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”.


Dean Ashenden paper – The case against

David Zyngier Paper – The presentation of ‘ the facts’

My earlier papers – The case for


JULIA PLEASE EXPLAIN – an example of what?

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard at a Q & A Session in Rooty Hill, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, like many concerned citizens following the Gonski developments, or lack thereof, I read the text of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech to the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Conference.

While there were some worrying statements, the one that everyone is quoting goes like this:

“I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘That’s not fair’. I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘That’s a great example’.”

What does this mean?  A great example of what exactly?

One possible meaning is that our Prime Minister has a radical egalitarian vision going well beyond Gonski, or, for that matter, any previous proponents of school funding reform.  She is saying that the lush grounds, the well maintained housing stock, swimming pools and fully equipped facilities and classrooms in the wealthiest of independent schools in Australia sets the example we must follow for all schools.

By contrast, Gonski sets the resource standard at a level one might find in a school in a middle class suburb where most children are successful above national minimum benchmarks in NAPLAN literacy tests.  This is below the standard of the wealthiest of Government schools and far below the wealthiest of independent schools.

And the $5 Billion figure quoted in Gonski is an estimate of what it would cost, using 2009 data, to bring all schools up to this middle rank standard with additional allocation based on need.

Has the drive by a wealthy independent school given our prime minister a rush of blood to the head? Is she now going to find a way to ensure that “this great example” sets the standards for all schools? And if this is the base standard – or the standard for a sound education for our most advantaged children then there would still be a strong case for additional needs based funding. However if this is the governments proposal I will even give up campaigning for additional needs based funding.

If schools in the outer west in Melbourne and Sydney and in Arnhem Land had access to the kind of resources enjoyed by Kings School, Riverview, or Carey Baptist, it would be possible to set up the full range of culturally relevant wrap around services to support children dealing with the overwhelming challenges that go with being disadvantaged and living in a disadvantaged community. Teachers would not be able to be cherry picked by the independent sector through the lure of school provided accommodation, generous remuneration packages and other perks from capital investments.

If schools in the middle class suburbs of Northcote in Melbourne, Leichhardt in Sydney and Garran in Canberra were of an equivalent standard, the many parents who opt out of the Government system might stay, ensuring a socially mixed school community with articulate powerful parents to advocate on its behalf. And of course the greater the social mix of the school the greater the educational learning benefits, not just for the most disadvantaged, but for all students.

Our school choice scenario would be a little fairer.

However the alternative is that our Prime Minister might be saying ‘that is a great example’ of schooling for the children of our wealthiest and most privileged. We should support that because they deserve this.’

Is she echoing the values of that the old hymn ‘ All Things Bright and Beautiful’

 The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate

Is her comment indirectly, or even unknowingly, referring to the rightness of the current set up – because it conforms to a deeply embedded sense of a ‘natural order’, where there are rulers and others.  If so it is a far cry from the vision and legacy of Sir Henry Parkes and many of our founders.

Education in Australia was designed to be compulsory not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. Universal provision was provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.

As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision

 …We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions

Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power (my emphasis).

Neither of these explanations sound likely to me.  The PM is not an education revolutionary – her alliance with the worst of US corporate education reforms suggests that this is not the case.  More importantly, she knows we could never afford the public investment it would require to bring schools up to the standards of our wealthiest schools.

But the idea that the PM is an apologist for the current state of inequality doesn’t seem likely to me either.

I may have written some of this tongue-in-cheek but I am deadly serious when I say I have no idea what on earth Julia Gillard means when she says that the wondrous facilities and resources enjoyed by our luckiest of children at our wealthiest of schools is a great example.

An example of what exactly? After all she did not just look and admire, she promised them increased public funding, as a national priority.  And that demands a please explain.

Lock up your daughters: Will the National Curriculum address this kind of sexism?

This article Lock Up Your Daughters. written by Melissa on the PigtailPals website is one of a growing number of articles one can find searching through blogs and tweets written by inspiring young feminist mothers trying to bring up their children in a culture riddled with sexism and worrying portrayals about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

This one is unusual because 95 per cent of what I find in my travels through these writings are concerns about the construction of femininity – the princess pinkness, the secondary status, the focus on body size and looks and the sexualisation – and rightly so.  But we all know that gender is relational and there is a growing awareness of the ways in which the war and rape culture of hyper-masculinity is increasingly part of the messaging for quite young boys.

In this article Melissa tells the story of being given a black t-shirt with the message ‘Lock-up your daughters’ and a picture of a padlock.  She did not use it until one day when all other t-shirt options were exhausted, and she knew she was not leaving the house.  She later found herself face to face with another sweet young child wearing this same t-shirt in the supermarket and was hit over the head with the power and horror of the message:


“On someone else’s baby, it was so obvious to me why that shirt had always made me feel uneasy.

It promotes Rape Culture. I stood there horrified I had ever put that on my son. My beautiful son, who loves his mama and his big sis and whom I am trying to raise to be a man like his father: intelligent, kind, caring, respectful, and strong. The shirt sends the message that the boy will be out on the prowl, and your daughters are not safe around him as he looks for prey. Best lock them up. It sends the message that girls are responsible for preventing sexual assault, as opposed to, you know, boys being taught never to rape.

This shirt’s message as: If those girls don’t watch out, the fault is on them. They were fairly warned, their parents were told to lock them up. Don’t keep them under lock and key, they become fair game.

On a physical level, it is making a joke of sexual assault with the “boys will be boys” attitude. That in and of itself, the excusing of rape based on caddish behavior assumed to be natural to boys, is vile. On an emotional level, it is saying your daughter will be manipulated and used, just before the boy moves on to the next girl. What an awful message for both boys and girls to get.”

My questions – to principals, teachers, curriculum writers, education policy officers, regional directors, professional learning leaders and others – who influence what is taught and how, are: as follows.

  • How are preschools and schools at all levels supporting the growing number of parents who do not want to stand idly by and let the world of commerce and marketing influence children’s sense of who they are, what can be, and how they understand and relate to each other?
  • Will the new Australian National Curriculum give guidance and support for teachers on how to provide students with the knowledge, understanding and skills to interrogate, discuss and co-construct different narratives about being a boy or a girl growing up today?


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.


We need new architecture to support the development and agile adoption of tools and processes for teacher self-managed career-long professional development in schools

I read a timely article yesterday titled “The Flipped Classroom: Students Assessing Teachers” by Brianna Crowley[1].  It is not about the flipped classroom concept made famous by the Khan Academy it is about another sort of flipped – where students provide feedback to teachers.

It was timely, to me at least, because I have been thinking a lot lately about the lack of ready access to a comprehensive and high quality set of well tested and reviewed smart tools, protocols and processes to support teachers to:

  • Identify their most important professional development needs
  • Affirm their areas of strength for sharing with others
  • Reflect on their practice through focused feedback
  • Work with mentors or coaches on continuous improvement
  • Develop portfolios that demonstrate their knowledge, skills and experience for assessment purposes – whether this is for moving from graduate to proficient or deciding to go for accreditation as a highly accomplished or lead teacher

There are a number of ways in which teachers can, and do, get feedback on their teaching.  Instructional observation, peer to peer coaching, classroom walkthroughs, protocols of student work, learning journals or classroom videos are the most obvious and none of these are yet fully embedded into the regular core practice of schools, although they are becoming more and more utilised.

 But what about students providing feedback to teachers?

Now when I first thought about this I was a bit cynical – thinking that if this practice became commonplace (and high stakes)  it would turn classrooms into a sort of market place as teachers tried to outdo each other in being the most entertaining. But of course it all depends on how the feedback process is designed – what information will be sought, for what purpose will the information be put, and how frequently it is sought.  In this sense the ‘politics’ related to teacher feedback from students is no different from the ‘politics’ surrounding assessment or teacher feedback to students.

This article on the flipped classroom puts it well.

A homemade laminated sign behind my desk announces, “In this classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.” For me, teaching is a fluid interaction of constantly shifting roles. My students and I are engaged in a cycle of mutual learning.

Effective teachers provide concrete feedback throughout the school year. Through formative assessments, students recognize their growth and understand where they can improve.

But what formative feedback do teachers receive? …  A lucky few experience regular peer observations—but most of us are observed only once or twice a year. We have all been encouraged to reflect on our own practice in journals, but it’s probably not a daily routine for most: Who can find the time between urgent activities like meetings, emails, grading, and planning? We rarely prioritize our own learning.

Crowley urges teachers to consider drawing on the experiences and perceptions of students – and to treat them as “experts” about the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom.  She suggests that it does not necessarily have to be a formal survey process – feedback can be embedded in the teaching and learning process with only small adjustments to practice.

First, look at activities already in place and think about whether they can be altered to provide additional information.

For example, after each major project or writing assignment, my students complete a reflection form. They are prompted to think about their process, identify strengths and weaknesses, and create goals for future assignments. Then I add two or three questions that look something like this:

(1) Which activities helped you understand this assignment, and which were less valuable?

(2) What questions do you still have about what we learned or about the feedback I have given you?

(3) With what skills or ideas do you feel that you need more practice?

These questions prompt students to better understand themselves and articulate their learning styles. In providing constructive criticism, students practice higher-order thinking and communications skills. And the process helps all of us take ownership of the learning that occurs in our classroom.

It’s win-win: Students develop metacognition skills, and I gather valuable Intel.

And how should this information be used? 

With professional discernment argues Crowley.

If my students tell me they learn better by working in small groups with peers than independently, do I reconstruct my classroom for collaborative work in every lesson? Probably not. But I do consider how I can incorporate additional structured group work. Each member has a role and each group is accountable for a product. Then I monitor to see whether my students’ level of engagement and understanding increases.

Likewise, if 70 percent of my students claim that work in their textbook did not help them learn, I have a choice: Do I vow not to use the textbook for the rest of the year? Or do I try to use that resource in more relevant and engaging ways?

Embedded in every piece of student data is a professional choice. We must respect students’ perspectives while applying our professional discernment. We can then take risks, change patterns, and ask for feedback again.

There is also a role for well-designed formal survey instruments – especially at key points through the teaching cycle like the end of a semester or a year.

This article is USA based but it is highly relevant for what we are at in Australia. Now that we have an endorsed set of national professional standards for teachers, the development of exciting new tools, processes and instruments needs to be fostered.

Some states have some useful tools as do a number of clever people in the ever-growing education consultation and ICT software development industries.  We need to find a balance point between a heavily regulated state endorsed tool development process, that necessitates going to tender for something – when we may not always know in advance what smart idea could be just around the corner- and an open market that lets a hundred flowers bloom – not all of them fit for purpose.

We need a QA regulator that assesses new processes, tools and instruments and certifies those that have been road tested in a range of schooling contexts, are aligned to the teaching standards framework, are value for money and fit for purpose.  With a strong quality certification framework in place it would then be desirable and possible to encourage all kinds of smart tools and processes from a variety of sources.  After-all until twitter came along, teachers and systems would not have said ‘if only we had a tool that lets children do … . We need to go out to tender to see who can develop this for us”.  Those days of product development are long over but new processes are not yet in place to enable the agile adoption and adaptation of new ideas and processes.

I think this is a big gap in our school education national architecture.  Now some might suggest that this is the role of Education Service Australia (ESA) but I am not so sure.  Can an organisation be both a developer of products and an assessor? No, not in my book.

Others might consider this to be in scope for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) but to my mind this is a very bad idea.  These tools should not be assessed and certified by an organisation that, while engaging the profession, is very much an organisation driven by education employers and their perspectives on teacher quality.

Now don’t misunderstand this as a dig at AITSL.  The fact that AITSL reports to MCEECDYA and has all states and non Government systems represented on the board has been essential to the agreement making process for accreditation standards and processes for teacher education as well as for professional teaching standards.

However if these tools first come on stream as part of the standards assessment process they will be seen as impositions   – as part of quality compliance and appraisal processes.

In my view, as the teaching profession gets accustomed to seeing feedback for continuous learning and self directed improvement as an integral and highly regular element of teaching throughout their career, it is vital that the balance of emphasis leans towards support and development, and not towards underperformance management and external review.

So what we need is an organisation that is willing to fill this gap.  An organisation that says, “We will set up quality assessment and certification processes for tools to support the professional development of teachers throughout their careers”.

We could wait for education ministers (MCEECDYA) to set this up – unlikely I think. Alternatively, we could look at it as an opportunity.  After all, the developers of the Wikipedia have managed to be seen as the arbiters of quality input into the global dynamic encyclopedia of life.  No-one gave them this job.  They just did it well.  And this is a much less ambitious task.  Any takers out there?