It would be foolhardy to dismiss the importance of smaller classes on the future of our education system, argues primary school principal Ian Leckie.
Research published by Auckland University Professor John Hattie suggests that class size is largely irrelevant in improving education systems and continuing to lower student-teacher ratios will have little or no impact on student achievement.
In creating a table of the most effective ways to raise student achievement, he ranks the quality of student-teacher interaction and feedback as the most significant.
There is nothing to say that Professor Hattie’s research is not interesting and thought provoking, but to suggest that it is education’s answer to the Holy Grail, as some media have described, would be overstating it.
And for our own education minister Anne Tolley to say it will have a profound influence on the future of New Zealand schooling, would be misguided.
The teachers’ union NZEI has pushed hard, alongside other sector organisations to bring ratios down. When schools go back this year, ratios in new entrant classes will be down to 1:15 but there is still work to be done in Year 4-8 classes where ratios sit at 1:29.
To suggest that such work should be abandoned or undone seems to fly in the face of both commonsense and academic evidence that deals specifically with class size.
In his book, “The Class Size Debate – is small better?” Professor Peter Blatchford from the University of London looked comprehensively at how class size differences and teacher:student ratios affect student academic achievement. Among his conclusions he said “there was consistent evidence that children in small classes were more likely to interact with their teachers, there was more teaching on a one-to-one basis, more times when children were the focus of a teacher’s attention, more teaching overall and more times when children were attending to the teacher and actively involved in interactions with them (that is responding or initiating, rather than just attending).”
Surely smaller class size encourages the type of quality interaction and feedback between teacher and student which Professor Hattie champions as a key to improving student outcomes.
Another of Professor Hattie’s conclusions is that rewarding good teachers through performance pay would be more effective in terms of student learning, than reducing class sizes.
This begs a number of questions.
Why would students in one class have higher achievement levels just because their teacher is paid more than the teacher in the classroom next door?
And how do you assess the teacher with a bright motivated group of students against another teacher who has a class with several disruptive students? One teacher may in fact be putting in more effort and accomplishing more educationally, but the other would receive more pay based on student outcomes.
Performance pay also sets up competition between teachers. Alfie Kohn, an American author who wrote a definitive study on performance pay, says “the surest way to destroy cooperation and therefore organisational excellence is to force people to compete for few rewards or recognition or rank them against each other.”
Getting the best out of teachers and students is a complex issue which needs a multi-faceted approach and sector-wide discussions. There are no quick fix or Holy Grail type answers. It would be concerning to see one piece of research determining the future direction of New Zealand’s educational policy.
**Ian Leckie is the Principal of Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa and the Vice President of NZEI