With the looming Federal election (whenever it is) it is difficult to escape education debates in the media. The Gonski reform to school funding, in particular, has dominated column inches and airwaves. However, the debate over class sizes is ever-present and interesting. Whilst the Labor government is a proponent of reducing class sizes, the Coalitian prefers the ‘improving teacher quality’ approach. Undoubtedly (or naively) both sides want the best outcomes for all Australian students.
Former PM Julia Gillard’s Better Schools campaign seeks to improve the quality of education in Australia, with the ultimate goal of Australian schools being ranked in the top 5 in the world. In addition to reforms to school funding the Labor party supports reducing class sizes, reflecting the position of the union.
The Government has criticised the Coalition’s plan to focus on improving teacher quality rather than reduce class sizes. The Government considers that the average Australian class size of 23.5 students should be closer to, or below, the OECD average of 21.2 students. Shadow Minister for Education Chris Pyne has stated “I am not fixated on a class size. What I am fixated on is the need to train our teachers better and to ensure that when young people choose teaching as a profession… they can see ahead of them a career progression which they find attractive.”
Mr Pyne attributes the emphasis on teacher quality in Finland and east Asian countries to the high performance of these countries on international testing. Top performers in international testing Finland and Hong Kong, despite having vastly different approaches to schooling, develop high-quality teachers, who have a high degree of accountability. Finland recruits teachers from the top 10% of school graduates. South Korea recruits from the top 5%. Yet the average class size of these countries is starkly different. In Finland average class size is less than 20 students, in Korea it’s closer to 35 students.
Mr Pyne has emphasised the lack of evidence in supporting small class sizes to improve student outcomes, a viewpoint is echoed by Professor Barry McGaw, chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
“We have wasted a lot of money in Australian education by reducing class size,” Professor McGaw told ABC NewsRadio.
“It’s a very expensive thing to do and the range in which we’ve reduced it has almost no impact on student learning.”
The oft-cited Professor John Hattie, of the University of Melbourne, has researched quality teaching and learning extensively. Hattie’s 2008 book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement is considered to be the world’s largest evidence-based study into factors that improve student learning. Hattie’s notes that teachers are the greatest source of variance in student achievement (accounting for 30% of variance) after the individual students themselves (50% of variance).
A quality teacher is effective regardless of class size. I’d rather have my child in the class of an exemplary teacher with 30 other children, than in the class of an ineffective teacher that has only 20 students.
I have experienced personally, and heard countless anecdotal evidence of the struggles of difficult-to-teach classes: filled with students with significant academic, behaviour and psychological issues. I appreciate that in streamed mathematics classes, the weakest academic groups (who often appear to have more accompanying issues) have smaller class sizes. You notice every additional ‘body in the room’ more acutely in these environments. Smaller classes affords me greater opportunity to give these students the individual attention they need academically, and improves capacity for behavioural management.
Whilst some classroom environments benefit from reducing class sizes it is not the silver bullet to improving educational outcomes across the board.
Improving teacher quality has a more significant impact on improving student achievement than reducing class sizes.
Almost all research evidence has determined that class size has a relatively weak relationship (if any) to improving student performance. Between 2000 and 2009 many OECD countries poured significant money into reducing class sizes, however few of these countries saw an increase in student performance. PISA 2009 analysis shows that reducing class sizes is expensive and far less efficient strategy of improving student outcomes than other methods such as improving in the quality of teachers or reducing teaching hours.
Professional development is imperative to ensure teachers are aware of current curriculum developments. This is particularly relevant at present as we move to a national curriculum.
Obsessive campaigning for smaller class sizes weakens the case for more important investments in education: such as improvements to teacher training and on-going professional development, and a decisive plan to attract and retain quality teachers.
There is a finite amount of money available for education. Decisions need to be made on the most effective way to spend this money. With far more compelling evidence for improving teacher quality than reducing class sizes, to me the decision seems obvious.