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Employer Wrong on Class Size, Composition: Ungerleider

Graduation rates not linked to class size, former deputy education minister says.

Katie Hyslop 4 Jun

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter .

The teachers' union and their employer may be far apart when it comes to salary proposals for the province's teachers, but the main bone of contention is class size and composition.

The teachers want a return to the pre-2002 formulas used to determine how big a class should be and the number of specialist teachers like teacher librarians or counsellors there should be per school, as well as reinstating a cap on the number of special needs students per class. Two B.C. Supreme Court rulings have found these formulas were unconstitutionally stripped from their contracts by government in 2002 and again in 2012.

The employers' association wants to stick with the class size numbers it has now and not put a cap on the number of special needs students per class.

Grad rates linked to class size: Cameron

But it isn't just that they want their own way. Government bargaining representative Peter Cameron says the teachers' formula would have a negative affect on the province's graduation rates.

"The formula approach just doesn't work," said Cameron at an April 25 media briefing. "And since 2001 the process under the Learning Improvement Fund of involving the teachers in actually using the money to address class size and composition problems ... has been remarkably successful."

Cameron cited improved graduation rates of special needs and aboriginal students as evidence, but added, "Any indicator of performance of the system has rebounded since 2001." It's a theory he brought up again at a press briefing on May 15.

The Learning Improvement Fund, which put $165 million towards addressing education issues including class size and composition over three years -- and $75 million annually thereafter -- wasn't introduced until 2012. But overall graduation rates have improved: 83.1 per cent last year compared to 78.5 per cent in 2002/03, the year teachers' formulas were stripped.

Former deputy minister: 'doesn't make sense'

Is credit for improved student outcomes owed to government's removal of those formulas? Charles Ungerleider, former deputy minister of education and current University of British Columbia professor of sociology of education, doesn't think so.

"The fact that [graduation rates] are going up is no surprise: people have been working hard at doing that," he said, crediting an attitude shift he has seen in Canadian teachers from attempting to change the student to fit the curriculum to addressing students' educational needs.

"You don't want to justify not attending to the class size issue simply because [graduation rates have] been going up. While I have great respect for Peter in the labour field, his analysis just doesn't make sense."

Teachers and their employer negotiated the formulas shortly before Ungerleider joined the education ministry in 1998, in exchange for cuts to the union's wage demands. In 2002 then-education minister Christy Clark stripped those formulas, as well as teachers' right to bargain these working conditions in future contract negotiations, from teachers' contracts.

Ungerleider cites the Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) Project out of Tennessee as proof of the benefits of small class sizes in kindergarten to Grade 3. The study, which took place from 1985 to 1989, found short and long-term educational benefits for kindergarten to Grade 3 students in classes with 13 to 17 students compared to classes with 22 to 25 students. Subsequent studies showed the positive outcomes didn't stop there.

"They seemed to have beneficial outcomes not only in terms of graduation but going onto post-secondary, taking more challenging courses," said Ungerleider.

The teachers' union formula would see class size maximums decrease over three years, from 20 to 18 students in kindergarten; 22 to 20 in Grades 1-3; 28 to 26 in Grades 4-7; and 28 to 27 in Grades 8-12.

The employers' association wants to keep class sizes as they are, with a maximum of 22 students in kindergarten; 24 in Grades 1-3; and 30 students in Grades 4-12. However those limits can be breached if deemed "appropriate for learning" by the principal and district superintendent, and teachers are compensated for it. By government's own count over 1,000 classes exceeded class size limits in 2013/14.

The teachers' union also wants a three-per-class cap on the number of special needs students, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis. Cameron says that would violate special needs students' human rights by preventing them from joining a class based on a special need that might not even be relevant to the class.

Ungerleider dismissed this argument, saying there is nothing in the School Act or the Canadian Human Rights Act guaranteeing admittance into a certain class.

"You have a right to an education, but it doesn't say [in the School Act] that you're entitled to an education in Ms. Fuller's Grade 3 class," he said as an example.

Labour court ruling imminent

The former deputy education minister wouldn't say whether he agreed with the teachers' formulas, nor did he cite studies supporting smaller class sizes in older grades. But he disagrees with how the employers' association, and by extension the provincial government, has and continues to handle this aspect of bargaining.

"As somebody standing away from the bargaining table and looking at the issue as an issue, it is unfair to use state power to unilaterally alter that contract for teachers, taking away something that they negotiated [in 2002]," he said.

This is the second week of teachers' rotating strikes, with different districts on the picket line every day this week except for today. Bargaining continues, however, with the two sides scheduled to meet again Thursday and Friday in an effort to reach a deal by the end of June.

In the meantime a Labour Relations Board ruling on the employers' decision to dock teacher pay by 10 per cent until a deal is reached is expected today.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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