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”.
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’
My earlier papers – The case for