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the great class-size debate

I haven't blogged much lately, due to a combination of factors to do with my 'day' job. But I've followed the recent heated debate around proposed changes to class size with much interest, & I did manage to pull together something for my 'other' blog. So I've reproduced that here :-)

Here in New Zealand, the compulsory education sector has recently received a lot of media & political attention (see here & here, for example), culminating in the reversal of a Ministerial decision to change pupil-teacher ratios in our compulsory schooling sector. Part of the money ‘saved’ by this move was to have gone towards improving teacher quality, a praiseworthy goal but one that so far lacks any clear mechanisms to support it (apart from a Ministry of Education statement that “[r]aising the quality of teaching will be helped by attracting higher quality applicants, raising the entry criteria for becoming a teacher and improving the quality of programmes of learning in ITE [Initial Teacher Education].”

Like most educators I know, I was concerned at the now-reversed proposal, for a number of reasons.

First up: the cuts in teacher numbers would have impacted hardest on intermediate schools with technology units – units offering technology classes both to their own students & in many cases to students from smaller ‘client’ schools. These classes give students the opportunity for a range of hands-on experiences – including science-based experiences – that they’d otherwise miss out on. At a time when primary schools have been reproached because many pupils miss out on quality learning in science, it did seem strange to put intermediate schools into a similar position by incorporating technology staffing for students in years 7 & 8 (the ‘intermediate’ years in NZ) into the curriculum staffing rations for years 2-10, with the end result that some schools stood to lose several teachers in this important learning area.

Secondly, part of the rationale for raising pupil-teacher ratios at all – and I recognise that for many schools there would probably have been little change – seems to have been the idea that class size doesn’t matter; that ‘teacher quality’ (however it’s defined) is more important. However, it’s clear from meta-analyses carried out by Prof John Hattie (then at the University of Auckland) that smaller classes do see appreciable changes in “[a]chievement, attitude, teacher morale and student satisfaction” – in classes of 10-15 students, with little effect when class sizes change from around 40 to 20. This was the case across all subjects & levels of student ability, in both primary & secondary schools. And it’s likely that one of the key factors involved in these improvements is time: the fact that in smaller classes teachers have the opportunity to spend more time with each individual student, providing feedback & reinforcement on a one-to-one basis.

For Hattie has found that

the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be “dollops of feedback” — providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve

where ‘feedback’ includes things like “reinforcement, corrective feedback, remediation and feedback, diagnosis feedback, and mastery learning” (based on that feedback). And giving that sort of feedback takes time, & quite a lot of it.

Funnily enough, just about every year when the paper & teacher appraisal results for my papers come in, my lowest score is for the statement “this teacher regularly provides me with feedback about my progress”. Now, I suppose you could say that in a class of ~200**, the opportunities for me to provide this are limited, but in fact students get feedback in class via things like pop quizzes; on Moodle – for example, through ‘common errors’ feedback almost as soon as essays are submitted; in writing, on test papers & written assignments; & face-to-face. Last year I asked the class about this – it turned out, to my surprise, that most of this was not recognised as ‘feedback’: many of them saw only verbal, face-to-face responses as feedback! This was a timely reminder that teachers and their students don’t necessarily have a common understanding around common classroom terminology.

And thirdly – well, the proposed changes did rather seem to be putting the cart before the horse, in that we seemed to be lacking a common, public, understanding on just what constitutes teacher quality, let alone how we should measure it. (For our national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, the latter is done on the basis of portfolios submitted by those nominated for an award: a daunting task where there are some dozens of portfolios. I can’t imagine doing anyone the same for the 52000+ teachers in our compulsory education sector!) Despite all the heat around issues such as class sizes & performance pay, what we haven’t had is just that public discussion around what constitutes an excellent, expert teacher. There are studies (again, including work by John Hattie) that identify the attributes of such teachers. What we seem to lack is any agreement on how to apply these studies to the classroom in order to identify & esteem those experts – or any substantive discussion*** on how to encourage and support our very many other experienced teachers**** to join their ranks.


**The NZ Herald has covered the whole story in some depth. One of the silliest comments I’ve seen was in response to an op-ed piece by Dita di Boni, when F Max remarked that

And amazingly kids can go from a class of 30ish to a university lecture of 300+ learning far more difficult concepts. So why is the teacher ratio argument ignored at uni? Apparently our universities are in crisis and everyone must be failing. Or maybe it’s less about numbers and more about quality, something most of our teachers greatly lack.

Apart from impugning the professionalism of our classroom teachers, & ignoring the fact that the students in university classes are different in many ways from those in a primary or secondary classroom, F Max seems unaware that uni lecturers like me don’t just stand up in front of a class & lecture at them. Tutorial classes of 10-30 students give much better opportunities for feedback & one-on-one instruction – opportunities that many classroom teachers may only dream of.

*** Perhaps this is something that individual Ako Aotearoa Academy members might be interested in contributing to?

**** And yes - before anyone jumps on me - I'm aware that we have teachers, just as we have other professionals, who are not at the top of their game.

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I wasn't particularly worried by the increase in class size, however the implementation was worrying. It sounds like the policy got a sounding out in front of an audience of business people rather than of principals. The later group could have quickly pointed out the (presumably) unintended consequences on intermediate technology education.

As you say, the intended changes would have probably been small, not moving classes out of the 10-15 range where Hattie suggests size matters most.

Actually, on reflection, perhaps the most worrying thing was that I found myself in agreement with the government!

I think the only classes where the ratio is around 17pupils:1teacher is in the upper levels of secondary school (going by the Ministry's figures), & that's one of those 'indicative only' things where some classes will be larger & some much smaller. At years 7-8 (where schools would have been hardest hit) the technology classes would have increased from 23:1 to around 27:1.

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