Common Ground on Class Size

What is the optimal class size? It's a question that educators and policymakers in many countries, including Finland, continually ask themselves. Opinions vary on what student-to-teacher ratio works best. Often, educators are told that it makes no difference if one or two additional children are placed in their classrooms. When teachers raise concerns about increased class sizes, they are sometimes told that their teaching skills are weak and in need of improvement. Some CEOs may believe that paying teachers more will resolve the issue. But teachers know that salary increases alone cannot make up for the lack of individualized attention students receive in crowded classrooms.

Even in Finland, where cooperation and equality have paved the way for high educational achievement, teachers and their unions must remain vigilant in helping to keep class sizes reasonable. Finnish teachers recognize that besides teaching the curriculum and meeting instructional targets, they must take into account each student's strengths and weaknesses. They know they can only attend to students' needs if class sizes do not grow out of hand.

Many foreign visitors to Finland notice that the student-teacher ratio in Finnish primary schools is rather good; on average, there are 20 students to one teacher in grades 1 through 6. However, class size varies considerably among schools and municipalities. Some primary school classes have 30 students, while others have only 10. How is this possible?

Historically, national education legislation determined the maximum class sizes, but in the 1990s, new legislation left the decision to the municipalities, which had demanded such a change. During the good economic times of the 1990s, Finland's teachers' union, the Trade Union of Education (where I work as a special advisor), was willing to trust the municipalities to prioritize education and children. One reason for that willingness was that a legal limitation on class sizes for children with special needs remained intact.

Over time, however, the issue of class size became problematic. Teachers did not like the inconsistency; some were happily working in small classes, while others had classes that were too big. In the beginning of 2000, the situation became unworkable. The municipalities had financial problems that resulted in bigger classes in the primary schools. In the union, we put this issue at the top of our agenda and considered our options. Would it be better for the municipalities to continue to have decision-making power so that union members could then lobby their local decision makers? Or should we demand new national legislation? After our analysis, we decided to demand legislation requiring that each primary school class have no more than 18 children.

To that end, the union began to lobby members of parliament and members of various ministries, especially those members who had previously been teachers. We also worked closely with civil servants in the Ministry of Education and the National Board of Education to convince them of the importance of smaller class sizes. And we contacted the health care sector, child welfare organizations, and universities for their support. In this way, we created public awareness of our message, and little by little, decision makers began to listen to us. The Finnish Parents' League was a strong partner. Parents joined us in lobbying at the municipal level by directly contacting their municipal council members. Many of these decision makers have children who attend the public schools, which helped them understand the importance of this issue.

Our efforts to reach out to the public have paid off. During the last four years, the government has allocated additional funds to municipalities in order to reduce class sizes. The municipalities must apply for these funds from the Ministry of Education and then keep the ministry apprised of their class sizes. We realize that government funds alone are not enough to keep class sizes reasonable permanently, but they do signal that our politicians recognize that class size matters and that students and teachers will encounter problems when classes are too large.

In some cases, where class sizes cannot be reduced by creating more classrooms, two teachers are assigned to teach within the same class. We recognize that the ways to keep class sizes manageable will vary, and we are open to creative solutions that will allow teachers to give students the attention they need.

Last year, the minister of education announced his support for the union's advocacy for legislation limiting class size. While this is a major victory for Finnish education, the fight for equal educational opportunity is not over. Even if we achieve new legislation, the challenge of providing the best education for all children will never really end. It's a constant struggle in which the union works step by step to find common ground with key partners. Cooperation leads to the best results.

Ritva Semi, a former preschool teacher, is the special advisor to Finland's Trade Union of Education, where she focuses on education policy, international relations, and lobbying.

Reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2013

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American Educator, Spring 2013