Dean Ashenden’s Faux Rationality and the Class Size Debate

This article responds to Dean Ashenden’s attempt to critique David Zyngier’s article defending the merits of small class sizes.  The relevant articles plus an earlier one of my own are referenced below for those who want to explore this debate further.

I have two major objections to his article.

Firstly, it is lazy.  A critique of a position that makes a number of important points cannot be said to be a comprehensive critique unless it acknowledges the key points that have been made. 

Zyngier did not just make his case on the basis of the evidence relating directly to class size studies.  He did cite a number of important studies that Ashenden just dismissed out of hand. But he also broadened his case to other important aspects.

For example, Ashenden used the work of John Hattie (Visible Learning) to delegitimize the claims relating to class size without acknowledging that Hattie’s study shows the effect size of single interventions only and therefore has some limitations (as Hattie notes in his book).

But Zyngier also drew on Hattie’s research to argue that class size reduction should not be implemented as a single magic solution, but as a way of supporting the pedagogical changes recommended by Hattie – personalized learning, student feedback, direct instruction and so on.  This is an important point because while Hattie bemoans the fact that education policy ignores his work and focuses overly on class size, it could equally be argued that the number of student in a class limits the ability of teachers to implement the kinds of changes that his own research shows have the biggest student effect.

Secondly, Ashenden’s article claims to be a rational (even econometric) approach to a vexed issue but completely ignores the political realities of the current context.

Our current school funding architecture has privileged parent school choice over all other educational values and the logic according to Kevin Rudd is that by giving parents unlimited choice and lots of school performance information, parents (that is the market) will create heightened competition between schools that will ‘float all boats’.

So we have this intense school market place.  Now what do the high end schools sell to parents in the market – why small class sizes among other things.   Even the briefest investigation of the ABS data on schools will show in no uncertain terms that the independent (i.e. non-Catholic non-Government) sector has led the way on small class sizes over the past 15 years.  They have been able to do this because they get Commonwealth Government (i.e. tax payer) funds far in excess of their needs on top of generous school fees.

 

Government schools have been the victims of this market model of schooling but they are being told that unlike their unfettered competitors they can’t compete, even in the same arena, because there is not a strong enough case for small class sizes.  They are the ones that must make the hard economic choice between decent class sizes (still bigger than their competitors) and time for collaborative planning.

Yet where the evidence for smaller class size is strongest is for struggling student – and where do we find large concentrations of struggling students – Government schools, in overwhelming numbers.

So my message to Ashenden is this.

Firstly, how dare you get on your high horse and pontificate about the most responsible and parsimonious spending of the taxpayer dollar in our struggling government schools.  How dare you say they must choose between more time for professional development or collaboration or small class sizes when you say nothing about the exorbitant levels of taxpayer funds that go to the high-end Independent schools with absolutely no outcry from the likes of you and Ben Jensen

You see what you forget, when you ride in to represent tax payers with such ethical force, is that the Government’s decision that non-Government school should not lose funds, mean that this picking apart the returns-on-investment options for education is only occurring in the sector where Australia spends far less than most OECD countries while the other sector where we are a high end spender can do what it likes.

I hate our market model of education with a passion. But you can’t expect that one sector competitor can play by the logics of the market place (what parents want) in an unfettered way, while imposing on the other a demand that they play in the market place but cannot adopt any of its logics.

Secondly, Australia is a wealthy nation and it can and should invest more in the education of students in Government schools.  We don’t have to choose just one solution.  Given that this spending is an investment we should not have to choose between ICT based learning, professional development for teachers, early intervention for identified students, more time for collaboration and humane sized classrooms where it is possible to develop positive relations with all students and give them personalized and considered learning feedback.

As Zyngier argues “ to suggest then that investment in smaller class sizes is not necessary for schools indicates a need for a serious reality check – or at least a few weeks in one of these schools as a teacher”.

 References

Dean Ashenden paper – The case against http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14746&page=0

David Zyngier Paper – The presentation of ‘ the facts’

http://theconversation.edu.au/class-size-gonski-and-schools-funding-what-are-the-facts-8934

My earlier papers – The case for

http://austcolled.com.au/notepad/article/class-size-vexed-question-or-huge-distraction

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5 thoughts on “Dean Ashenden’s Faux Rationality and the Class Size Debate

  1. David Zyngier says:

    Margaret, a very eloquent and timely response to Ashenden’s neo- liberal turn. Many thanks David Zyngier

  2. director edupunk says:

    Thanks for your interesting take on the Ashenden article. I think you and Dr Zyngier (and also Mr Ashenden) make some important points and it’s excellent to see these issues being debated publically.

    However, I would like to raise a few points to which you may like to respond:
    • “Even the briefest investigation of the ABS data on schools will show in no uncertain terms that the independent (i.e. non-Catholic non-Government) sector has led the way on small class sizes over the past 15 years.”
    This is a curious claim given that the ABS doesn’t publish data on class size. What the ABS does publish is data on student:teacher ratios which is a very imperfect proxy measure at best, a point that both Zyngier and Ashenden acknowledge.
    When looking at the ABS data on student:teacher ratios what we see is that over the last 15 years ratios in independent schools have improved 8.3% (with an underlying 7.5% improvement in primary schools and a 10.3% improvement in secondary schools). Student:teacher ratios in government schools have improved by 9.7% (with an underlying 13% improvement in primary schools and a 5.4% improvement in secondary schools) over the same time.
    Over the last 40 years (ie since 1973) independent school ratios have improved by 13.5% in primary years and 26.8% at the secondary level. During this time government school ratios have improved by 39% in the primary years and by 24.7% at secondary level.
    These are Australia-wide figures and of course mask variations across states and territories and from year to year.
    However, what this data indicates is that the actual situation is more complex and not as clear cut as your claim above may appear to make it.

    • “Government schools….are the ones that must make the hard economic choice between decent class sizes (still bigger than their competitors) and time for collaborative planning.
    Again, ABS data doesn’t appear to support this. In 2011 the student:teacher ratio across all levels in independent schools was 12.1. Across all levels of government schools the ratio was 13.9. But across all levels of Catholic schools the ratio was 15. Again, these figures mask variations across sectors and schools and around the country and while the ratios are not greatly different there may be some sector specific reasons for the difference. Nevertheless the data shows that Catholic schools have few teachers per student and hence government school ratios are not necessarily “bigger than their competitors”.

    • “….how dare you get on your high horse and pontificate about the most responsible and parsimonious spending of the taxpayer dollar in our struggling government schools. How dare you say they must choose between more time for professional development or collaboration or small class sizes when you say nothing about the exorbitant levels of taxpayer funds that go to the high-end Independent schools with absolutely no outcry from the likes of you and Ben Jensen”
    In my reading of Mr Ashenden’s article I don’t see any indication that he is speaking exclusively to government schools. In fact I don’t read where he mentions any specific sector at all. From what I can read it’s you who attributes a division between government and non-government in this matter rather than Mr Ashenden. My reading is that he is writing about all schools without a sectoral bias and questioning whether there is a better approach to the educational policies that have been pursued across the country.

    • “This article responds to Dean Ashenden’s attempt to critique David Zyngier’s article defending the merits of small class sizes.”
    My reading of Mr Ashenden’s article, contra your claim that he attempts to “critique….the merits of small class sizes”, is that he appreciates the many benefits that smaller classes have brought. Rather, he is pointing out some of the consequences of the pursuit of ever smaller classes, questions whether any further merit can be squeezed from this kind of public policy and suggests that other policy directions may have greater benefits at this time.

    From what I read from Mr Ashenden I suspect that he may agree with you that “we don’t have to choose just one solution”; that is, as I read it, his central point.

  3. I apologise for my delay in responding and thank you for taking my concerns seriously and raising issues

    I am happy to address them

    Firstly I agree that ABS data only shows teacher student ratio and I raised this in concerns in response to Jensen’s paper a few years ago.

    However, this is the data we have. We also have pamphlets/ adverts from schools that show / small class size to be an item designed to attract more students

    Your use of % increase is intriguing and possibly misleading. It obscures the actual figures and can misdirect.

    Let me give you an example

    Person x earns $2 per day

    Person Y earns $8 per day

    Both get an increase of $2. Person X still earns far less than person Y but it would be possible to imply the opposite using % increases. This would tell us that person X was 100% better of while person Y was only 25% better off.

    I have reread Ashenden’s article in light of your claim and I still contend that Ashenden did indeed imply that Governments must choose only the high value add investments and that class size does not ‘cut the mustard’.

    And your claim that this message is intended for the Independent sector too is – to be blunt – nonsense. In this political environment this would have to be made explicit to be clear. After all, in spite of your misleading % figures high-end-schools already have very low class sizes and low student teacher ratios. They make this clear in their advertising. They do not need to use new money to achieve this. Ashenden was talking about how we spend the Gonski money – if it ever eventuates. That is new money.

  4. Dean Ashenden says:

    I apologise for a much longer delay in responding, but it was only today that I was alerted to Margaret Clark’s remarks. I imagine that she could have found a way to let me know about her comment.

    The substantive point is this: demanding more and/or better distributed resources should not be seen as an alternative to or in conflict with discussing how best to use them. To the contrary.

    A more fundamental point: if I understand Margaret’s argument correctly she is pronouncing anathema not just on certain ideas but on the very idea of discussing them. Perhaps EdMedia Watch – which took a different view – should be anathematised also?

    • Dear Dean

      Thank you for responding. I did search for you on twitter but perhaps I could have searched more widely. I do not think you quite got my point – which is that the economist notion that you can ROI each individual intervention and then pick winners off a ranked list is fundamentally flawed. They are not additive necessarily – there are sometimes synergistic benefits in mixing interventions. Given your 70s background I am pretty sure you have read “Zen and the art of Motor Cycle Maintenance”

      Re the political climate – I think you are stretching meaning to conclude that I think certain things are off the agenda altogether. I don’t. But I don’t think it is noble or clever to talk about a topic of high political sensitivity – without thinking about how what you say can be twisted for ends that are not well justified.

      If I read something that is truly offensive – and there is a bit of it about -I struggle with the option of responding or not giving it oxygen. This debate is not in that category

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