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Big isn’t better, better is better

We spent quite a bit of time in the 1960s singing “When will they ever learn…?” and I find myself humming it again quite a lot lately.

I have just read a recent Malcolm Gladwell (he of Tipping Point and Outliers and What the Dog Saw fame) called David and Goliath. He pursues the view that most things conform to an inverted “U” curve in which there are clear gains for a time but then they fall off.

One of his case studies is the issue of smaller class size and its impact on student achievement, noting that dozens of countries have clear evidence that smaller classes do not impact on raising student achievement even though eventually they might. But, he suggests, that point is nowhere near being reached in most western systems.

Put another way, there is room in western systems for class sizes to be increased and for the resources that are freed up to be diverted to more focused activity that lifts teacher quality.

Of course there is screeching from certain sections of the profession about this – this too, Gladwell says, is a feature across those countries which like us have concentrated over the years in increasing the number of teachers in the system

But the sad and sorry truth of this approach is that the basis of the increase is usually through student teacher ratios. This is as blunt an instrument as you could wish for and as unfocused an approach as you might find. Pouring more teachers into a system to do more of the same work will inevitably end up with more of the same results. If you don’t believe this then simply look at what has happened in New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK and so on and so on over the past few decades.

Looking at the use of teachers in other systems might encourage us to believe that until teachers are able to work in teams and to bring different skill sets into the classroom, increasing teacher numbers is simply to throw good money after money that has been unable to effect improvement in outcomes for many students.

Furthermore, increased flexibility for students would allow approaches that are more able to allow those teachers to target students in programmes matched to the needs of the individual student.

So the incessant campaign of the teacher unions (and they have once again persuaded the Labour Party to head into an election with such a policy) seems to become an argument against lifting teacher quality (and school quality don’t forget) rather than “investing in educational success” (the Government’s words for it) through the provision of quality leadership from our best teachers and principals. It was interesting to see a recent media poll that showed that vox populi was siding with the quality side of the issue rather than the class size position.

Jacques Barzun captured something of this in his argument that “teacher competence is not the issue, competent teachers doing the wrong thing is.” That sums up the issue somewhat. Throwing increased numbers of competent teachers at the system will not effect improvement unless there are changes to what those competent teachers do. Wasting such an opportunity by lowering class size defies both belief and the evidence.

History is larded with examples of great teachers working with large numbers of students – but often this reflected idiosyncratic character and/or approaches. Universities would claim to be able to effectively teach huge numbers but schools are different. School systems are measured not by their performance at the top achievement levels but by their success in giving all students equitable outcomes. Ironically, school systems are regarded for both achievement and equity – that’s an unpalatable truth for some in New Zealand. But it is a truth.

Last week I saw classes of 50-60 students being taught with purpose and enjoyment. There was not enough furniture to go around so a third of the class sat on the floor. The teaching was lively and I sensed that learning was occurring. Where was this? Samoa. This is seldom seen in New Zealand and that might be a good thing. But perhaps our best teachers should be supported to have more reach than the ratio-allotted number.

But as I have often said – in these issues the truth is in the middle, at the top of Gladwells’ inverted-“U” curve. Class size could easily be increased under certain conditions and for positive reasons but they can’t get huge.

Everyone knows that.



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  1. Allan Vester Allan Vester

    Thanks for a thoughtful take on class size. I too read the Gladwell book and shared the class size part with staff. Of course the situation is never as simple as it might seem and a whole raft of other factors hidden behind averages come into play.
    Ask any teacher which they find least stressful to teach. A small class of students well behind their peers in skills and behaviour or a much larger group of well engaged more able students?
    As you note average class size reduction is a very blunt instrument. This is even more so when looking at the staffing formula and how it works according to schools with quite different in-takes.
    In reality, need as measured at in-take has no or almost no impact on staffing.
    It would be quite possible in the current regime for a school to have a Year 9 intake made up entirely of students not yet at the standard as measure against the National Standards. That would have no impact on staffing.
    If we are really committed to catching up those students who start at any level [Year 1 to 9] behind their peers then the staffing formula needs to have a needs based component.
    I totally endorse the comments on the centrality of teacher quality but do worry that by focusing on that alone we miss dealing with the reality that needs differ and that those students with higher needs are not evening distributed across schools and communities.
    Improving teacher quality, even if that occurs evenly across schools, will not on its own close the gaps between students and communities.

    • Stuart Middleton Stuart Middleton

      Once again Allan Vester adds value to the discussion! I respond very positively to the suggestion the “student need” should have a bearing on staffing levels. This can, in my view, only be achieved by teachers’ working differently and in a different configuration of skill sets. The Scandinavians put a team of teachers together, each with a different skill set to work on the particular needs of students and usually in a single classroom – real “team teaching”. That this is a key factor in achieving the enviable degree of equity in outcomes seems to me to be obvious. It was something of a promise, which has turned out to be pretty hollow, that decile ratings would impact on resourcing and would allow better attention to be paid to just this. But it never happened. Getting increased numbers of teachers to work in these ways has to be done in a manner that reflects needs and not simply through a formula in which everyone is better off but relative disadvantage is preserved. Thanks Allan.

  2. Ian Hall Ian Hall

    I too agree with so much of what Alan is saying. We know that resources are scarce and need to be used to best effect, so it’s disappointing when blunt instruments such as class sizes are advocated to populist ends. I admire much of what Chris Hipkins has done in developing Labour Party policy, but it’s surely time to move past the class size debate? I also despair when we claim to be an informed profession, presumably advocating from an evidence base, yet so much of what we read and hear is based on slogan and anecdote.

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