Letter: ‘Research has proven that small class sizes have benefits beyond the classroom’

‘Research has proven that small class sizes have benefits beyond the classroom’

To the Expositor:

In light of the current teachers’ strike and the voidance of a contract agreement after five days of intermittent striking, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Ford government is attempting to use divisive tactics aimed at pitting civil servants and teachers against the very people they seek to serve. The inability to work together towards better conditions for all threatens to erode standards in education, returning us to a time when educational institutions were run like factories where rudimentary understanding of skills reflects an underlying neo liberal fallacy of efficiency (less to do more) over sufficiency of education to deal with a changing world. 

As parents, grandparents, guardians, teachers and community members, we must advocate for a system that is more inclusive, diverse and holistic in its understanding of challenges. This is not possible if our children are in large classes, doing online courses instead of building relationships, making rooted connections locally and collaborating in safe environments with people and organizations that reflect our communities’ values and strengths, while securing time and resources to deal with any challenge to individual growth. Through these processes, platforms are being built in the community that will empower each member to contribute, co-operate and trade in ideas with others globally. The recent rise and contribution of Manitoulin Island climate activist Autumn Peltier on a global stage is an example of what could be when students have family, community and government support to advocate not only for themselves, but for what matters for everyone and education matters, because it is embedded in the community.

Here on Manitoulin Island, the population is comprised of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and institutions. Our communities are small and tight knit which is reflected in our children’s classrooms. Recently, the phenomena of cross cultural education and participation in classrooms has become evident in research of decolonizing pedagogy. For example, according to Dr. Thema Perso, “the traditional aboriginal learning styles of observation and imitation, personal trial and error and feedback, real life performance/learning from life experiences, mastering context specific skills, person oriented (focus on people and relationships), spontaneous learning, holistic learning, sequential and linear learning vs. mainstream learning styles, of verbal and oral instruction, verbal instruction accompanied by demonstration, practice in contrived/artificial settings, abstract context-free principles that can be applied in new, previously inexperienced situations, information oriented, structured learning.” Policies of decolonization reflect the ethos we are striving for in the Truth and Reconciliation in our country. These changes are already occurring organically in both traditional communities and are best served by class sizes that allow the time and attention to nurture and facilitate, deepening integration and understanding.

The geographical location of the Island is not without its own challenges, which make access to resources, equipment and other materials difficult. The socio-economic status of residents, according to the 2016 Canadian Census, indicates that approximately 13.4 percent of Manitoulin Island’s population was registered as being unemployed. Additionally, according to the Manitoulin Drug Strategy, 90 percent of community members in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities have had their lives directly impacted by drugs and alcohol, and are dealing with mental health issues that are on the rise. This is evident in our children’s classrooms and the long list of resources needed to provide help for Canadian teachers in the classroom. Resources like Children’s Mental Health Ontario: Resources for Teachers contains information about “the most common mental health problems in classrooms, including anxiety and mood disorders, ADHD and behavioural disorders. It includes tips for early identification and intervention, practical suggestions for accommodating and responding to students with mental health problems and ways to combat stigma in the classroom” and teacher guides like “Compassionate Classroom, which is a reference for teachers about the mental health needs of students. The most important factor for success in dealing with a mental health issue is support – and teachers are an important part of their students’ support system. This booklet discusses common mental health issues and offers tools to help identify students in need and resources to help teachers make referrals to mental health professionals,” (Alberta Teachers Association and Canadian Mental Health Association, 2009).

Disputes between governments are not unfamiliar to children and students with stories like Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Cree Nation in Manitoba who died before he could get the proper care he needed. His death led to Jordan’s Principle. Today Jordan’s Principle can help with a wide range of health, social and educational needs because of the changes in government policy and funding. The reality is that students do not come to school with the same skills and support needed, however when teachers have smaller classes they can better assess and respond effectively to a wider range of student needs in a holistic way. This demonstrates a strong need for collaboration between educators and ministry officials to ensure that new and more relevant policies are developed in order to best support student needs in a rapidly changing society. The government’s responsibility in supporting students is a reduction in class size and a policy to help in the implementation to ensure it is used to help meet provincial and national goals like the Calls to Action that Murray Sinclair has outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This dispute should focus on the needs of students, who should not have to pay for government cuts. 

The lack of meaningful dialogue taking place between the government and teachers raises questions about the continued inequalities that exist within our educational system and education ministers’ resistance to change. A system that considers cost above all other concerns threatens, through larger classrooms and subsequent issues, to derail progress, and possibly support a regression to an ugly past. Research has proven that small class sizes have benefits beyond the classroom. Nina Bascia, a professor at OISE found that “smaller class sizes enable teachers to interact with individual students more frequently and use a greater variety of instructional and differentiated strategies. Students were more engaged and less disruptive in the classroom. Parents were encouraged by being able to meet with teachers more frequently and reported a better relationship with teachers when their children were assigned to a smaller class.” This sentiment is echoed in a US study that states “the payoff from class size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.” The significant educational value of smaller class sizes will prove to be more cost-effective in a variety of areas, including health as mentioned earlier. 

The government wants to pit parents, grandparents and guardians against one another by imposing a narrative that excuses their business approach to increasing class size in an apparent effort to save taxpayers $2.8 billion over five years. If the educational system continues to run schools in a business manner, they will never be able to authentically implement the Calls to Action initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal. Ontario teachers are striking in order to offer future generations the best possible chance at a successful future. Upon reflection, it is hard to argue this change is not in progress already; anyone who has witnessed and understood this change should take the time to reflect on what we are being asked to return to and what the cost of that return could be to everyone.

Valerie O’Leary