Late in June, the Manitoba Teachers Society demonstrated down at the legislature about "deteriorating learning conditions" in our public schools.
The Society’s latest beef? Class size. Just give us fewer students per teacher, and we’ll be able to do our job.
In the recent round of standardized testing, a performance check bravely and persistently demanded by Education Minister Linda McIntosh, Manitoba students didn’t fare too well. The teachers’ society fought the idea of testing all along, then slammed the tests themselves. Now they justify the poor showing by blaming the government for tightening the purse strings.
How important is class size? According to Rodney Clifton, an education professor at the University of Manitoba, not very. He says there is little or no correlation between results and the student-teacher ratio, except at a fairly low threshold.
In other words, if you could afford one-on-one tutoring, which public schools cannot, you would notice a big improvement in your children’s performance. But jiggering class sizes so that the ratio changes, say, from one teacher to 25 students instead of 30 doesn’t really make much of a difference.
And the policy can backfire. Last summer, the Governor of California started a crusade to lower student-teacher ratios in his state from 30-1 to 20-1. He offered an extra $650 per student subsidy for classrooms that met the target. That started a frenzy to reduce class size, but schools didn’t have the space or qualified teachers to meet the goal.
Fifteen thousand new classrooms were needed immediately, at a cost of about $50,000 each. And of course, that meant hiring 15,000 new teachers, most of whom had never set foot in a classroom. A professor at the University of California wrote that "an elementary class of 20 taught by an ill-prepared ‘instant’ teacher will prove far worse for the students involved than if they were in a class of 40 taught by a highly qualified and dedicated teacher."
Nor would adjusting the ratio work if the real problem lies in teaching methods and curriculum. Public schools here now provide the same diet, one that evolved in the 1960s. Its goals cannot be effectively measured, because they’re formed from soft concepts like "self-realization" and "awareness". Add the "corkscrew curriculum"-all students move together through the grades, whether or not they’ve mastered the material-and you have a recipe for failure.
In Alberta, where school choice is now firmly entrenched as public policy, this sorry cycle of decline has been reversed. The province, along with four others, took part in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, and its Grade 4 students placed third in the world of the 26 countries measured. Schools in Alberta compete rigorously for placements, and, no coincidence, were the first in the country to embrace full performance measurement through standardized testing.
Students from Singapore and Korea, who outperformed most other countries, experience average class sizes of 41 or more, compared to the 24-student norm in the five participating Canadian provinces. Although teachers regularly identify large classes as a barrier to effective teaching, the UBC professor who co-ordinated the math and science project demurs. He was unable to find "a very strong correlation between class size and achievement."
Rather, the key to accomplishment in our public schools lies in the very measurement the teachers’ society has fought so hard to prevent. When schools can be ranked by test scores, and when parents are allowed to shop around among a range of competing curricula, they can make informed decisions about where to send their children. If money made the difference, how do we explain the fact that private schools in Manitoba spend a lot less per student than public schools and produce superior results?
Returning excellence to our public schools requires us to measure where we are now. A wide-ranging policy of school choice will do the rest, no matter what the class size.