First, education expert John Hattie, the government's go-to guru on these reforms (...) Critics quote him saying increased class sizes are poor policy, so when Shane Taurima spoke to him yesterday, he began by asking him to clear up exactly what he thinks about class sizes.
PROF JOHN HATTIE - University of Melbourne
Well, we've certainly done many many studies looking at the effects when we reduce class sizes, certainly by the one or two that were suggested in New Zealand, and it's very very hard to find that they make that much of a difference. The major question is why is it that a seemingly obvious thing that should make a difference doesn't make a difference, and that's what's beguiled a lot of people over the last many decades. I think we have some good answers for that, but the bottom line is it hardly makes a difference.
SHANE Why is that?
PROF HATTIE Well, I think the major argument seems to be when you have teachers in class sizes, like, of 26, 27, 30 and you put them in the class sizes of, say, 18 to 23, and they don't change what they do, that seems to be the reason why it doesn't make a difference. So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching. But that doesn't seem to happen. When the many many thousands, tens of thousands of teachers have gone from one size to another, they don't change how they teach. So, no, that's why it doesn't make much of a difference.
SHANE Could the government have changed the ratio without changing class sizes?
PROF HATTIE Oh, look, that's a really critical question, because that's what schools are asked to do all the time. Like, certainly if they'd only talked about the staff-student ratio, and schools are allocated funds on the basis of that, and virtually every school in New Zealand then makes decisions about whether it's going to translate that into class sizes, to extra teachers, to time off for some teachers for professional development, and that's what schools do all the time. And so certainly if I was advising Treasury or the government, it would be keep to the staff-student ratios and leave the class size whole thing out of it, because that's an issue, it's a hot-button issue, as we've certainly seen in New Zealand, and it isn't a simple necessary translation from staff-student ratios to class size. So if they'd kept to the staff-student ratio and they had been very clear what the saving was going to be used by, because that's what principals do. They say, "I'm going to have less time with teachers in the classroom so they can plan, rather than smaller classes." Very reasonable decisions made all the time.
SHANE So they did a terrible selling job?
PROF HATTIE Well, I think the selling mistake was concentrating on the class size. I know when the minister announced it, she talked mainly about staff-student ratios. But I certainly didn't hear a very clear mandate of what the $150m, $200m over the next few years was going to be used for. Saying it's going to be used for teacher quality is a little bit too ephemeral for me. I would have liked something more specific. But if they'd said it's this rather than that, I think that's the sale job they should have done, rather than whether it's smaller or larger classes.
SHANE So was the government right to abandon the policy, or should it have stuck to its guns?
PROF HATTIE One of the major problems we have, and certainly where I'm living now here in Australia - the cost-cutting in education is vicious. It's horrific in terms of what's happening. And to keep looking at adding more and more recurrent fund, which is what the class-size issue is, is a major problem, because we need to look about how we can use some of that funds to do some of the other things that truly matter, like investing in our teachers. I certainly would have thought that if the contrast had been about reducing class sizes by one or two or increasing the teachers' salaries, to me it's an easy choice. I think we do need to worry about the salary structure and how we're going to improve that to attract teachers. And so, yes, I think it's something that, if they don't do it as they've done it now, they're going to have to find another way to look at how to stop the recurrent costs going up with very little change to students' achievement.
SHANE So are you saying that it was worth changing the ratio to be able to spend, as the government said, $60m to improve teaching quality?
PROF HATTIE Oh, absolutely, provided they were much more clear about what that investment in teacher quality is. I think it's a very reasonable decision. It's one that should be made. It's one that principals are asked to make all the time, and I certainly think the government should also have done what they've done and kept to it.
SHANE So they were wrong to back down?
PROF HATTIE Well, I think they were wrong because... They kind of had to back down, given the heat on class size. Like, it's a very easy hot-button issue. Everybody thinks it's obvious that reducing class size is a better thing. No one seems to understand, and they certainly don't accept the research evidence, that it doesn't make much of a difference. It's just an emotional reaction that of course it should. So if they had a much better campaign in terms of staff-student ratios relative to something else, I think it's a very defensible thing. They're going to have to find that money somewhere else, and I'm sure it's going to come out of another part of the education budget, and I don't think that if they'd kept to class-size issue, it would have made that much difference. Clearly, there was some problems with it not being thought through well enough at some schools, but, no, I would have kept to the policy.
SHANE So as it stands, it's a mistake?
PROF HATTIE It's a mistake, obviously, in how it was handled in putting class size right up front. I think if they'd kept to the staff-student ratio, they'd been more specific about the investment in the teachers, that certainly wouldn't have been a mistake in my opinion.