The Dim-Post

February 3, 2012

Class size

Filed under: education — danylmc @ 4:05 pm

From Treasury’s briefing to the incoming Finance Minister:

New Zealand’s compulsory education system produces good outcomes for most students, as evidenced by our strong performance in international tests. However, despite large funding increases, achievement levels remain unacceptably low for some groups. Student achievement can be raised by improving the quality of teaching, which the evidence shows is the largest inschool influence on student outcomes. Increasing student/teacher ratios, and consolidation of the school network, can free up funding that could be used to support initiatives to enhance the quality of teaching, such as more systemic use of value-add data and a more professionalised workforce.

Does class size matter? There’s plenty of conflicting research. Tennessee carried out a large, longitudinal study on reduced class size. You’ll love the conclusions. Abstract:

BACKGROUND:

Early education interventions have been forwarded as a means for reducing social disparities in income and health in adulthood. We explore whether a successful early education intervention, which occurred between 1985 and 1989, improved the employment rates, earnings and health of blacks relative to whites through 2008.

METHODS:

We used data from Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), a four-year multi-center randomized controlled trial of reduced class sizes in Tennessee involving 11,601 students. Students were initially randomized within 79 schools to classes with 22-25 or 13-17 students. We linked subject records to Social Security Administration (SSA) earnings and disability data collected between 1997 and 2008-when the majority of subjects were between the ages of 18 and 28. We focused our analysis on annual, rather than cumulative, measures of earnings and employment because educational attainment after high school might reduce earnings through age 23. We considered three or more years of statistically significant positive (or negative) annual impacts to be a meaningful effect.

RESULTS:

Project STAR improved cognition and high school graduation rates. These benefits were primarily realized among low-income and minority students. These early education benefits did not translate into reduced disability claims in adulthood for treated subjects. However, exposure to small class size increased employment for blacks, and increased earnings for black males (p<0.05). Exposure to small classes also led to an increase in earnings for white males. However, white females exposed to small classes experienced a net decline in earnings and employment across the later years of follow up (p<0.05), offsetting any gains by white males.

CONCLUSIONS:

Exposure to small class size in grades K-3 appears to improve earnings and employment for black males and earnings for white males, while reducing employment and earnings among white females.

Most of the other studies support this finding. In general class size isn’t a big deal (within reasonable parameters), but small classes make a big difference for children from low income backgrounds. Who are, ironically, the people Treasury claim they want to help by increasing class sizes.

35 Comments »

  1. It baffles me that the people raising this are saying things to the effect of “class size makes no difference”. It might make no difference moving from a class size of 30 to 32 or even 35.
    But to make ‘no difference’ you have to envision a class size of 100. Still no difference? Really? I don’t think they actually mean this, but this is what I am hearing and it is clearly wrong.
    Plus they are saying the literature supports their view (and Google finds the Tennessee study in a moment). Are there any studies that show class size really doesn’t matter? I didn’t see any.
    So then I get thinking is this some kind of smoke screen so we won’t think about the asset sales too much?
    And then I remember ‘never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence’.

    Comment by Roger Parkinson (@RogerParkinson) — February 3, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  2. Prepare for an onslaught of people who haven’t read John Hattie’s research (eg http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2006.07.002) citing it as evidence that class size “doesn’t matter” none the less.

    Comment by David Winter — February 3, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

  3. Danyl, you should check out this UK site that compares the costs, supporting evidence and impacts of various initiatives. It rates class size in about the middle of the pack and is an accessible guide to the issues. Class size does matter and is useful, but it is less useful than other initiatives at improving achievement.

    http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/overview

    Comment by Dave Guerin — February 3, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  4. Yeah, nice link @ David Winter, as long as you are happy to fork out $20 to read the article. The abstract from the cited article says “the conclusion is that class size reductions can lead to worthwhile increases (in the rate of student learning) provided certain conditions are met.” My understanding of Hattie’s work is that he has found that other things matter more than reducing class sizes (teacher quality, pay, professional development etc).
    How likely is it that any savings made by increasing class sizes will be spent on those things, then?
    When Blinglish said yesterday that there was “clear evidence” that class size did not affect the quality of education, he was probably thinking about that alternative reality, inhabited solely by National Party idealogues.

    Comment by Neil — February 3, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  5. There is something seriously wrong with a society that allows treasury and/or Minister of finance decide optimal class sizes.

    What sizes were/are the classes that the Bill English children were/are taught in?

    Charter schools presumably will not be bound by Treasury or ministerial fantasies.

    Comment by peterlepaysan — February 3, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

  6. Obviously class sizes can make a difference, but as Dave Guerin indicates, there are other things that can make more of a difference, especially if targetted at the areas and kids of greatest need.

    But even having special classes for special needs can have it’s own problems, I don’t know if they still are but they used to be openly called cabbage classes which would have had a negative impact.

    Comment by Pete George — February 3, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

  7. “It might make no difference moving from a class size of 30 to 32 or even 35”

    It may not seem like a big change, but it will make a difference to teachers and these will flow onto the students. For example – depending on the design of the class room – moving around a room with more desks and bags and bodies will be harder, a disincentive for the teacher to move around. Easier for the slack-arses in the back row to slacken off. Going from 30 to 35 is a 1/6th increase in student problems to be handled and a 1/6th increase in marking of assessments and writing of reports and measuring of performance against the national standards. Of course, if teachers aren’t to work any more hours, then each child will get 1/6th less feedback and 1/6th less time with the teacher.

    Comment by MeToo — February 3, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

  8. I see this is going to be used to finance the broadband roll out to schools. As I’m not a fan of “technology will solve all our problems”, it’s all bad.

    Comment by MeToo — February 3, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  9. David @2, have you joined the strike against Elsevier yet? Hattie is paid by taxpayers to do research; he gives that research to the journal for free; the journal makes that research inaccessible by charging a small fortune for it.

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/elsevier-publishing-boycott-gathers-steam-among-academics/35216

    Comment by MeToo — February 3, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  10. 6. Peter George – Perhaps you should look at the huge benefits from inclusive education for both special needs children and their “neurotypical” peers.

    Comment by fiona — February 3, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  11. Don’t now that special needs kids are what this is about PG.

    Comment by MeToo — February 3, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  12. I repeat, why rely on Treasury and the Finance Minister to set class sizes?

    Do they really know everything?

    Comment by peterlepaysan — February 3, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

  13. 12. I repeat, why rely on Treasury and the Finance Minister to set class sizes?

    Do they really know everything?

    Comment by peterlepaysan — February 3, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    I guess they’ve identified a problem that needs fixing (under performance of about 20% of children) but because there is no new money they need to identify something to cut in order to fund it. So they’ve taken some of Hattie’s research, which identifies other things as more important than class size to performance, and decided that is it. In the process they’ve stripped way the conditions around his conclusion.

    This is not different to what they do all the time. Meddle in all manner of policy areas but never apply any of their own thinking to themselves.

    Comment by MeToo — February 3, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

  14. Yes, MeToo. But I’m a bit annoyed at Hattie for trotting this out so much. Dimly remember hearing him on the radio this week. It’s so easy to take what he says and use it as a money saving measure. He also concludes I think that FEEDBACK is all important but how is a teacher going to give high quality feedback if the class is huge and the room jam-packed? The other thing about class sizes is the inequity across subject areas. Option teachers (languages etc) often have small classes while core subject teachers might have 30 plus.

    I get what Hattie is saying (that class size is not so important statistically as teacher quality) but heck, you don’t want to put good teachers off by loading them up and frustrating them. You don’t want the weaker students to get lost in the crowd. A core class size limit of 25 seems eminently sensible to me.

    Comment by Maura — February 3, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  15. Treasury desperately wants to cut costs in education, and they want to improve the average quality of teachers. Obvious solution: Stop hiring new teachers, and every year, fire the 10% of teachers who perform worst. Eventually not only will there be no bad teachers, there’ll be no cost!

    Comment by bradluen — February 3, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

  16. @15 great idea. Take a profession that has a high incidence of stress, is overworked, underpaid and has a lengthy history of recruitment problems and sack one in every ten of them.
    Your last line would be better reading “Eventually not only will there be no bad teachers, there’ll be no teachers at all”

    Comment by Neil — February 3, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

  17. “However, despite large funding increases, achievement levels remain unacceptably low for some groups. ” Essentially “the tail” as it is so charmingly known, consists of students who are unmotivated, disruptive, don’t care, and/or have low levels of literacy, may well come from stressful, disadvantaged backgrounds, whose diet consists of 2 minute noodles and coke, may be doing drugs/alcohol/crime, are more likely to be abusive/violent in the classroom, towards both their peers and their teachers. There is a disproportionately high number of Maori students in this group.

    What seems to make the difference – raising motivation and achievement – is the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. Te Kotahitanga is a programme often used in secondary schools with high numbers of Maori students, that requires a wholesale change of school culture – all teachers in the school take part and it is very much focussed on building quality relationships. Success depends on lower class numbers that allow teachers the time to build trust, respect, confidence, enjoyment, whilst maintaining high expectations. Individual attention.

    Dealing with that kid who’s just called you an effing bee (again!) without withdrawing them , because you know they are on their last warning before exclusion from school – yeah, good luck with that in a class of 30.

    There is no cheap, quick fix. Not even superfast b-band and I-pads for every student will do it.

    Comment by Kerry — February 3, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  18. I think the sarcasm light was on there, Neil…

    Comment by nommopilot — February 3, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  19. To contribute a little unreliable anecdotal evidence: my best classroom experiences at both school and university were in class sizes of two or three students. Small class size is an excellent reason for taking Latin.

    Comment by Dr Foster — February 3, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

  20. @ Maura – yeh, but Treasury have crossed their wires again. Raising teacher quality improves outcomes by more than lowering class sizes, so they *assume* raising class sizes has a negative impact the same size as the positive impact from lowering class size, then offset the improved student outcomes from better teacher quality against the worse outcomes from raising class size. Problem is, there is no evidence to suggest such offsetting will work, and as you mention, there are secondary adverse outcomes that can nuke the whole thing – like peeing off teachers enough that they flee to Oz….

    MeToo has nailed a lot of the problems with raising class sizes – more scripts to mark, more student’s questions to answer, more students to give feedback to, etc. This doesn’t directly hurt students if the teacher just clocks up unpaid overtime, but that leads teachers to quit… and anyway, overloading teacher’s workloads works against improving teacher quality, which as mentioned above, was supposed to offset raised class sizes. Ooops!

    @Roger Parkinson – class sizes have an upper limit in practice imposed by classroom size – maybe 40 can squeeze in physically. Rebuilding classrooms to allow larger student-staff ratios (like your 100-1 suggestion) is so costly as to wipe any economic gains, so is irrelevant.

    Comment by bob — February 4, 2012 @ 2:39 am

  21. @ bob “they *assume* raising class sizes has a negative impact the same size as the positive impact from lowering class size”, that’s your assumption bob.

    What they do say is that “despite large funding increases, achievement levels remain unacceptably low for some groups”.

    Comment by will — February 4, 2012 @ 6:39 am

  22. @MeToo @11 – I thought this should be very much about about ‘special needs’ kids – isn’t something like 20% of them in in that category?

    And the special needs that needs most attention are kindergarten (and those kids at that age who don’t go to any pre-school) to identify the biggest problems, and the first years at primary school. I don’t care so much if class sizes are 20 or 25 at high school, it shouldn’t matter too much then if most kids are working in the system rather than dropping out of it and disrupting those who are.

    And even by mid primary school, it would be better for kids and teachers to have classes of 30 where everyone can read and write to a reasonable standard, rather than a class of 25 where 5 of the kids have already failed to reach a basic level of education.

    Invest early, save later.

    Comment by Pete George — February 4, 2012 @ 7:22 am

  23. To contribute a little unreliable anecdotal evidence: my best classroom experiences at both school and university were in class sizes of two or three students

    I taught for a year in Iran and the stories circulating were of classes of up to 300, in which the teacher had do do all instruction through a standard-issue megaphone. Bill English, eat yer heart out.

    (Mind you, if it got to that stage here, teachers would be expected to buy their own megaphone)

    Comment by Neil — February 4, 2012 @ 8:38 am

  24. Even a cabbage class pupil would realise that children in a class of 20-25 would do better than children in an overcrowded classroom of 35-40.

    I don’t get how it is somehow acceptable for people to have overcrowded classrooms, I presume it is so the rich can continue to have lower taxes, which is pretty much what cuts to public services are all about.

    Comment by millsy — February 4, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  25. Pete, talk to your local school. Mine has a number of “special needs” kids and they are all mainstreamed, but with teacher aides to help them (for differing numbers of hours a week depending on their needs).

    No, the 20% tail is a reference to the number of children who leave school with low literacy and numeracy levels and few if any qualifications. The other 80% are well-served by NZ education system but the Q is, what to do about the persistent tail?

    As someone said above, it’s not just about the school. Often it is about the home, poor diet, poverty, parents who did not do well in the school system so can’t help their kids and aren’t aspirational for them, and truancy. These kids need more than what teachers can provide – school breakfasts and lunches would help, more school nurses and dental nurses and social workers. A more-Finnish approach to education and a less-US approach.

    Comment by MeToo — February 4, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  26. So reading Dave Guerin’s link @3 on of the most important things for educational achievement is meaningful and positive feedback that focuses on what the child needs to do next. That’s very personalised. As I noted above, if the class increases by 1/6th, does the child get good quality feedback if the teacher has less time per student? Also, one problem with the bottom 20% involves not being engaged or connected to what’s happening, not valuing education. You can’t force disengaged students to act on feedback.

    Comment by MeToo — February 4, 2012 @ 9:42 am

  27. ” These kids need more than what teachers can provide – school breakfasts and lunches would help, more school nurses and dental nurses and social workers. A more-Finnish approach to education and a less-US approach.”

    I think we also need to relook at changing the school day as well.

    Comment by millsy — February 4, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  28. 15 was sarcastic, yeah, but it’s not a million miles from Treasury’s goal (“more systemic use of value-add data” is carny for “better excuses to fire people”). I take it Treasury’s ideal is to have every student taught via videoconference by a single teacher. I’m sure Catherine Isaac would do it for ten million a year.

    Comment by bradluen — February 4, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  29. MeToo,

    It’s actually worse than that – Elsevier et al. also farm out all the peer review work to people that are funded by their governments, who do it for gratis. And they have a bought and paid for Congressmen to introduce legislation to try an entrench their business model in law.

    That said I’m not on the boycott – I’m not convinced other large closed access publishers are any better, refusing to review just adds to other scientists pain, I don’t have funding to pay OA journal charges and, frankly, at this stage of my career I’m not in a position to be choosy about were my papers go.

    Comment by david winter — February 4, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

  30. @MeToo #25: the big problem with the education system is that it’s systemically Social Darwinist – it caters perfectly OK to the well-heeled or otherwise those with the right connections or stable families. Below that, though, it’s sink or swim. The top decile schools simply block out anyone who’s perceived to be dysfunctional – i.e. school choice – and the low-decile schools are lumped with the students no-one wants to teach. It’s fundamentally segregation by stealth. And the teacher unions are scapegoated for the mistakes of educational Social Darwinism.

    As I mentioned in another post, compulsory busing was an attempt to desegregate the American public school system. But the fatal weakness was its non-application to private ed, and hence it led to educational white flight.

    From my own experiences at private schooling in ChCh in the 1990s, it’s NO place for a borderline autistic. And worse still, many of the classmates there were the worst of both worlds – old money snobbery and new money crassness. Sounds like the raison d’etre of the Key Govt.

    And again, is there any guarantee charter schools won’t sneak in Creationism or Wahhabism through the back door?

    Comment by DeepRed — February 4, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  31. @ will – You said:
    “@ bob “they *assume* raising class sizes has a negative impact the same size as the positive impact from lowering class size”, that’s your assumption bob.

    From Treasury (hint – read post again):
    “Increasing student/teacher ratios …. can free up funding that could be used to support initiatives to enhance the quality of teaching…”

    Implicit in that Treasury statement is that raising class sizes will have less of an adverse impact than the positive impact they expect from ‘enhancing teaching quality’. ‘Cos otherwise why would you do it, hmmm? Problem is, Treasury are relying on some monumental assumptions as MeToo pointed out.

    Comment by bob — February 4, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

  32. Isn’t it virtually 100% certain that the larger a class gets the less positive the teacher’s experience will be? If that is true then the bigger classes get the less likely high caliber candidates are to enter the teaching workforce and/or stay. So Treasury’s plans to overcome this barrier to improving teaching quality must be really ingenious….. They are probably reading Ayn Rand right now for tips since their area of specialization is neo-liberal economics (rather than education).

    Comment by Amy — February 5, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  33. “Isn’t it virtually 100% certain that the larger a class gets the less positive the teacher’s experience will be?”

    When asked whether they would rather teach a large class of students, but the teacher gets to pick those students, or a small class of students that they don’t select, teachers almost always pick the bigger class size. It’s more rewarding to have students who are well-behaved and engaged. But I doubt the govt is offering teaching this sort of trade-off🙂

    Point is just this: class size is an issue but it is intertwined with other issues. So the real question is, what sort of initiatives will be funded with the savings from larger classes? How much of that will go into mitigating the negative effect of larger classes? (A bit like the large % of toll road tolls that go towards collecting and enforcing the toll.) Is this just to pay for previous promises like more investment in school infrastructure and broadband speed? Or the cost of compiling the new school rankings?

    Comment by MeToo — February 5, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  34. I would have thought that with the pending asset sales, we would be having smaller class sizes. Why not? What’s the story here? Anyway, I believe in a class size of 20 – 25 students per teacher. 30 or higher students per teacher is a pretty crap situation to have when we’re meant to be getting $6billion to help improve education and health.

    Comment by daniel lang — February 8, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  35. Does that make sense or not? Does anything make sense nowadays?

    Comment by daniel lang — February 8, 2012 @ 11:49 am


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