Opinion: More teachers and smaller classes won’t mean more learning

2014

The Government’s proposed Investing in Educational Success scheme has been debated in detail. Now, academic STEVE THOMAS takes a critical look at Labour’s proposed education sector funding in the lead up to the election.

In an attempt to revive its popularity among middle New Zealand voters – rather than the moa – the Labour Party has announced that it will employ 2,000 more teachers. According to Labour, this would enable schools to lower the staff-to-pupil ratio from 1:29 to 1:26 in Years 4 to 8, and from 1:26 to 1:23 in the secondary years by 2018. Labour will pay for the extra teachers, and a suite of associated professional development measures, by axing the National Government’s $359 million ‘Investing in Educational Success’ (IES) programme.

The IES will see communities of schools established, in which expert school leaders and teachers will have more responsibility for school leadership and professional development. It is unlikely that Labour’s proposals will solve the problems that it claims National’s has. Moreover, employing more teachers to reduce class sizes does not necessarily mean that pupils will learn more.

Are Labour’s proposals different to IES?

When it launched them, Labour claimed that its proposals were different from National’s because they would give schools more resources and free teachers from being ‘managed’ by super-principals and teachers. However, both parties’ policies are variations on the same approach that has gained popularity among OECD-country educationalists – that the quality of an education system can be improved by improving teaching quality. The strategy is to make teaching more attractive to high-quality prospective and current teachers by offering more opportunities to progress as a classroom teacher, to improve teacher quality, and by providing teachers with more professional development opportunities, to enhance teaching quality.

But Labour’s proposals would increase, not reduce, the amount of control outsiders would have over individual schools and teachers. For instance, Labour would introduce a school advisory service that would ration schools’ centrally-provided professional development spending and be able to second high quality teachers and school leaders for as many as three years, to share best practice. Its proposed school leadership college would also have the power to second 100 school leaders to be mentors.

Presumably, these institutions would need some way of identifying which teachers and school leaders should be seconded. Does this mean Labour wants them to use some sort of benchmark or standards-based appraisal scheme to differentiate between good and bad teachers? This might be an issue for the teacher unions, which believe using appraisal schemes this way can turn teachers into managed professionals. The unions are concerned about aspects of the IES for this reason.

In short, under Labour’s proposals, teachers would not be liberated from the alleged managerialism of the IES; in fact, they could experience even more. Schools would be forced to let their best leaders and teachers go for a mandated period, and would have less freedom to decide how to spend money on professional development. This is a worry because the OECD’s PISA test has consistently shown that education systems that let schools have more freedom perform well. While there are still big questions about how much freedom schools will have under the IES, it at least assumes that communities of schools should be free to decide how best to collaborate and use resources.

Will Labour’s proposals improve educational quality?

The degree of central control is an important point because it illustrates a philosophical difference between National and Labour about how they believe New Zealand’s education system can be improved. Labour’s proposals – especially when considered alongside its other recent announcements, including spending $120 million on laptops for every Year 5 to 13 pupil and refurbishing school buildings –show that it believes quality can be improved best by increasing spending on educational inputs that the Government can control.

The idea is that if a country builds more schools, employs more teachers or reduces class sizes, for example, it will have a better education system. This is attractive to politicians, since expanding inputs shows voters they are doing something concrete to improve education. It may also be easier for them to show success. Politicians can claim their country has a higher quality education system once every school has more inputs. But this logic only follows if there is a strong link between the inputs that have been funded and what is most likely to improve pupils’ learning.

There are two factors that will determine whether funding more of an input will improve pupils’ learning: the likely effect size; and the scope for expanding the input. Whether reducing class size has a meaningful effect is a disputed area of educational research. It partly depends on whether researchers mean a reduction in the staff-to-pupil ratio or how teachers choose to teach when they have smaller classes. Econometric research, such as Eric Hanushek’s, does not find a statistically significant relationship between reducing the ratio of teachers to pupils and better educational outcomes. That said, teachers may be able to teach different pupils better in smaller classes, if they change their practices. Pupils’ age and stage may also affect whether they benefit from smaller classes. For example, average to good secondary pupils may not benefit as much, if at all, as new primary school pupils with poor literacy and numeracy. All things considered, John Hattie’s 2009 meta-analysis found the effect size of a reduction in class size, from 25 to 15 pupils, could be between 0.1 and 0.2 standard deviations, or between one and three months’ worth of learning, per year.

Labour’s policy would see class sizes fall by three pupils, depending on how each school decides to allocate its extra teachers. A rule of thumb estimate, based on the expected effect above, means an impact of between 0.03 and 0.06 standard deviations could perhaps be expected, or less than a month’s worth of improvement in their child’s learning. That is not very much gain for $340 million of spending over four years. Further, these figures probably over-estimate the impact, since a teacher teaching 29 or 26 pupils is unlikely to teach a class with three less pupils much differently. Class sizes would have to fall below 20 pupils before teachers could make a difference. This means there would be little scope for Labour’s class size reductions to have much of an impact. The true effect could be miniscule or no difference.

Given the evidence – which Labour cited in its own policy document – that smaller classes can have a positive impact on lower socio-economic status pupils and ethnic minority group pupils, Labour would have been better to propose larger, targeted reductions in class sizes at low decile schools, for example, rather than small universal reductions. This would mean lower decile schools would not have to fund more teaching positions than their normal entitlement from their operational funding, as they appear to do.

Labour is also promising to spend $25 million over three years on teacher professional development. But this is only 13 per cent of what it would spend on reducing class sizes over the same period. National is spending money on educational inputs, too, such as $111 million of operational funding in Budget 2014 for school property development and maintenance. However, it has made developing teachers and school leaders throughout all schools a major priority. It will also invest part of the $359 million for IES in financial incentives to help attract and retain excellent teachers. Again, PISA results have shown that among wealthier countries, those which invest in improving teacher quality, rather than smaller classes, tend to have higher performing education systems. Given that the effect of a high quality teacher could be as much as half a year to a year’s learning, improving pupils’ access to excellent teachers is more likely to improve educational quality, in terms of effect size and scope, than spending money on reducing class sizes.

Conclusions

Labour’s proposal to employ more teachers, to reduce the staff-to-pupil ratio, is popular among teachers and some voters. It appeals to what politicians think intuitively makes sense. Having more teachers should improve the quality of New Zealand’s education system and outcomes for their children. However, just spending money on expanding educational inputs will not necessarily lead to major improvements in the quality of teaching or learning. Smaller classes would not make a difference unless teachers take the opportunity to better tailor their teaching to their pupils’ needs. The effect should be greatest for pupils earlier on in their schooling or who have difficulty learning in larger classes. Moreover, Labour’s proposal is unlikely to make much of a difference, as the marginal decrease in pupil numbers would be small. This would make it a poorer investment of taxpayers’ money than IES or targeted decreases in class sizes.

Labour’s proposals indicate the perils of spending more on educational inputs without fully considering the likely impact on pupils’ learning. As polling day approaches, it would behove all political parties to explain well what the likely impact of their education policies would be on pupils’ learning. That way, New Zealanders could see the links, if any, which may exist between spending on inputs and educational quality.

Steve Thomas is a New Zealand PhD Scholar at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, studying the impact of New Zealand educational entrepreneurs.


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