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For years, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has lobbied for small class sizes in the primary grades (Junior Kindergarten to Grade 3 inclusive). Class sizes in junior and intermediate classrooms have also been of significant concern to teachers, but the government has been slow to implement perceptible improvements in these class sizes.
The research supports the federation’s position that, particularly in the primary grades, students in small classes perform significantly better than their peers on reading and mathematics tests. Students in small classes participate more in school and have fewer discipline problems. When in small classes, minority students and inner city students show an even greater improvement.
Further, evidence indicates that manageable class sizes and class composition in all grades contribute significantly to a teacher’s ability to plan and program effectively for students, and to devote time to working with students on an individual basis.
Primary Class Size Reduction
The government committed to capping primary class size (Kindergarten to Grade 3) at 20:1 by 2007-08. The reduction program began in 2004 and school boards were expected to be in compliance with full implementation in 2007-08. The government supported this initiative through a Primary Class Size Reduction Grant. The Primary Class Size Reduction Amount was introduced in 2004-05 with an allocation of $166 for each primary student. This funding, totaling $90 million, supported 1200 new teachers for the primary grades. Funding has continued to increase incrementally over the intervening years. In a May 2011 report on the implementation of their primary class size reduction initiative, the government claims to be providing school boards with annual funding for 5100 additional primary teaching positions.
Effective 2007-2008, the provincial guidelines for primary class size were that each board would organize primary classes so that:
Each year school boards are required to submit their primary class sizes to the Ministry of Education. For the 2010-11 school year, on the snapshot date of September 17, 2010:
While this indicates the circumstances on the snapshot date, class sizes will often change as the school year progresses.
Note: The government has exempted classes for students in the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program from this class size cap expectation.
Junior and Intermediate Class Size Reductions
Junior and intermediate class sizes can vary widely from school to school and from board to board. In 2009, the government began investments in reducing junior and intermediate average class size.
In the 2008-09 school year, the average class size was noted for each school board. The government has been providing funding grants to gradually reduce average junior and intermediate class size such that within each school board the average class size in September 2012 will be 0.5 less than the original average of 2008-09. This would mean that in a school board where the average class size was 25 students in 2008-09, the average class size in 2012-13 is expected to be reduced to 24.5 students. Since September 2005 the government has funded secondary schools for an average class size of 22 students.
Despite a province-wide base of foundation funding from the government, not all public school boards have the same average class size in their junior and intermediate grades. The provincial average for class size in the junior and intermediate grades in 2008-09 was 24.9 students. In the 2010-11 school year, funding is provided through grants for an average class size of 24.8 students. In public school boards across the province, average class size in 2010-11 varied from 16.2 students in the Superior Greenstone DSB to a high of 26.3 students in the Avon Maitland DSB.
It is important to note that since the reduction targets only an average number in each school board, a significant number of students will find themselves in classes larger than the average indicated.
The federation welcomes the smaller class sizes for elementary students. However, ETFO’s policy remains:
Studies have shown that the more time the student spends in small classes, the greater the improvement. To reap the long-term benefits, students must spend at least two years in a small class. Students who spent four years in a small class received the greatest benefit.
Smaller classes cost more. However, fewer students repeating grades make-up for that cost. More high school graduates with increased learning power adds more money to the economy and reduces the cost of social welfare benefits (Pate-Bain et. Al. 1999).
In addition to the improvements that show up on achievement tests, teachers report that “They get to know their students better, spend less time on discipline, and are able to provide students with more individualized instruction. Generally, smaller classes go hand-in-hand with greater enthusiasm and achievement among both students and teachers.” (Dupuis, 2000).
Individual attention includes more than one-on-one instruction. A focus on the needs of individual students occurs when teachers form small groups and during whole-class instruction. Smaller classes allow teachers to know and understand the needs of the individual students, allowing intervention earlier when problems arise. (Zahorik, 1999).
Molnar (1999) has summarized why small classes are so effective:
Elementary teachers support the reduction of class size in the primary grades. However, the government must do more to support students throughout their elementary school years. In public school boards in Ontario, funding for elementary school students still lags behind that for secondary students. Secondary students are funded at $5,763 per student. Elementary students are funded at $5,424 per primary student and $4491 per junior /intermediate student – a difference of $1272 for a student moving from Grade 8 to Grade 9. Equalizing this Foundation Grant would make an important difference for children in their formative years.
Bascia, Nina et al (2010),” Ontario’s Primary Class Size Reduction Initiative: Report on Early Implementation,” Canadian Education Association.
ETFO Research Report: Class Size Makes A Difference (August 2000).
Dupuis, Joanna (2000), “Small Classes Succeed,” Rethinking Schools, Volume 14, No. 3. Spring.
Leithwood, Kenneth (2006), “Teacher Working Conditions That Matter: Evidence for Change,” ETFO.
Molnar, Alex (1999), “Smaller Classes and Educational Vouchers: A Research Update,” Keystone Research Centre.
Pate-Bain, Helen, B. DeWayne Fulton, and Jayne Boyd-Zaharias (1999), “Effects of Class Size Reduction in the Early Grades (K-3) on High School Performance,” Health and Education Research Operative Services (HEROS) http://www.heros-inc.org/ [removed link on April 30, 2012]
Zahorik, John A. (1999), “Reducing class Size Leads to Individualized Instruction,” Educational Leadership, Volume 57, No. 1, September, 50-53.