Smaller schools, not classes

November 15th, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Atlantic reports:

One of the policies you advocate for is “smaller schools.” Why are smaller schools key but smaller classrooms aren’t?

It’s a fascinating answer. The small classroom size thing, you could write a book just on that, how we got to this confusion about that. First of all, it’s an intuitive one. If there’s less students, it’s better because one-on-one tutoring is so good. The closer we can get to one-on-one tutoring, that must be the answer. It’s a thing we believe in. So no matter what the data shows, the public opinion is heavily in that camp.

Everybody, the great majority of references to classroom size evidence is from this one study,  which hasn’t been duplicated with that kind of effect, ever. [The Tennessee STAR study] appears to be been the best study because it had randomized control trials, all that stuff, but ultimately it’s never been duplicated in that capacity and there were so many things that they couldn’t account for.

[Smaller classrooms] are not part of the equation for closing the achievement gap. In fact, I don’t think any of the schools that are closing the achievement gap are using small classrooms as part of their criterion. It’s because it costs so much, it puts so much tax on the rest of all the other stuff that needs to be done. It doesn’t have the kind of impact that the [quality of the] teacher does and the other stuff does.

This is a key point. For years money has gone into smaller class sizes, and it has almost no impact. That is money that could have been spent on things that do make a real difference such as teacher quality.

So why are smaller schools one of your “five keys”?

Small schools is a catalyzer, it’s like a turbocharger for all the other tenets. So let’s take one [tenet, school leadership,] for example: The research supports that a principal needs to be teaching teachers. This sounds so obvious: A coach needs to be coaching the players. … If that principal is in charge of 40 classrooms, 40 teachers, he can do [closely oversee the teachers]. But if he is in charge of 400, he can’t do that. There is just a limit to doing it. So that’s just one example.

I wonder if that applies in NZ. Is there data on school size vs achievement?


Class sizes

September 23rd, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald on Sunday reports:

Primary schools have disclosed controversial data about pupil achievement, with the surprise revelation that children in bigger classes and bigger schools get better grades.

The Herald on Sunday has conducted a comprehensive survey of schools’ national standards results, before the Ministry of Education publishes them this week.

At schools with fewer pupils for each teacher, around 70 per cent of children are achieving national standards in reading, writing and arithmetic. But at schools with more pupils for each teacher – in effect, bigger classes – the pass rates rise to about 80 per cent.

What would be interesting is to have the results broken down by decile and size. As low decile schools get more funding, they may have a smaller class size. That is only if they spend it on more teachers and not operational costs.

But regardless it backs my view that the impact of smaller class sizes is minimal, unless it is a massive difference. In other words a size of 15 will make a big difference compared to 30, but a class of 25 compared to a class of 27 will not.

It would have been nice of the HoS has told us their definitions of smaller and larger class sizes, so the calculation can be checked. There isn’t enough info in the story to verify it.

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June 18th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

I spent the weekend visiting friends in Palmerston North – firstly catching up with a blogging friend and his new wife, who was amusingly literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen :-). Then stayed the night with a couple of old university friends, and their family.

I am known for mocking Palmerston North with similar enthusiasm to mocking gingas.  However I do have to say on this occasion, Palmie was rather nice. While for me personally I would go batshit insane living there, it is not a bad place if you have kids. For an affordable price you get a decent house and section, kids can play on the road (so to speak), the neighbourhood is pretty safe.  So not the place to  live if you enjoy an active nightlife perhaps, but pretty good if you have rugrats.

Talking of rugrats, or their more advanced form, children. The friends I were staying with had three kids. And it transpired over drinks that one of the ten year olds had written a letter to John Key and a letter to John Campbell over the class size issue. I was initially amused and impressed that she had identified John Campbell as being as powerful as John Key and written him also.

I did quietly start to wonder though whether or not this was a 10 year old expressing her own view, or had some teacher unionist ranted about the evil Government in class for weeks on end, and encouraged these letters. So I asked her mum how she heard about the issue, and decided to write to the two Johns on it. Mum redirected the question to said daughter, and the answer came back that she learnt about it from watching the television news. I was pretty impressed that a 10 year old watches the TV news, let alone gets motivated to write on an issue.

But the best was yet to come. When asked, why she wrote on this issue, she explained that it was because of her own experiences with class sizes. She started off at Karori Normal school in Wellington which had a fairly small class and got help with her spelling and reading which she had been struggling with. Then the folks moved to Australia and her school there had 30 kids in it, and she fell behind with her spelling. Then they moved back to NZ, and her class was much smaller again and in one year of a smaller class with some dedicated assistance, her spelling improved by over three years of ability.

She didn’t want other kids to fall behind with their spelling, as they might not be able to get a job when they leave school, so she thought it would be a bad thing to increase class sizes.

I was hugely impressed that a 10 year old would not just learn about an issue through the media, but would apply their own personal experience to a situation to drawn conclusions on the issue, and want to share them with the PM (and John Campbell!).

Now of course that doesn’t mean I agree 100% with Miss Ten on the issue. I certainly agree that a class size of 15 and a class size of 30 (which were her experiences) will definitely have an impact on student achievement. It would have been interesting to see if she would have accepted a trade off of just slightly bigger class sizes, if it meant all her teachers were as good as her favourite teacher. But I didn’t want to enter into a debate on the issue, in case I lost :-)

My first letter to the editor was at age 14, calling on Merv Wellington to introduce a 4 year school term term school year (I was 20 years ahead of my time!). I think it is a great thing when young Kiwis are politically aware, and form their own opinions on issues (as opposed to their parents or teachers opinions). Now by this I don’t mean they join a political party and spend all their time being a political activist (that is best left until 18). I mean they are a normal kid who enjoys doing all the things that other kids of that age do, but on top of that they also have demonstrated an awareness and understanding of “adult” issues, and can discuss them intelligently and rationally.

I drove back to Wellington via Wairarapa. It takes a fair bit longer, but the scenery is worth it. Much nicer than SH1. On the way back did a quick loop track to see the ANZAC Memorial Bridge. The only thing that spoilt those beautiful Wairarapa roads were all the Police cars on them! :-)

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Hattie on Education Reforms

June 10th, 2012 at 2:49 pm by David Farrar

An excellent interview with Professor John Hattie on Q+A. You can watch it here. And no, he did not “lash out”, as the NBR headline states. It was a calm insightful interview. Some extracts:

PROF JOHN HATTIE – University of Melbourne

Well, we’ve certainly done many, many studies looking at the effects when we reduce class sizes, certainly by the one or two that were suggested in New Zealand, and it’s very, very hard to find that they make that much of a difference. The major question is why is it that a seemingly obvious thing that should make a difference doesn’t make a difference, and that’s what’s beguiled a lot of people over the last many decades. I think we have some good answers for that, but the bottom line is it hardly makes a difference.

 SHANE                      Why is that?

PROF HATTIE           Well, I think the major argument seems to be when you have teachers in class sizes, like, of 26, 27, 30 and you put them in the class sizes of, say, 18 to 23, and they don’t change what they do, that seems to be the reason why it doesn’t make a difference. So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching. But that doesn’t seem to happen. When the many, many thousands, tens of thousands of teachers have gone from one size to another, they don’t change how they teach. So, no, that’s why it doesn’t make much of a difference.

So reducing class size may be beneficial if the teachers then teach differently.

SHANE                      So they did a terrible selling job?

 PROF HATTIE           Well, I think the selling mistake was concentrating on the class size. I know when the minister announced it, she talked mainly about staff-student ratios. But I certainly didn’t hear a very clear mandate of what the $150m, $200m over the next few years was going to be used for. Saying it’s going to be used for teacher quality is a little bit too ephemeral for me. I would have liked something more specific. But if they’d said it’s this rather than that, I think that’s the sale job they should have done, rather than whether it’s smaller or larger classes.

This is the exact point I made in my Herald column. The lack of any deatils around what they would do to improve teacher quality.

SHANE                      So are you saying that it was worth changing the ratio to be able to spend, as the government said, $60m to improve teaching quality?

 PROF HATTIE           Oh, absolutely, provided they were much more clear about what that investment in teacher quality is. I think it’s a very reasonable decision. It’s one that should be made. It’s one that principals are asked to make all the time, and I certainly think the government should also have done what they’ve done and kept to it.

But as there was no clarity around what the investment in teacher quality would be, a reversal was inevitable. I don’t think it was just an issue that the Government did not communicate the details – as far as I know, the specifics are not even developed yet.

PROF HATTIE        Well, I think they were wrong because… They kind of had to back down, given the heat on class size. Like, it’s a very easy hot-button issue. Everybody thinks it’s obvious that reducing class size is a better thing. No one seems to understand, and they certainly don’t accept the research evidence, that it doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s just an emotional reaction that of course it should.

I was debating this on Twitter. The funding decisions should be based on peer reviewed research as to what is most effective – not on emotions.

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My Herald column

June 8th, 2012 at 1:47 pm by David Farrar

My Herald column is online. An extract:

Any trade off, will always have its supporters and its opponents. Hence, a Government proposing any change to the status quo has to be able to makes it case in a clear coherent and persuasive manner. It is in this task, that the Government has failed and been forced to reverse its policy. …

I elaborate:

 it appears the Government had done no detailed work on how they would use the money freed up by increasing class sizes on improving the ability of teachers to teach (we all know some teachers are brilliant at it, while others struggle). The only details given were that the $43 million freed up by the ratio changes would go towards the development of an appraisal system focusing on driving up quality teaching and quality professional leadership.

This lack of any detail around what this might be, meant that the perceived benefits of the trade off were impossible to calculate, while the costs in increased class sizes were calculated to exact detail in every school staffroom around the country. Effectively the Government was saying “Let us increase the size of your kid’s classes, and just trust us that we will do something good with that money to improve teacher quality”.

I conclude:

But you simply can gain public support on an issue, where you are unable to articulate and define the benefits.

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Government backs down

June 7th, 2012 at 2:27 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

In a major u-turn, Education Minister Hekia Parata says staff pupil ratios will not change.

The move comes in the face of a backlash from teachers and parents after Budget moves to increase class sizes.

Sources this morning confirmed the policy was not “set in stone” and the Government was open to other ways to achieve its goal of lifting the quality of teaching, after a signal from Prime Minister John Key that it was prepared to listen to alternatives.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand from London, Key said: “My view is that we want to achieve the outcome that we stated. And that is to improve the quality of teaching and teacher quality in general and that’s the purpose of the policy.”

Asked if there was another way to achieve that he said: “Other people will suggest that. That’s one of the reasons why the minister is talking to the unions. She is talking to the sector. I’m sure she will continue to do that.”

It is understood feedback to the Government, especially to electorate MPs, has been highly critical of the plan.

I’m going to write on this in more detail tomorrow in the Herald Online. But this was a case of the policy intention being good (focus on teacher quality more than class size), but the detail and implementation being flawed.

Any trade-off can always be challenging to do. To make the case, you need to be able to be highly specific as to the benefits or upsides, as well as the costs or downsides.

The problem here is that the downsides are highly specific and known, but the upside (improved teacher quality) has absolutely no detail. How can you win a public debate, which is based on a vague commitment of “do something around improving teacher quality”. If you wanted to win the debate, you needed to have worked that side out in advance. Then if it was say a debate between a minor reduction in class sizes in exchange for say $10,000 bonuses for the top 10% of teachers – that could be supported.

So a big black eye for the Government here on this issue. Governments will always make mistakes from time to time. The lesson is to learn from them, so you don’t repeat them.


It is about how big a change

June 2nd, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

I think it would be useful to compare the debate on class size, to the debate on the minimum wage, specifically does class size impact on the quality of learning, and does the minimum wage impact on the level of employment?

The answer for both is yes. If you are from the left and say class sizes impacts quality of teaching but the minimum wage does not impact employment then you are a hypocrite.

Likewise if you are from the right and you say say the minimum wage does impact employment but class size does not impact quality of learning, then you are also being a hypocrite.

Let us take an extreme example for both, to prove out points. Would a child learn better in a class of one, with one on one teaching – or in a class of 1,000 people? Obviously in a class of one (all other things being equal).

Likewise imagine if the minimum wage was $10 an hour and $100 an hour. Could anyone dispute that at $100 an hour, we would have mass unemployment?

So there is no doubt both the minimum wage and class size can have an impact on the number of people employed and the quality of learning. However that doesn’t mean that every change you make has a significant impact, and that degree of that impact may be less than other benefits. Let us start with the argument over the minimum wage.

If the minimum wage goes from $5 to $6 an hour, there may be no impact on employment (as few people may have been employed at that level). Let’s say though it goes from $14 to $15 an hour, which probably will have an impact on employment. Why do the left say this should still happen? They support it, because they argue that if it gets a pay-rise of $40 a week for 150,000 families who have someone on the minimum wage, then that is a satisfactory trade-off for say 4,000 people losing their jobs. It is an issue of what do you see as more important – the level of wages or the number of people in employment.

Now likewise for class sizes. Of course a class of 1 would be far greater than a class of 1,000. But does a class size of say 27 compared to a class size of 25 make a significant difference? The international research is very clear that it has not. Now this is not an argument to have class size of 40 or 50 or 100 because obviously at some stage it will have more of an impact. Hence a private school with a class size of 15 can be better than say a public school with a class size of 30. But that does not mean that a difference between 25 and 27 will make any significant difference.

If it will not make much of a difference, you might say why not then stay with the status quo? Well the reason the minimum wages goes up despite some impact on employment is because it increase wages for those who receive it.

Likewise with class sizes, the benefit of a modest increase, is the funding it frees up for investing in teacher quality – something which has a far greater impact on the quality of learning.

The focus therefore should always be on the trade off. If in the minimum wage debate you focus just on higher wages or just on employment levels, you are missing the picture. Likewise if in the education debate you focus just on class sizes you are also missing the picture.

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A tactical retreat

May 30th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Audrey Young at NZ Herald reports:

Schools will lose no more than two teaching positions under new class ratios in an embarrassing backdown by the Government after large intermediates were set to lose seven.

Education Minister Hekia Parata was forced to impose a cap after it became clear she could have a rebellion on her hands from schools and parents.

The $43 million a year that was to have been saved and diverted to improve teaching quality will be cut but Ms Parata did not know by how much.

Neither she nor Prime Minister John Key will admit that mistakes were made in calculating the effects of the new policy and yesterday she announced the cap as “good news”.

I think it is clear there was a mistake. The overall policy decision is still one I support – that given limited funding the priority should be on improving teacher quality rather than class size. But this was sold on the basis of a minor impact on schools and class sizes – 90% of schools having no or only a one teacher reduction.

It became apparent that some schools, mainly intermediates, would have an impact greater than minor. I’ve seen e-mails from principals talking of a 10% staffing cut. Hence the Government has moved to cap any loss at two teachers – which will probably be done by attrition.

There is a lesson here for Ministers when looking at changes like this. You can’t just look at the average impact. You need to get very detailed information on the tail, or those most affected. They are the ones whose impact will make the media. If (for example) 15 DHBs are getting extra funding of 3% and one DHB is getting a 10% funding cut, then I can guarantee the story will not be that 15 DHBs are getting 3% more, or even that funding is up 2.5% overall. You always need to be aware of those most impacted, and then if necessary mitigate that impact.

So overall not well handled by the Government. A lesson for the future.


The ideal class size

May 28th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

A very funny video on what is the ideal class size.

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NZ Herald on class sizes

May 18th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald editorial yesterday:

Even the Treasury, which suggested the move this year, believes class size does matter. But it said the quality of teaching mattered more, and in a world where Governments had to make trade-offs, this was one that would have minimal effect on pupil achievement.

Using much the same language, Ms Parata announced that a standardised teacher-pupil ratio in Year 2 to 10 classes would free $43 million each year over the next four years to improve teacher quality. “We are opting for quality, not quantity, better teaching, not more teachers,” she said.

This policy is based on new research, led by an Australian think-tank, the Grattan Institute, which suggests improving teacher quality is far more cost-effective than reducing class size. To that end, the Government will invest an extra $60 million over four years to boost teacher recruitment and training. A post-graduate qualification will become the minimum requirement for all trainee teachers, and a new teacher “appraisal system” will be developed. Ms Parata said performance pay was one of “a basket of options” to recognise and reward teacher quality. It should, in fact, be at the head of any moves to encourage excellence in the classroom.

There can be few qualms about the accent on quality. The Treasury has suggested the effect on pupil learning of moving from a class with an average teacher to one with a high-performing teacher is roughly equivalent to the effect of a 10-pupil decrease in class size.

In one sense it is a classic debate about quality vs quantity when you have limited resource. Not that is not an argument to go crazy and halve the number of teachers. But it is an argument that when there is limited money to go around, the focus should be on quality over quality – especially when the research shows a high-performing teacher is equivalent to a 10-pupil decrease in class size.

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Educational outcomes

May 17th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

This comes from this OECD study. That huge increase in number of teachers didn’t seem to have much impact did it.

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Education funding

May 16th, 2012 at 10:46 am by David Farrar

John Hartevelt at Stuff reports:

School class sizes are going up and the Government is working on performance pay for teachers, Education Minister Hekia Parata has announced.

In a pre-Budget announcement to a business audience in Wellington this morning, Parata said there would be an extra $60m invested over four years for boosting teacher recruitment and training.

“We will collaborate in the development of an appraisal system on driving up quality teaching and quality professional leadership.

Performance pay is but one of a basket of options to reward and recognise that,” Parata said.

“We are not investing in more teachers, we are investing in better teaching.”

Ultimately performance pay can only work well if you delegate funding to school boards and allow principals flexibility in deciding pay rates. You might have a nationwide collective setting minimum salary levels, but the funding should be flexible enough so that the best teachers could be earning say double the worst.

There had been “some trade-offs” so that the Government could afford the new investment, she said.

Teacher – student ratios in the mid-years of education (years two to 10) would be increased. Instead of the existing range of anywhere between one to 23 up to one to 29, there would be a single ratio of one to 27.5.

The ratio for students sitting NCEA at years 11, 12 and 13 would be standardised at one to 17.3, instead of the existing range of between one to 17 and one to 23.

“These ratios are a funding formula – they are how we as a Government fund schools. The actual number of children in a classroom is set by the school.”

New entrants (year one) would keep its one to 15 ratio.

The ratio changes would “free up” $43m, on average, in each year over the next four years.

In the last ten years, student numbers had grown by 2.52 per cent, but teacher numbers had grown 12.76 per cent over the same period, Parata said.

About 90 per cent of schools would either gain or have a net loss of less than one full time equivalent teachers as a result of the combined effect of the changes.

The changes look pretty minor.

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Class Sizes

October 9th, 2011 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Imogen Neale in the SST reports:

Teachers and parents are calling on the government to cap class sizes, despite a leading academic saying it’s not the size of the class but what you do with it that matters.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association contends the Ministry of Education’s staffing formula disadvantages larger schools and puts them under pressure to have classes with more than 30 students.

It’s trying to make it an election issue and is pushing the ministry to reintroduce limits.

The PPTA would not specify an ideal size but the Sunday Star-Times understands it’s around 25. A Star-Times readers poll found that parents’ preferred class size was 15 to 24.

As reported above, the scientific research has found that class size has a minimal impact on learning outcomes, and the quality of the teacher has a major outcome.

Honorary Auckland University education professor John Hattie said this year that size was “irrelevant”.

“I’m not a fan of whether it’s 15, whether it’s 30, or whether it’s 60. We’ve proved that New Zealand has some of the best teachers in the world in classes of 25 to 30, so why are we worrying about class size?”

He was responding to reports of a British school teaching children in classes of up to 70.

We’d probably do better if we sacked the bottom 20% of teachers, and gave their salaries to the top 20% in return for taking on their classes also!

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