Smaller class sizes generally better, new study says
No one who has had to cope with 30 unruly scamps at school for several hours a day would ever argue that small classes don’t make a difference – and not just to the teacher with a headache.
Yet Dr David Zyngier says highly selective interpretations of research to reach the conclusion that small classes have little effect on children’s academic performance have influenced governments across Australia.
‘‘Many policymakers and political commentators suggest that funding isn’t the problem in Australian education,’’ the senior lecturer in education at Monash University says. ‘‘They point to the money spent on reducing class sizes, arguing this has not led to better academic outcomes, and the politicians seem to agree, claiming that much of the increased expenditure on education in the last 20 to 30 years has been ‘wasted’ on efforts to reduce class sizes.’’
On the contrary, he says, smaller classes in the early years can lift children’s academic performance through to year 12 and beyond – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But years of federal and state government neglect ‘‘and artificial choice programs promoting private schools have left public schools with a larger proportion of learners from disadvantaged and refugee families, and students at risk of school failure in larger classes than ever before compared with most private schools’’, he says.
Dr Zyngier spent six months investigating 112 studies undertaken into the effect of school class sizes by researchers in a dozen different countries over the past 25 years. He found only three of the researchers claimed small classes had no impact.
In a paper published last Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Evidence Base, produced by the University of New South Wales’ Australian and New Zealand school of government, Dr Zyngier says the evidence from the multitude of studies he reviewed disproves the claims of conservative commentators that smaller classes do not make a difference.
He quotes federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne as saying, ‘‘There is no evidence that smaller class sizes somehow produce better student outcomes. In spite of Australia having small class sizes for 10 years … their outcomes have gone backwards’’, and notes that Mr Pyne also confirmed a Coalition government would increase class sizes in Australian schools.
But most of the ‘‘flawed policy advice and commentary’’ relies heavily on a 2010 report by Ben Jensen, director of the school education program at the private Grattan Institute, Dr Zyngier says. ‘‘Jensen suggests that the majority of the studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes, and that the funds should have been redirected toward enhancing teacher quality. This finding is wrong.’’
A key point Dr Zyngier makes, and which has powerful economic implications for governments, is that cutting the size of classes does not need to happen in every subject or in every school. He argues for ‘‘targeted class size reductions in the early years and in particular subjects, such as literacy and numeracy’’.
‘‘We need all hands on deck to reduce the class size to maybe 15 or less when children are being taught the basic building blocks of their education. But when they’re doing sport or art or other subjects, where fewer pupils are not so important, the class size can be greater. So we need a new funding program where schools that are well-resourced, middle-class schools, do not need the lower class sizes that disadvantaged schools do.’’
Under Dr Zyngier’s proposal, schools that were performing at the lower end of standardised tests such as NAPLAN and where reducing class sizes was most needed, would be first to receive additional support. He says this was the Gonski report’s conclusion – more funds should go to schools that needed it most.
The studies into class sizes ranged from the US, Britain and Canada to Israel, New Zealand and Shanghai, Dr Zyngier says. The evidence that reducing class sizes in the early years of primary schools was that it had considerable impact, but the effect was less pronounced in secondary classes, although again it was greater in the most disadvantaged schools.
As part of its campaign leading up to the November election, the Australian Education Union plans to call on the Napthine government and the opposition to cut class sizes in schools across Victoria. Dr Zyngier supports the union’s view but believes it to be unachievable economically under the present funding system ‘‘unless governments stop funding private schools as has now happened in Chile’’.
‘‘The class size debate should now be more about weighing up the cost-benefit of class size reductions. Schools should look at ways to produce the class size effect by lowering class size specifically for certain periods of instruction, such as in numeracy and literacy classes,’’ he says.
‘‘If class sizes could be reduced just for these lessons, using a combination of redeployment of existing staff and addition of special literacy and numeracy teachers, it would be theoretically possible to have small classes averaging 15 pupils with a much lower additional cost. While this approach is used by some principals to deliver smaller class sizes in literacy and numeracy, it is not yet a general practice for disadvantaged groups and learners with higher needs.’’
Dr Zyngier says researchers have suggested that targeted class size reduction, ‘‘combined with other proven methods of boosting student achievement’’ would be a more cost-effective means of increasing student outcomes. In his paper, he writes that ‘‘differentiated staffing to reduce literacy and numeracy class sizes’’ could make the cost of producing the small class effect about one-ninth greater rather than one-third greater as the Productivity Commission estimated in 2012.
‘‘In contrast to across-the-board reductions that have been prevalent to date in Australia and overseas, this targeted approach is a feasible way to make class size reduction more effective and more affordable.’’
At the same time, cutting class sizes for the first four years of schooling has implications for teacher educators as well as schools. At present, teachers with up to 30 children in the lower grades do not try to teach the whole class at a time but put them in groups of five or six and teach each group one at a time.
‘‘That is what student teachers learn at university because it is the situation they will face in schools. Reducing class sizes to below 20 in the early years, however, would mean the teacher could teach to the whole class and that means we teacher educators would have to refocus the way we prepare students,’’ Dr Zyngier says.
‘‘Currently we don’t do that because the focus is on small group learning. So the pedagogy needs to change otherwise reduced class sizes will have less of an impact, whereas if teachers learn how to teach to 15 or 20 children then that will have an even greater impact.’’
Dr Zyngier refers to studies conducted by Professor John Hattie at Melbourne University that found the problem with teachers taking smaller classes was that they adopted the same teaching methods as in their previously larger classes. He says many of the more powerful influences Hattie identifies clearly show that teachers would be even more effective in smaller classrooms.
But adopting a new approach to teaching will not work without adequate professional development and ‘‘the innovative 21st-century teaching spaces provided as part of the Labor government’s Building the Education Revolution program might end up doing more harm than good’’.
Source: The Age
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