If the status quo prevails, Ontario’s public education system will remain fiscally unsustainable. That is the dire conclusion of the recently released Drummond report.
The numbers in the report are staggering. Over the last decade, although student enrolment declined by approximately 120,000, teaching and non-teaching staff grew by 24,000. From March 2002 to December 2011, per-pupil funding increased annually by 6.2 percent, well above the rate of inflation.
All this paints a picture of a system in urgent need of reform. Costly initiatives such as reduced class sizes and full-day kindergarten may be popular with teachers’ unions and parents, but they have little direct impact on student achievement. It should come as little surprise that the Drummond report comes down hard on these types of initiatives.
With 90 percent of primary (kindergarten to grade 3) classes with 20 students or less and the remainder capped at 23 students, expenditures on teaching and non-teaching staff salaries have increased substantially. Smaller class sizes mean schools need more teachers, more educational assistants, and more classroom space. Such a costly imposition could only be justified if there was strong evidence of its effectiveness.
However, the educational research is clear. Reducing class sizes has, at best, only a modest impact on student achievement. John Hattie is an education professor in New Zealand who has reviewed hundreds of research studies about student achievement. In his book, Visible Learning, Hattie concludes that the results of reducing class sizes are “systematically small.”
Advocates of class size reductions invariably respond by pointing to the Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) longitudinal study done in the 1990s. The study purported to show that students in smaller classes experienced greater gains in literacy and mathematics than students in larger classes. However, many experts who reviewed this study found significant flaws with its design. For example, schools were not selected randomly and students often moved from one control group to another.
In addition, the small classes in the STAR report had only 13-17 students in them while large classes had 22-25 students. Thus, even if we accept that the STAR report shows the benefits of smaller class sizes, this only applies to class sizes of 17 students or less. Since the Ontario government has no intention of reducing class sizes to that level, the relevance of the STAR study to Ontario’s situation is questionable.
The Drummond report also recommends the McGuinty government cancel its planned full-day kindergarten program. It’s not hard to see why. Once implemented across the province, costs of this program will soar to more than $1.5 billion per year. Although advocates believe full-day kindergarten benefits students, there is little evidence at this point of its long-term effectiveness.
As a case in point, the failure of the massive Head Start program in the United States should serve as a caution to those who tout the benefits of full-day kindergarten. Head Start began in 1965 as a preschool program aimed at disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. A thorough evaluation of this program was conducted in 2010 and concluded that any modest benefits from this initiative vanished by the end of grade 1. In other words, students who participated in this program ended up no better off than those who did not. With such track record and given Ontario’s present fiscal reality, any amount of money spent on such initiative, let alone $1.5 billion a year, would be a waste.
Another recommendation in the Drummond report is to reduce the number of non-teaching positions by 70 percent. Over the last decade, the number of educational assistants, consultants, office staff, and curriculum co-ordinators has grown substantially although the number of students has decreased. School boards and provincial education departments should not be allowed to grow their fiefdoms at taxpayer expense.
Finally, the Drummond report makes an important observation about teacher compensation. It notes that teachers receive automatic salary increases when they complete additional years of university education even if these courses have nothing to do with their work in the classroom. A better approach would be only to grant these increases when an independent body determines the additional qualifications will benefit students. Although a modest change, it would open the door to future adjustments to the teacher salary grid.
Let’s hope the McGuinty government takes the Drummond report seriously. Improving student achievement and bringing the budget into balance are two very good reasons to accept the report’s recommendations.