What follows is a transcript from a meeting held earlier this week at the election campaign headquarters of the National Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Present are campaign manager Stephen Joyce, Prime Minister John Key, Education Minister Hekia Parata and chief pollster and tester of the water for disliked policies David Farrar. The meeting began at 8.15am.
Doors opening and slamming shut. Loud, nervous voices chattering.
JOYCE: Right. Labour’s had a good weekend. They’ve released their education policy and it appears that education has now taken over the secret life of Len Brown and David Cunliffe forgetting an 11 year old form letter as one of the key issues of the current campaign. So… here I am at this whiteboard. I’ve rubbed everything out so it’s blank. Throw me your ideas…
(Silence: 15min, 32sec)
JOYCE: Anyone? Johnny? What have you got?
KEY: I’ve got nothing. It’s a great policy. Really comprehensive. I wish we’d thought of it.
JOYCE: What about you Farrar. What are the focus groups saying?
FARRAR: Yes. Everybody is saying yes. Even Winnie’s blue rince lot. Yes. Yes. Yes. They’re all saying yes.
PARATA: If I may… we’ve been consulting with many different stakeholders across the educa…
KEY: (interrupting) Look Hekia, if you can’t talk needing subtitles then don’t bother.
PARATA: But Prime Minister, if you’ll allow me conclude…
KEY: No. I don’t think I will. I’m not Gower.
JOYCE: Stop bickering you two. This is really important. People are talking positively about Labour despite all the muck and lies we’ve been feeding to Slater and the Herald. This isn’t good.
PARATA: No, it isn’t.
KEY: Good sentence.
JOYCE: Farrar… people read your excellent blog that we write. What are they saying in the comments section?
FARRAR: Um… I don’t actually read the comments section. It’s terrible. Really, really terrible.
JOYCE: For goodness sake. Does anybody have anything of note to say?
FARRAR: Not me.
PARATA: I have assessed all possible answers I could give in this circumstance and all I can muster is one of a negative persuasion.
JOYCE: So no then.
PARATA: Yes. No.
JOYCE: Right… so while we sit here with a whiteboard emptier than NIWA’s climate change argument, Labour are going to reap the education policy firestorm. I’m so angry I don’t care that I’m mixing my metaphors.
(Silence: 7min, 8sec)
KEY: I could kiss a baby!
(Silence: 9min, 52sec)
PARATA: Oh, Steve… how’s Novopay going?
(Angry silence: 37min, 23sec)
FARRAR: Hang on… something’s coming to me… What if we told all our wonderful friends in the media that this was all about class sizes. I can rattle off my Hattie list again… that has class sizes waaaaaaaaay down the end near a hundred or something.
JOYCE: Yes. Yes. And then the media will be all over it.
KEY: Yeah. Especially ZB and 3 – They’ll be all like, “Look at stupid Labour and their dumb policy. This guy is a professor so he must know heaps more than someone who went to Harvard” oh.. that doesn’t sound right… um… we better change that to Lincoln. Cunliffe did a DipAg at Lincoln… No… dropped out of a DipAg at Lincoln. Get Slater on to that one.
FARRAR: I can have something cut and pasted in about 10 minutes.
KEY: Good. Joycie… get stuck into the tweeting. Be really negative. Tell Hipkins he’s stupid or something. Don’t back it up with evidence or a link. Just say it. Use the phrase ‘typical Labour’ as well. You’ll get heaps of retweets and it will be truth in no time.
KEY: Hekia. Go back to your office and don’t speak until September the nineteenth.
PARATA: I will retire to my working space confident in the knowledge that my focus will be on…
KEY: Yes.. thank you. I meant you to start after I’d finished the sentence.
(shuffling followed by door opening and shutting)
KEY: Right then. That’s us sorted for the election.
JOYCE: Indeed sire.
Many have been going on about class sizes recently – mainly due to the fact that Labour have released their education policy and the mainstream media and far right bloggers of this world have decided they are planning to spend all their money on reducing class sizes. No mention of the fact that Labour’s policy is a comprehensive package that actually lists a few more things than just class sizes.
Since Farrar is harping on about class sizes having no effect on learning outcomes or student achievement or whatever he calls it, I thought I’d actually do a bit of research. After a bit of interweb digging I found a 1999 paper from Professor Hattie outlining the findings of his decade-long meta-research into the influences on student learning.
You can read it all if you like, or you can scroll down to the section on class sizes, or you can just read the bit I cut and pasted below.
The research on the effects of class size has been among the more voluminous in educational research with very systematic findings:
- Achievement, attitude, teacher morale, student satisfaction gains are appreciable in smaller classes, so long as we recognise that small classes mean 10-15, as there are negligible gains between 40 to 20 students per class.
- This effect was the same for primary and secondary schools, across all subjects, and across various ability levels.
- There is little evidence that instruction methods change when class size is reduced, although a large part of improvement can be explained by improvements in student task engagement.
Reducing class sizes from the 30’s to the 20’s is in the right direction, but there is little support for the claim that there are increases in student achievement or satisfaction, or teacher attitude or morale. Only when the class size reduces to 15 or below are there appreciable positive benefits.
So you can see Professor Hattie is saying that there are negligible gains when class sizes are between 20 and 40, but there is an effect seen when class sizes reach the small size of 10 – 15 he is referring to (I would imagine that is roughly about the size of classes at some of those private schools National & ACT politicians like to segregate their children within – away from the prying eyes of the rest of us po’).
Being a teacher of a fairly small class (24 this year) compared with the norm, I am acutely aware of the impact not teaching 31 kids has on both my time and my teaching. It’s great having a small class. I remember back in term one when there was some kind of stomach flu going around AND we had a sports tournament on the same day. That day I fell within that magical range of 10 – 15. Man it was sweet. Unfortunately it was only one afternoon so I doubt whether I was able to have any discernible impact on their learning. The other kids were back from the sports day before I could. I just had to make do with getting it done over the rest of the year.
Of course, I’m being facetious, but there is some truth in what I say. The smaller my class is, the easier it is for me to teach. I can get around more students during a session. You ask any teacher. Smaller class sizes make it easier for us to do our jobs. If it’s easier for us to do our jobs, then that is going to impact on outcomes for our students. Simple.
Another important point to make is this: Professor Hattie’s research looked at over 100 effects on student learning. His meta-analysis took over 10 years to do and compiled research that included over 50 million students. There are thousands and thousands of effects on their learning. I would argue that you cannot take any of these effects out of context. Whatever effect you are looking at – teacher instruction, class environment, teacher style, instruction, homework, home life, parent involvement, peer influence – they are all intertwined. All of the hundred or so effects Professor Hattie listed are linked. You can’t just pluck out ‘class size’ or ‘teacher instruction’ to make your case because ‘home life’ and ‘peer influence’ are going to make their mark at the same time.
So media and Farrar, if you’re going to quote research, actually do your research rather than quoting a list of “effects” and pointing to class size down at number one hundred and something and saying, “Look! Class sizes have no effect on student learning so Labour is dumb.”
INFLUENCES ON STUDENT LEARNING – John Hattie, August 2, 1999.
NOTE: I don’t want this to be taken as an attack on Pegasus School or modern learning environments. This is an attack on biased media, lazy reporting and mischievous blogging.
So it seems the mainstream media propped up by their fellow “journalists” at the far right blogocraty continue to attack Labour’s education policy by suggesting it’s all about class size.
I’m not going to talk about many in #TeamKey who make use of the small class sizes at private schools; many have been down that road since the weekend.
I will, however, draw your attention to a Stuff article and Farrar’s reaction to it – mainly to highlight the sheer ignorance.
Stuff talks about the new Pegasus school near Christchurch. They have ‘classes’ with 75 kids being taught by 3 teachers. The catch cry jargon for this arrangement is a modern learning environment (I’ll point out here that I am a proponent of MLEs – just concerned it’s been reduced down to a three-letter acronym [TLA]).
After cutting and pasting much of the article, Farrar says:
The future will not be one teacher with one class. It is about shared teaching and learning spaces. Teaching will be very different in the future to how we traditionally knew it. That is why the focus should be on training teachers better.
They are either missing the point through ignorance or, as I believe, wilful neglect.
Improving teacher ratios are not about ‘lower class sizes’ as the media want us to believe. It’s disingenuous to suggest this. Improving teacher ratios, for the most part, will give schools a bit more freedom with their staffing.
My school has about 80 kids. Our class sizes will pretty much stay the same. The funding we get for ‘teachers’ will probably increase.
What to spend that money on? More professional development, release days for assessment, bringing in experts to augment what we can offer… There is an endless list.
In saying that, when I’m teaching a smaller group it’s much easier to create ‘ahaa’ moments because everyone’s more engaged. That’s why I actively reduce my teacher ratio by targeting my lessons to smaller groups based on need. It’s sound practice.
Pegasus School may have 75 kids in a class but I guarantee you they do much of their teaching in small learning groups of 5 – 8 kids.
It says as much in the article.