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Tag: class size

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.




Pathways-ED: What's the matter with size?

Stuart Middleton
18 May 2012


It is all a little surreal. I am up in Samoa for a couple of days finishing a task for the National University of Samoa and it happens again! The minute I leave New Zealand controversy breaks out.

This time the issue clusters around the announcement that teacher/pupil ratios are to rise a little. This is no surprise when just several weeks ago the Treasury put forward the argument that if we wished to really address teacher quality, one way of doing this would be to squeeze the ratios up a little, create uncommitted education funds and spend it on giving teachers the opportunity to develop new skills, to hone up the skills that they had and to generally contribute to that one thing we know really makes a difference to student achievement – teacher quality.

The announcement yesterday by Minister Parata did make an effort to emphasise that the money saved is not lost to education in the way that, say, the MFAT cuts money seems simply to be vacuumed up into the consolidated fund. In this respect education (and health) is being treated more favourably.

And this puts teacher and educators into a rather delicate corner because there is only a tenuous link between teacher/student ratios and class size. Or put more starkly, the increase in the ratios will not automatically mean that all classes will be larger. Schools will continue to make professional decisions about the optimal size for classes of different kinds. Reducing class sizes is clearly not a mechanism for school improvement.

I was an English teacher so I always got to teach classes that were as large as the school could manage. On the other hand some teachers in some subjects had rather fewer students. In primary schools this sort of manipulation is more difficult but perhaps high decile schools can justifiably have larger classes than low decile schools simply because the needs of the students are so dramatically different. This would be thwarted because of the way resources are allocated and there is little capability to transfer between schools. Imagine the fuss if differential ratios based on deciles was to be proposed.

The real difficulty is that the business model that school function with is not very functional. Having so much of the teacher resource tied up, and I mean tied up, in an inflexible staffing structure and delivered as FTEs leaves schools with little room to move. That is why the standardisation of the ratios between Years 2 to 8 and Years 11 to 13 seems to me to be an excellent move. The first signs of flexibility are creeping in.

Those who write the press releases for the Minister may have been a little careless in describing the money saved as “extra” – some of it seems to be new but some is really a reallocation. And how long now have we known that if we wish to achieve different results we will need to behave differently, we will have to use resources differently.

I think that the biggest risk in all this is that achievement might not go up. This would then create a rather traditional response from teacher organisations of “we told you so” when it might actually mean that the indicators are still heading south but more slowly. It is imperative now that we get into reporting progress in meaningful and honest ways and that means cohort reporting. What is happening to each group of students. That is the test.

So the unique student identifier has now become urgent and critical. I sometimes joke that an IRD Number should be tattooed, discretely of course but in a place able to be accessed without embarrassment, to help us achieve this but this idea has not gained ground. I believe that the privacy lobby is still arguing about the invasive nature of such identifiers. Meanwhile we pay a heavy price in education through simply not being able to produce robust statics on how we are going.

Then there is the impact of truancy on class size. If 29,000 students are on average away from school each day (these are official figures) then the impact on class size must have been significant. We will have to be vigilant that class sizes do not balloon as we get on top of truancy.

Also, if we tackle the NEETs issue with vigour and succeed there could be a further 20,000 students at school. Solving the issues of disengagement and educational failure is a sure way to increase the number of teachers in schools!

This is a vexed issue. Oh, I forgot there are also the teen parents (25,000 I was told). Of course there is some double counting in all these figures. A side issue is that a teen Mum only has an entitlement until age 18 years. This is something that is an abrogation of human rights and applies only to them and, seemingly, to First XV aspirants in Auckland schools!

The thing that will silence the argument about class size will be a clear improvement in achievement. That is the challenge and that is why we go teaching in the first place.



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