Class size and the Ben Jensen Effect-back on the agenda yet again

Post script to this article:  I wrote an article in 2010 in response to a highly publicised paper by Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute.  The paper argued that smaller class sizes do not bring returns on investment. I am providing a link to it here because the recently released Productivity Report into the School Workforce has stated that investing in class size reduction is a poor educational investment.  And the person quoted – why Ben Jensen of course.

Yet the report also supports greater school autonomy.  These two things are connected because in a schooling system so heavily influenced by parent choice rhetoric, schools seeking to market themselves to ‘desirable enrollments’ (e.g. mobile middle class parents) will almost certainly do what it takes to keep their average class size trending down or static but not up.  Class size for the middle class and well off may not be the best  investment for these groups but try to convince the parents who can vote with their feet.

Meanwhile this anti-small-class-size rhetoric will hurt most those schools at the bottom of the heap, who can’t compete in the market place for desirable families.  Yet these schools have large number of  students who need more intense support and the lowest teacher student ratios

The other well known critic of investing in smaller class sizes is John Hattie, author of Visible Learning.  I have spent some time trying to make sense of his position and the best that I can offer is that he is frustrated that reductions in class size are not accompanied by changes in teaching practice.  And changes to teaching practices towards strategies that have the most educational impact  should be the focus of reforms.

While I agree and share his frustration I also think it needs to be said that when teaching a class with large concentrations of disadvantaged children who start school without the pre literate skills of other children and who face multiple problems in their lives, a smaller class size is one very significant way to support teachers to personalize learning and provide high quality learning related feedback to each and every child.

Margaret Clark, Jensen’s class size claims need to be unpacked, ACE Notepad, Dec 2010


The paper looks at

  • Why Jensen’s paper created such a high level of media attention given that this is a well established position and no new information was provided
  • The details of his claims

This paper also looks at the detail behind the high level data and shows that there are complex movements in student teacher ratios across the education levels and sectors that are glossed over with high level data. These tell some interesting stories.

  • the major factor that contributed to the increase in school funding in was untied funding to the non Government school sector
  • where there has been a steady decrease in the teacher student ratio this did not necessarily mean that there were large reductions in class size across the board.  They also include literacy  supports in schools, remedial interventions and so on.
  • the independent school sector  has been the outstanding leader in the declining teacher student ratio – probably enabled by the generous Commonwealth funding provisions.
  • their lead in this almost certainly led to some pressure on other sectors – after all the policy context constructed by parent choice logics was one of competition and marketing
  • the changes in teacher student ratio in secondary Government schools has been almost negligible

The paper also looks at the case for the reduction in teacher student ratio especially for low SES schools

 It concludes that

We are not asking health services to choose between preventive health measures and high cost services to the aged.  A rational logic might suggest one brings larger social benefits than the other.  Why are influential researchers who have explicitly supported both the economic and the social benefits of schooling developing arguments within this either or logic?

We don’t have to choose in such a narrow way.  The key argument that investing in teacher capacity aught to be of the highest policy and funding priority does not depend on driving a wedge through the professional education community to be effective.  In fact I would go so far as to argue that  the key response to Jensen’s paper has been around his dismissal of class size   and his other very important arguments around investing in teacher capacity have been almost ignored.

The relative efficacy of class size reduction is in reality an argument based on an economic analysis about comparative returns on investment and one clear fact about class size reduction is that it is expensive if carried out on a student population basis.

But needs based funding provides opportunities for targeted reductions – for increasing early intervention for small groups or individuals. I would have liked to have seen Jensen take a more inclusive approach to his economic forensics and look more closely at the research evidence in contexts of high need.

…  Reductions in class size do not even rate a mention on the education revolution agenda but there are plenty of other policies with no evidence of a return on investment – or even a negative return.  Perhaps in his next paper Jensen could turn his mind to the evidence base for the return on investment of some of these other policies, such as one-off payments to the top 10% of teachers on some as yet unspecified basis, or the relative benefits of parent refunds for school uniforms, or the relative educational benefits of the increasing the social segregation of schools.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s