The government of Manitoba is embarking on a comprehensive review of the K-12 public education system.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) and its more than 15,000 members are supporters of this once-in-a-generation review and will wholeheartedly participate in enhancing the future for Manitoba students.
It has been more than two decades since a review of this magnitude has occurred, and over this time, classrooms have become far more complex. The number and needs of students have risen, as have expectations placed on teachers and other education staff. At the same time, resources and supports have failed to keep pace.
For example, with the growing demands and needs of the classroom, it is more important than ever that the issue of class size be examined to ensure that all students are given the best chance of success.
Numerous studies have shown that K-3 students who have greater access to individual attention from their teacher, due to smaller class sizes, achieve greater academic success. Furthermore, smaller classes are especially helpful for students coming from families with a lower socio-economic status, and those with learning disabilities.
In 2017, the provincial government abandoned the smaller classes initiative, which required 90 per cent of classrooms from kindergarten to Grade 3 in each school division to limit class sizes to 20 students.
The universal cap mandated by the initiative served as an equalizer because it guaranteed individualized attention for K-3 students, regardless of where they went to school.
A full school year has passed since the removal of the cap on classroom size, and according to a recent poll conducted by Viewpoints Research on behalf of MTS, teachers and students are feeling the effects.
The poll surveyed 801 public school teachers across the province and 74 per cent agreed that the removal of the cap has had a negative effect on their ability to provide individualized attention to students, and on their ability to effectively perform their job to the level they would like.
It’s not surprising. It’s simple math. The more students in a classroom, the less likelihood of one-on-one time with the teacher. Questions might go unanswered, simply because there are too many to answer. Students who are struggling might be overlooked in a large classroom because there is less opportunity to participate in discussions.
In a smaller classroom, teachers are able to take the time to correct or encourage students having trouble because they become more aware of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Teachers and parents know this first-hand, without the aid of studies.
Research shows the inability to participate is a contributing factor in students becoming disengaged from the lesson. This should be of concern to anyone who cares about our public education system, because engaged students are more likely to do well and less likely to drop out of school.
According to the poll, the decrease in individualized time with the teacher is already affecting student engagement, especially in the early years. Since the removal of the cap, 74 per cent of K-4 teachers are reporting that student engagement has suffered.
Typically, student engagement declines as students progress through the school system, reaching its lowest levels in high school, making this increase in the early years very alarming.
Teachers reporting a negative effect on student behaviour have increased to 82 per cent from 75 per cent in 2017. Again, this is not surprising, as larger classrooms tend to be more disruptive because there are more students to manage.
This is but one major issue that will no doubt be raised before the review commission. There will be more, raised by MTS and others, carrying as much weight on the future of education in the province.
We will be watching and participating for the teachers, students and parents here now and yet to arrive. Indeed, for the future of the province.
Norm Gould is president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.