“Class Size” debate just got farcical…

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A couple of weeks back I blogged about the Class Size Myth.

I made two simple points.

  1. A smaller class size in and of itself does nothing to enhance student learning. A poor lesson infront of 40 kids will still be a poor lesson in front of 20.
  2. But, in order to implement the proven strategies for improved learning, we need smaller class sizes.

This post had more hits in one day than my blog normally gets in a month, and it presented an argument that most people seemed to understand.

Unless – that is – you are the CEO of the NSW Institute of Teachers (NSWIT) – the lead authority for teaching in NSW.

In a Sun-Herald article entitled, Bigger class sizes free teachers to raise standards, NSWIT CEO, Kate O’Donnell states,

It’s not about saying make the class sizes bigger so teachers can have less contact time but, rather, to make sure in the teaching day there is time allowed for teachers to do something else other than be physically in front of their students, which is ultimately where we want them to be at their best.

But it is about making class sizes bigger, with the inference that this will somehow raise teaching standards.

Interesting. It goes against all the research I’ve read as well as going against common sense… so what’s doing?

The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell recently cut $1 Billion or so from the NSW education budget at a time that increased spending on education has been identified as a key factor in improving teaching and learning. By cutting spending it could be construed that he cares little for education – not a good look for any politician, let alone a first-term premier.

What he needs here is, a way in which he can appear to be interested in raising teaching standards whilst saving money. If he can convince the electorate that he is a good bet educationally and economically speaking, he may well be able to swing this past the voters.

So, what better way then, than to have the head of the government’s teacher authority, Ms Kate O’Donnell cite the great performances of other countries (I presume like most in this debate, she is using PISA as her guiding light) who all have big class sizes… brilliant!

She says,

There’s evidence that in effective systems that do sacrifice smaller class sizes, particularly in older grades, they’re not sacrificing student outcomes.

But the only problem with this statement is that is no evidence that this is the case at all.

Let’s take the two “top-performing” systems (as much as it irks me to distil learning down to a simple PISA score).

The use of the word “sacrifice” by Ms O’Donnell suggests that governments are deliberately forgoing smaller classes in order to make educational gains.

But, in Finland the government committed to reducing class sizes in the late 60s, and as a result the maximum class size is now 20, with science lessons capped at 16.

Whilst, the OECD reports that in China,

In major cities (and Shanghai is typical), recent drastic declines in population have forced local governments to adopt small classes so as to minimise teacher layoffs. This has significantly reduced teachers’ workload and created room for student activities during lessons that would be impossible in large classes.

But hang on, Ms O’Donnell tells us that large classes will reduce teachers’ workload… geez my head hurts.

And the only city from which China’s PISA scores are formulated?  You guessed it… Shanghai.

I find it strange that the government would – on the one hand – use findings from the OECD to strengthen its argument to improve teaching, but then – on the other hand – dismiss (or ignore, or be completely unaware of) findings from the OECD that cite small class sizes as one of the reasons for academic success (albeit in standardised tests).

I can only assume that one of three things has happened here.

The Sun-Herald misquoted Ms O’Donnell, which would be alarming.

The Government and the NSWIT are misinterpreting data and research, which would be equally alarming given their level of responsibility.

Or they are deliberately misleading NSW, which would be even more alarming, if not entirely surprising. By citing that bigger classes pave the way to better teaching, are they laying a foundation for a policy change?

And, it’s not just happening in NSW.

The Federal Opposition Education Spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has already gone on the record saying he believes class size has little impact on learning, while the QLD government is keen to cram more kids into each classroom too.

I’m not sure what Ted Baillieu, the Victorian premier, thinks about class size, although he did give assurances in 2011 that class sizes would not increase. This came a year or so after he said that under his government, VIC teachers would be the best paid in the land and we all know how that is going!

0 Comments on ““Class Size” debate just got farcical…

  1. Dan
    Australian education is at a cross road and far too many people are making ill informed sidelined, supposedly authoritative comments without actually having a real understanding of the dynamics of schools and students’ learning needs. the comments in the SMH were disappointing as we’ve had countless reports such as a Vinson and recently gonski which contradicts larger class sizes.
    Meanwhile, good teachers will be creating and innovating because they genuinely care for students.

    Great post Dan.

  2. “A poor lesson infront of 40 kids will still be a poor lesson in front of 20”. Could a great lesson infront of 20 still be a great lesson infront of 40?

    Just throwing the question out there. I am not a teacher and have no research to quote.

    Would be interesting to get @gregwhitby and @Stephen_H thoughts on this due to large space teaching/learning areas/classes in their schools.


  3. Until the IOT can prove itself to be anything other than a completely farsical
    Organization that does nothing but take $100 from teachers every year, it is no surprise to see the people in it making claims like this.

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