Treasury boffins on soapboxes, education and class size

New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association / Te Wehengarua (PPTA) President Robin Duff finds his views coinciding with John Armstrong's comments in the New Zealand Herald regarding the Secretary for Treasury, education expertise and class size.

Boffin on a soapbox

Over Easter I read something very thoughtful in the New Zealand Herald. It was John Armstrong wondering out loud how it was that the secretary for treasury had become an expert on educational issues, particularly class size.

With no background in education and total reliance on a single piece of research from another economist Raj Chetty (initial research and with a number of caveats at that), treasury head Gabriel Makhlouf airily announced that increasing class sizes by "an average one or two students per class across the system, would be unlikely to have a significant impact on achievement".

Link to external website What Value Did the Chetty Study Add? (Dianne Ravitch, Education Week website)

Large class sizes ≠ individual student feedback

Well it would actually; as well as further reducing the time available for providing the individual feedback that the government's regular guru John Hattie describes as essential, it would render some already large classes completely unmanageable and generate a marking load that would force teachers to stop all extra-curricular activities and eventually drive them out of the service.

Mahklouf seems to think these unintended consequences can be avoided by using the money saved from increasing class sizes to create "super teachers" "“ ones who don't just pass water but who regularly walk on it.

Large class sizes ≠ more effective teachers

As I have noted previously, this is a false duality. Juxtaposing class size against teacher effectiveness as if they are polar opposites is like setting out on a snipe hunt. The best teacher in the world will not be effective if they are under constant workload pressure and stress from having to manage large and diverse classes as well as cope with the higher levels of marking and pastoral care.

Teacher cuts cartoon in PPTA NewsIncreasing class sizes = reducing the number of teachers in your school

If the government goes on to realise the savings from "two or three more students per class” we will be talking about the loss of some 2000 secondary teacher positions. There are a number of ways of manipulating the staffing ratios to achieve this end but they all result in substantial cuts – double figure job losses in most schools.

Stimulating debate or signalling bad news?

It was great to see parents and most of the media rejecting his plan out of hand. They demonstrated a grasp of commonsense reality that seems to elude treasury officials, schooled as they are in the world of hypothesis and algebra. Of course, there has been a practice of the government deliberately signaling very bad news in the belief that when the news turns out to be less bad, people will feel relief rather than anger. We will not know for certain until the government budget is announced on 24 May whether the treasury secretary is softening New Zealanders up for large or small cuts but there can be no doubt that something is afoot.

The reason I so liked the Herald comment was that it takes the government to task for using the public service as little more than a PR company. As John Armstrong observes:

"One of the unintended side-effects of the State Sector Act has been to force senior public servants into the limelight by making them defend their decisions. That can make them look like they are defending their ministers' political decisions. This has now been taken a huge step further with the head of the Treasury, going in to bat for Government policy.

In raising such issues as the size of school classes (and) teacher performance, … he was no doubt trying to stimulate debate.

There is a vast difference, however, between giving the best possible advice on all the options and publicly advocating a particular course of action.

… If Makhlouf wants to be a politician he should resign and roll up at election-time with his $300 deposit like every other would-be aspirant for political office. Otherwise he should be told to button his lip. But don't hold your breath for that to happen.”

Link to external website Commission fiddles while its cred burns (John Armstrong, NZ Herald website)

Alternatively, Makhlouf could try to get out of the office a bit more (and I don't mean luxury international travel) and visit a few public schools and a few classrooms.

As Julius Caesar could have told him, "Experience is the teacher of all things”.

Download pdf The President's viewpoint is published in the April 2012 issue of PPTA News (pdf 1.5MB)

Link to PPTA webpage Increasing class sizes and reducing the number of teachers in schools