Smaller classes for elementary students

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Cap grades 4 to 8 class size at 24 students.

Cap kindergarten at 26 students.

Provide adequate funding to ensure that every classroom has the necessary supports/resources for all students to be successful.

Educators identify small classes as the most important factor in their ability to work individually with students and meet their diverse needs. Smaller classes improve student behaviour and peer relationships while increasing student engagement and achievement in the early grades. Investing in smaller classes contributes to alleviating the antisocial, aggressive behaviour that causes incidents of classroom violence.

Class size has been extensively studied. A 2014, US-based review of the research concluded: “The academic literature strongly supports the common-sense notion that class size is an important determinant of student outcomes.” A 2018 study of the California class size reduction program – the largest in US history dating back to the late 1990s – found smaller classes in public schools reduced private school attendance and improved the quality of education through the enrolment of former private school students and the additional funding that followed them.

Ontario’s investment in smaller classes in primary grades has a positive impact on our classrooms. Ontario-based research demonstrates that smaller primary classes have enabled teachers to provide more individual attention to students and use a greater variety of instructional strategies. 

The benefits of the smaller classes we have seen in the primary grades need to be extended to grades 4 to 8. Currently, primary grades are funded for an average class size of 20 and secondary grades for an average class size of 23. By comparison, funding for grades 4 to 8 supports a class size average of 24.5. Class size averages mean that individual classes can vary a great deal. Grades 4-8 have the largest class sizes in the system, often more than 30 students in a class. A poll conducted by ETFO in early 2018 indicates that 67 per cent of Ontarians support placing a cap of 22 students on grades 4 to 8.

Class size is also an issue in Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program. This program has proven to be very successful. It has become a model for other jurisdictions and a fundamental part of our world-class education system. However, there are issues that must be addressed. The kindergarten program is funded to have an average class size of 26 and an average staff-child ratio of 1:13. There are still, however, many classes with over 30 students and an even greater number of kindergarten/grade 1 split-grade classes, which are not supported by a designated early childhood educator. ETFO members consistently raise concerns about the challenges of setting up activity-based programs for that many young children and managing classroom behaviour when many of the students are experiencing formalized learning environments for the first time. Overcrowded, noisy classrooms or open “pods” limit teachers’ and early childhood educators’ ability to take full advantage of the play-based program. Overcrowding also creates stressful work and learning environments.

Ontario has a policy of integrating students with identified special education needs into general classrooms. The policy recognizes that our public schools have the responsibility to support the education and growth of all children. The inclusion model is based on the notion that students’ learning environment should reflect the diversity of society-at-large and foster understanding and appreciation for individual differences. ETFO has always supported diversity and inclusion in the classroom. A successful inclusion model needs adequate supports/resources to ensure that all students can succeed.   

In 2017, through negotiations with the provincial government to extend our members’ contract provisions for two years, ETFO achieved modest improvements to grades 4 to 8 class size; a cap of 30 students for kindergarten in 2017-18; and a cap of 29 students in 2018-19. 

During the 2020-21 school year, when the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for Ontarians, ETFO joined medical and public health experts calling repeatedly for reductions in class sizes to lower the risk of transmission in schools. Despite the overwhelming consensus that smaller classes were necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, the Ontario government refused to make the necessary investment to lower class sizes.

As Ontario looks ahead to addressing learning gaps that were created or deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing class sizes is a necessary first step.