Along the Fraser: What’s the common denominator?

Dispute between government and teachers a longstanding one

“We have had decades of discontent no matter who the government is, the Socreds, the NDP and us. What is the common denominator? The BCTF.” – Peter Fassbender.

B.C. Teachers heard words like these, and Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s other claim that “class size has nothing to do with educational outcomes” in the ’80s and ’90s.

As a striking teacher then, I waved banners that declared: “smaller classes = better learning.”

Teachers – backed by common sense – will never abandon class size and composition in contract. The system wouldn’t work if they did.

Ken Georgetti, former president of the Canadian Labor Congress, commended them for this on CBC radio, May 27th: “Teachers are bargaining for the quality of the product that produces future scientists, graduates, the doctors, the lawyers in our society. You don’t see other unions bargaining for that sort of thing.”

In Maple Ridge, support for teachers by students and DPAC chair Kellie Marquet shows growing awareness of the real reasons for the “decades of discontent.”

Class size and composition limits equal student learning.

The common denominator? It’s not the BCTF, but the irresponsibility of the Liberals who have challenged a court order to return 2002 class size and composition limits to teacher contracts. That’s more decades of discontent.

For class size and composition today, I dug up my old flag, showed it to local teachers on their picket lines and asked,  “Are the words still relevant?”

They told me about kindergarten classes with increasing numbers of troubled youngsters, some violent, whose behavior creates management problems not seen before. Intermediate teachers told me of classrooms with seven kids with learning disabilities, behavior disorders, autism.

Many await designations – the only hope for extra support – because of backups in testing.

In B.C., 1,400 specialist teachers, 100 counsellors, 300 teacher librarians have been lost since 2002.

Libraries, unfunded, only stay open if a “funded” department – technology for example – moves in as a co-tenant.

More bodies in classrooms and unsupported special needs seriously impacts teaching, and learning. The common denominator? It’s government policy that treats class size and composition as budget expenses instead of investments in youth.

“Class size matters,” says Diane Schanzenbach, an educational policy researcher at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

In a 2014 report, Does Class Size Matter, she writes: “Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes,” citing the Tennessee Student Achievement Ratio Experiment –“the gold standard in research.

“The results from STAR (1999) – which show significant improvements in math and reading test scores – are unequivocal,” says Schanzenbach.

It showed children who attend small classes in early grades (15-20 students) benefit over their entire lifetime, and such sizes enable teachers to be more effective because they had more time to employ a variety of strategies to promote learning.

“For example, they closely monitored the progress of student learning in their classes,” says Schanzenbach, “were able to re-teach using alternative strategies when children did not learn a concept, and maintained superior personal interactions with their students. Smaller classes produced higher test scores for all students and gains were larger for students from low socio-economic status families.”

Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds, says Schanzenbach. “Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.”

Anybody considering a run at school board in November should note where students and parents stand on these issues, and adopt a platform based not on zero cuts to programs and services for students, and demand the return of those slashed by government and rubber stamped by compliant, weak school boards over the decades.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.