Class Size and Composition: A Birthday Party Analogy

Issues of class size and composition tend to polarize the discourse about public education.

These issues are complicated because ideological positions inform much of the debate which is often emotional, replete with language around justice and economics, anxiety and flexibility, discrimination and fairness.  

They also encapsulate a tug of war between the needs of students, the workload ramifications for teachers, the expectations of parents, and the managerial criteria of governments.

I want to explore these issues using the analogy of a birthday party. 

Why?

Because we’re stuck in a gladiatorial arena where arguments on class size and composition are discussed in terms of competing narratives. 

Lions Bay Artwork

This restricts our ability to forge solutions and negotiate settlements rather than helping us forge fair and equitable resolutions. So why not try a different lens?

Let’s take a typical six-year-old in British Columbia who is turning seven.  Which is easier to host:  a birthday party for 12 or a birthday party for 20?

All factors being equal, one would be inclined to say a party of 12.

But wait.  What if you have to tend to all the details for a party of 12 with no help? That could be much more work than booking a birthday package for 20 at a local community centre where all, or most, of the details are taken care of.

However, what if that group of 20 at the recreation centre includes a handful of children who do not take well to group activities?  It may still be less work, but it may be as stressful as, or more stressful than, the small party for 12 at home.  And that small party of 12 at home might be a lot less work if you have the help of family members and friends.

This may be a frivolous analogy, but it demonstrates a key idea: class size is important, but it’s not the only factor to consider with regard to structuring a successful learning environment.  That’s why those who claim that class size doesn’t matter, in my opinion, are erroneously emphasizing short-term economic efficiency.  Those who claim class size can be addressed as a formula are prioritizing workload considerations. 

I think we need to figure out a new system for public education, one which supports smaller class sizes, allows the flexibility for larger class sizes where supportable, and in all cases supplies the resources and help required to ensure an optimum learning environment.  In my imagined structure, a school district may very well have Grade 1 classes of differing sizes whether of 6, of 12, of 20, of 24, and even, depending on many other factors especially support services, 30. 

Wait a second.  

I overlooked the most important question.

Whose birthday party is it?  What type of birthday party does the child want?  Is he an introvert better-suited to small gatherings at home?  Is she an extrovert better suited to a significant gathering with lots of activity and her as the centre of attention?  Alternatively, would he or she really rather not bother with a party at all even at six years old?

Unfortunately, that’s the question which is often overlooked in the fractured and fraught discussion about class size and composition. 

And yet, it is about the kids. Isn’t it?

A Song for Education

Given today’s events in the divisive and frenetic world of the public education system in British Columbia, I was inspired to adapt one of my all-time favourite songs for the occasion.

Sung to the tune of “One Tin Soldier” (with my apologies to the original song-writer and performers), here’s my version entitled “A Negotiated Contract”.

 

“Listen children to a story

That was written just today

‘Bout a letter in a paper &

The leaked doc here to stay

 

In the letter were some answers

Rescued from beneath the spin

And the so-called leaky memo

Claimed the media for the win

 

Go ahead and trip your neighbour

Go ahead and beat a drum

Do it in the name of victory

You can justify it in the sum

There won’t be any bargainin’

Come tomorrow day

And the drizzly morning after

A negotiated contract slips away.”

 

An Open Letter to the Premier of British Columbia

Dear Christy,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Christy.  We’ve never met, but you seem to pride yourself on connecting personally with British Columbians, so I’m sure you won’t mind my use of your first name.

I think it’s critically important for women to be involved in politics at all levels of government.  I ran for the first time in 2011 and was honoured when the residents of West Vancouver elected me to be one of their trustees to the Board of Education.

Given my belief that women in politics are agents for change, it is with some hope that I viewed your election as leader of the BC Liberal Party and, subsequently, as Premier. 

The opportunity to have a woman at the helm of the governing party seemed to me to be an opportunity to do things differently, to do things in a manner which is more collaborative and more substantive.  To rise above partisanship and to focus on the overall good of our province and not merely to wallow in ideology.

Since then I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned by your approach to politics and governing.

Why?

Victoria Parliament

Because rather than being an innovator in politics, you seem to be perfecting the art of politics by photo opportunity and soundbite rather than by policy and depth.

This is perhaps most evident in your approach to public education in our province and your reaction to the decision by Justice Griffin of the BC Supreme Court.

Essentially, Justice Griffin reaffirmed her earlier finding that legislation in 2002, enacted when you were Minister of Education, was unconstitutional and that the remedies subsequently introduced were insufficient.

This means that hundreds of millions of dollars that should have been invested in the public education system have been diverted.  Not only that, but in the intervening twelve years, increases in costs, inflationary increases in conjunction with downloaded costs, have outpaced increases in funding which means that Boards of Education throughout BC have done more and more with less and less.

The continuing success of Boards should not be taken as an indication that funding is adequate.  Rather, it is a testament to their resilience, and the resilience of all the partner groups including parents, that our students have continued to thrive and excel.

Imagine the success we would have had if you had maintained funding according to the terms of the 2002 collective agreement!

We would have had greater equity across school districts.

We would have more successfully addressed the needs of our most vulnerable students.

We would have kept more schools open.

To argue now, in light of the court judgement, that the solution is not affordable and that it will cause irreparable harm to students is to focus on being right rather than doing what’s right.  

I’m confident that Justice Griffin was not counting on a time machine to carry us back in time and I recognize that filing an appeal is an option available to you in our legal system. I also believe the time has come for you to show leadership and to do things differently.

Negotiate a new contract with the BCTF, with new parameters for September 2014, and agree to provide the additional funding which will be required to fulfill the terms of a new agreement.

That, Christy, would reaffirm my belief in the power you have, as a woman in politics, to make a difference and, in particular, to make a difference which will undoubtedly benefit students in BC’s internationally recognized public education system.

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