Defining my terms:

A **columnist** is someone who writes for publication in a series, creating an article that usually offers commentary and opinions.

A **journalist** collects, writes, and distributes news and other information, while refraining from bias.

An Edmonton Journal columnist, one who could never be accused of even partially refraining from bias, has been arguing that class size reduction efforts in Alberta have been a waste of money. He cites research and even quotes the head of PISA (sounding dangerously like a journalist), but then conveniently leaves out relevant details that would contradict his argument (he is, after all, a columnist).

Some high performing countries (according to PISA) have larger class sizes than we do. The obvious conclusion is that we should increase class sizes, right? Not so fast, Mr. Biased Columnist. It’s only a logical conclusion if you ignore other all the other factors at play.

Currently, the norm in high schools in Alberta is to have teachers teach 7 out of 8 blocks. That means each semester I see four unique classes of around 35 students, for a total of 140 students per semester. I get an 80 minute preparation period every other day. Because of the already large class sizes, I spend most of my preparation time creating and grading assessments. Very little of my preparation time is spent on actually thinking about how to teach my material better.

Mr. Biased Columnist points out that places like Finland, Korea, Singapore (among others) have class sizes that are larger than in Alberta, and still perform better on PISA (this is fact). What he deliberately neglects to tell us (Logical fallacy of Omission – Stacking the Deck) though, is that teachers in those countries spend far less time in front of students than we do in North America. From the Singapore Ministry of Education:

The workload of our teachers varies across the year, depending on whether it is peak or non-peak periods. Over the entire year, our teachers teach, on average, about 15 hours per week. To deliver classroom teaching effectively, teachers also spend approximately twice as much time on teaching-related duties such as preparing for lessons, providing remediation for weaker students, setting and marking of homework and examinations.

**They spend double their assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching.** I spend 1/8 of my assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching.

Singapore has secondary classes in the neighbourhood of 40 students, but based on what I read above, they would only see two of those a day. That’s a total of 80 students per semester, which is far fewer than we see each semester in Alberta. In addition, the Ministry of Education in Singapore indicates:

Some schools also deploy two teachers in a class of 40 students—one teacher brings the class through the curriculum, while the other teacher assists specific students who may have difficulty understanding the materials being covered.

Wow! Singapore teachers actually have less marking to do than I do, more time built into their schedules to collaborate with colleagues and plan good lessons, AND they get to team-teach in large classes? It’s a model I’d be willing and eager to explore. Are they hiring in Singapore?

Mr. Biased Columnist suggests that good teachers will do well no matter how many students we give them. I agree. Under our current conditions, however, they will likely burn out from all the marking and management problems that large classes can bring. We don’t want to burn out our good teachers, do we? One third of new teachers in Alberta burn out within 5 years. Let’s revisit Singapore.

The annual resignation rate for teachers has remained low at around 3% over the past five years. In our exit interviews and surveys, workload has not been cited as a major reason for leaving the Education Service. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the workload of teachers through internal employee feedback channels to ensure that workload is maintained within reasonable levels.

Singapore has bigger classes, fewer teaching hours, more collaborative time built into their day and retains 97% of their teachers. Does class size matter? Not nearly as much as teacher collaboration built into the school day.

On a completely different vein, I do need to point out that in my travels across Alberta, I already see classrooms that were built to hold 25 students jam-packed with 40 desks. I don’t know how we can physically put more bodies into those classrooms. Are we going to build a bunch of new schools with large lecture theatres?

Some Resources I Used

on December 15, 2013 at 11:01 am |suevanhattumHi John,

Have you read Deborah Meier’s book,

The Power of Their Ideas? She argues for class sizes for 15 (elementary) and 20 (high school). The book shares her experiences as creator and principal of a very successful public school in Harlem that managed to do that. Small classes are indeed important if you want to build community. In Finland class size is 19 (K-2) or 21 (3-8), much smaller than your classes.I started with all that to make clear that we agree. However, there are a number of problems with your post. (I’d like to read the post you are critiquing. Naming the author would be helpful.)

They spend 2/3 of their total time on teaching-related duties, while you spend 1/8. Or, they get twice as much the time on those duties as what they spend in the classroom, while you spend 1/7 as much time on those duties as in the classroom. Small mistake to say 1/8, but I hope you help your students to understand that fractions should be taken from the same unit. The difference is still pretty dramatic. I do notice that their work week must be 45 hours a week. Maybe they get to get their work done while at school, instead of bringing it home like U.S. teachers do.

I have a little trouble figuring out the numbers from a block schedule (how does 7 blocks turn into 4 classes?), but if Singapore used one hour per day per class, 15 hours a week would come to 3 classes not 2, and they’d have 120 students, not 80. Still fewer than you, but not such a dramatic difference.

If the annual resignation rate is 3%, that would mean they lose about 14% of their teachers in 5 years, where you lose 33%. (In the U.S. it’s worse, we lose over half in 5 years.) I figured 14% (not 15%) by thinking about how many stay, after 5 years .97^5=.8587 is the percent who have stayed. That compounding is a minor detail. Conflating annual resignations with the number over a 5 year period is a bigger problem.

You are a math teacher. I follow you because you usually write thoughtful posts. I was surprised at your misuse of numbers.

on December 15, 2013 at 11:27 am |John ScammellSue,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. For the record, t’s not the first time you’ve corrected my math. http://thescamdog.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/radical-ruler/#comments

If I may steal from Adam Spencer, paraphrasing, rather than directly quoting: In a room full of normal people, I’m a mathematical genius. In a room full of mathematicians, I’m a freaking idiot.

In my haste to hit publish, I checked grammar, but not math. Sorry to have offended you with sloppy numbers. A better wording would have been: Based on what I see from Singapore, they spend 1/3 of their assignable time in a classroom. I spend 7/8 of my assignable time in a classroom. In an 8 block rotation, I am assigned to teach 7 and prepare during 1.

The second one that you called me on was apples to oranges, and I was aware of that. In my defence, I’m trying to keep my posts shorter, or I would have elaborated on those conflated numbers (I will admit that I had to google that word). If I can find comparable ones, I will update. I suspect their 5 year rate is higher than the 14% you calculated, because if they’re like us, the teachers who leave will leave sooner rather than later. I suspect our overall rate is lower than 33% for the same reason. I just don’t have the numbers.

I’m sorry I disappointed you. I respect you for calling me on it.

Here’s the easy questions to answer. Our most common schedule model at the HS level is 4 blocks a day. In 3 of those, I see the same class every day for a semester. In the other one, I see the same class every other day for the whole year. I alternate between teaching 4/4 and 3/4 periods in a day. Some schools can’t schedule this way, and their teachers teach 4/4 every day for one semester and 3/4 every day for the other semester. I taught that way once. The 4/4 semester was awful. I was exhausted and scrambling to keep up all semester long.

Here’s the article I was referring to: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Staples+Teacher+quality+more+impact+education+outcomes+than+class+size/9271030/story.html

on December 15, 2013 at 11:41 am |suevanhattumThank you, John, for your quick response. I used to teach statistics, and I think it’s very important to argue one’s position accurately. (That other “correction” was minor, and re-reading the post reminds me how much I like your work!)