA certainly had other ideas. The Association had organized a three-pronged campaign centred on two main issues, class size and education funding. The three prongs were; a bill board campaign in the province's cities asking the question "Why are Alberta's classrooms so crowded?"; a four week half-page advertizing campaign in 108 weekly newspapers; and the production of a simple booklet providing information on the two issues, with the same material available on the ATA's website. The booklet was shared with parent advocacy groups and was available to anyone on request. The Association's locals were encouraged to organize and support education forums in their constituencies. In Edmonton, for example, with the government holding only three of the available 19 seats, forums were successfully organized in each constituency. In Calgary, on the other hand, with only one opposition seat in 21 constituencies only a single city-wide forum was organized. There were forums in all other major cities.

The class size issue came to the fore just four days into the election campaign in an article by Ashley Geddes of the Edmonton Journal. Geddes quoted the Alberta Premier as saying that his party was not "ready to commit more funding to class size." By February 22, the Edmonton Journal was reporting a faxed memo that had been sent out from the PC campaign headquarters by campaign manager Marvin Moore. The hand-written comments on the cover sheet of the fax stated "Here are some facts on K-12 education in Alberta. This should help deal with ATA enquiries, etc. Good luck! Marv." The newspaper interviewed Mr Moore who stated that education, particularly class size, was becoming a hot campaign issue "because of quite a few well organized groups involved in organizing forums on education and pressing the education issue." The two major opposition parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats both released their education platforms and in both cases they addressed to some degree the issue of class size. The debate heated up even further when the Premier, in responding to the issue of class size during a stop in Sherwood Park [east of Edmonton], was quoted as stating "if you are in an inner-city area or an urban municipality where there is a high mix of new students, new Canadians from other countries, it presents a difficulty. There are other situations where perhaps the class size . . . is more homogeneous or together in the same socio-economic group and it is not a problem." Concerned opposition politicians, parent advocates and teachers were quick to point out that in trying to deflect the issue, the premier was missing the point about the overcrowded classrooms. In an attempt to put the issue to rest the Minister of Learning held a media conference in Calgary on February 28. In the conference he simply reiterated that he was not going to release the class size study and regurgitated all the reasons that had already been given why the government believed that it was not appropriate to mandate class sizes, rather to give school boards the flexibility they needed to decide how best to spend the money allocated to them by the provincial government. However, one of the teachers involved in the Edmonton Public pilot project presents a different reason for the delay. She suggests "it is our understanding that they have not released the report in it's entirety because it is such a strong statement that class sizes of under 17 are so successful even more than we originally though, so the government does not want a document that they themselves commissioned out before the election."

In his weekly political newsletter, Jim Armet commented that the "election result and subsequent budget expected sometime during the month of April should be a barometer as to whether the ATA's quarter of a million dollar 'issues awareness campaign' was worth such a significant expenditure." The ATA's primary concern in the election was to raise the issues of class size and education funding as matters of significance during the campaign. In the view of many, the awareness that has been created has certainly justified the expense. Whether the new Alberta government will act on the class size issue, or continue to underfund Alberta's classrooms, only time will tell.

Author: David Flower, PhD, retired from his position as the Coordinator of Communications for the Alberta Teachers' Association on February 28, 2001.

This article was originally published in the April 2001 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives