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National Affairs

Class sizes and the dead hand of history

1 March 2013

Sure, smaller classes would be good, but at what opportunity costs, asks Dean Ashenden




ONE of the deepest and most heavily defended myths of education talk, research and policy is that small classes are good, and therefore smaller classes are better still. The argument is as simple, appealing and popular as it is facile, wrong and damaging. It has acquired current political significance from Gonski’s call for a substantial increase in spending on schools, and from the ham-fisted efforts of Coalition shadow education minister Christopher Pyne to incorporate criticism of the class size reduction campaign into his platform.

One of tens of thousands of articulations of the “small classes” case (and one of many illustrations of its unsustainability) appeared in the (excellent) online outlet The Conversation and was retailed by The Monthly magazine’s (excellent) daily news digest. “Class Sizes, Gonski and Schools Funding: The Facts,” by Monash education academic David Zyngier, is (in fact) a convenient selection from the available facts. More important: it misses the central point entirely.

Smaller classes can and often do improve student learning and welfare, as Zyngier asserts, and they can make teachers’ work more doable and satisfying. Of course they can! But the point, entirely invisible to Zyngier, is this: could other ways of spending the same amount be more effective? For students and/or teachers?

In Australia the answer is almost certainly yes, they could, partly because each class-size reduction is very expensive, partly because each increment doesn’t make much difference, and partly because there are more cost-effective strategies available or on the way. Some examples.

• A quasi-experimental study in the United States compared five ways of improving literacy and numeracy: CAI (computer-aided instruction); increasing the length of the school day; class size reduction; and peer and cross-age tutoring. Of these five strategies class-size reduction (in various “steps,” from thirty-five to thirty to twenty-five to twenty, and one big step, from thirty-five to twenty) vied with increasing the length of the school day for the worst cost-effectiveness ratios. CAI was twice as cost-effective as either, remarkable when we learn that the study was conducted in the mid-1980s. Various forms of tutoring came out on top, with peer tutoring more than three times as cost-effective as class-size reductions. It is perhaps worth noting that the two senior authors of the study, Henry M. Levin and Gene V. Glass, are among the most eminent of US education researchers.

• An example of the same approach applied at the macro level: a recent US calculation estimated that just five more students in each US classroom would fund an across-the-board salary increase for every teacher of 34 per cent. That would in all probability improve student’s working lives as well as teachers’. There is good evidence to suggest that higher salaries attract more able people into the profession, and that they become more effective classroom teachers.

• A third example: Australian teachers are the victims of something approaching world’s worst practice in teacher education, both before they go into the classroom and after.  There is good reason and evidence – ably summarised by Zyngier’s bête noire, the Grattan Institute  – to suggest that teacher effectiveness and professional satisfaction can be substantially improved by well-organised, workplace-based, collaborative appraisal and professional development. The problem is that this takes workplace-based time. Perhaps, Grattan suggests, teachers and their students would both gain if their schools traded off the number of classes per week and/or the number of students per class to make the time?

• A fourth: virtual high schools in the US have substantially lower per-student costs than conventional schools. And so, proportionately, do “hybrid” schools, which find various ways to mix virtual with mainstream instruction. But are these new schools as effective as the old? It is too soon to tell, but so far there is no evidence to suggest that they won’t be, and some reason to believe that if they were to spend at the same per-pupil rate as conventional schools they would be rather more effective.

To repeat: to argue that smaller classes are better than big ones is to state the obvious and ignore the important. In doing so, and by being almost silent on costs and completely blind and deaf to opportunity costs, cost-effectiveness and productivity, Zyngier is representative of his profession.

Education research is dominated by the so-called “effectiveness” paradigm, the findings of which are so ably summarised by John Hattie’s Visible Learning. Hattie’s tour de force digests more than 800 meta-studies, themselves digests of a total of tens of thousands of studies of “effectiveness.”

Had Hattie digested cost-effectiveness research he would have published a very slim volume indeed. Education researchers who, like Henry M. Levin (and the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen), are trained in economics and therefore able to see and understand the relationship between both sides of the equation, are rare. Their research is rarely noticed or used.

These facts reflect the circumstances in which most education academics have conducted their careers and their research: in schools and school systems in which just about every dollar is spoken for well before it passes the parliamentary vote, committed to salaries of tenured teachers (between 60 and 70 per cent of most school system budgets), on fixed rates of pay, working in numbers and combinations determined by fixed class size maxima, all underwritten by industrial agreements and regulations. Resource use is fixed, familiar, and uniform, and therefore invisible. It is not accidental that Levin et al had to set up an experiment; the comparison was not there to be made in the status quo.

THESE arrangements are the upshot of a history beginning in the 1950s when babies of the postwar boom flooded into schools, and stayed and stayed, soon producing intolerable working conditions for students and teachers. I know, because I was there. In 1952 I was one of sixty-three students in a Grade V class in suburban Adelaide. My first (1964) class as a teacher contained only forty students, a concession to the fact that I was first year out.

I was one of those teachers (and, later, teacher educators) who stormed against the circumstances in which we were asked to work. Like every teacher I wanted to put a limit on the number of students we had to cope with in any one class. Indeed my first-ever public speech was from the floor of a mass meeting protesting against big classes and small salaries. I was an active supporter of the campaign to get what was so obviously necessary by turning our genteel “professional association” into a proper union, a transformation symbolised its entry into the ACTU.

There is no doubt that class sizes had to come down, and they did. Exact figures are hard to come by except in the proxy form of student:teacher ratios, which fell from around twenty-four in my day to around fourteen by the 1990s. Maximum class sizes range from the low twenties to thirty or so, depending on the age of the children, the subject being taught and so on. The average class size is of course markedly lower than the maximum and most classes are smaller than the average.

Nor can there be any doubt that this was a solution that produced a number of problems. One of them is that fixed maxima make it difficult for schools to do within what Gonski wants to do between schools – put most resources to work where there is greatest need. Within schools, that means some small classes, some big, and some in between, which would in turn mean trouble with the employer or the union or both.

The larger problem, however, is that reducing class sizes is very expensive and not very effective, particularly when compared with the alternatives. Per pupil expenditure in real terms was in 2003 around two-and-a-half times the level when I was teaching, but there is no evidence to suggest commensurate gains in student learning or welfare, and some evidence to suggest that in key areas (literacy and numeracy) there have been no gains at all.

As for teachers’ status and salaries, and for standards of entry to their professions, these are as low as they were in my day, or worse, particularly now that opportunities for women are so much better than they were then. Small classes have been purchased at teachers’ expense.

Small classes may well stack up as a cost-effective tactic in some educational circumstances, as Zyngier’s summary of the evidence suggests. But as a strategy, class size reduction is exhausted. Its further pursuit will be futile, and counter-productive.

As the struggle to find the Gonski dollars demonstrates, the days are over when we can just add more dollars every time a new problem or deficiency turns up. This policy by cumulative incrementalism is viewed by most of those involved as muddling through, getting us there, bit by bit, eventually. To the contrary: new problems and new tasks and new costs are piling up faster than improvements. In the coming years the most defensible reason for asking for new money will be to lubricate the more effective allocation of money already in the system.

But even if there were money on tap there would still be an unanswerable case for putting it to work where it works best. That represents responsible stewardship of public monies, hardly a right-wing virtue. Finding better ways to use what we have is the most credible possible basis for any claim for more. It is to face the facts of the past: just keeping on keeping on isn’t working any more. It is also to face facts of the future hinted at by emerging virtual and hybrid secondary schools. It is to do the best we can by the kids, and by the people who teach them.

One of the many hazards facing Gonski is that his $6.5 billion will be used on more of the same old same old. It is a weakness in Gonski and one of several blunders by the government that they failed to use the promise of new money as a lever on employers and unions to free up the old.

That education academics, teacher organisations and the profession as a whole are so blind to these realities and imperatives is a tribute to the power of paradigms (see also the “rabbit-duck illusion” of thought and practice to dominate minds long after the circumstances of their production have disappeared. The English historian and public intellectual Tony Judt said of social democrats that they are focused on defending the gains of the past fifty years to the exclusion of working out what should be the gains of the next fifty. He could have been thinking of the debate over class sizes. •

Show Comments


roger scott

28 February 2013

Nic Barnard is spot-on in his focus upon the political dimension inhibiting a sensible response to Gonski or to the even more sensible suggestions from Dean Ashenden. The "Whitlam-Karmel" settlement of the state aid debate linked the Catholics of the ALP Right with the middle-class interests of the Liberals and Nationals in defence of non-state schools. This has now evolved into a system which systematically discriminates against disadvantaged groups forced to use state schools. These groups, unless motivated by atavistic appeals to anti-immigrant prejudices, are unlikely to vote for the Liberals. But everyone else using or aspiring to private education will want to protect the status quo. No wonder Christopher Pyne thinks that the current system is not broken.

Dean Ashenden

5 March 2013

Re Gregor's closing question: encourage schools to phase out fixed class size maxima so that they can do a micro-Gonski - put most resources to work where there is greatest need (some small classes, some big, and some in between). That's just for Monday morning. Then work through the list of four options included in the article, and many other arising, using the tool kindly supplied by Daniel Carr in a comment above.

Gregor Ramsey

4 March 2013

Wow Dean that brought them out of the woodwork. Great to see some light shone on the sacred cow of class size. Resources are always limited and those using them or directing their use have an obligation to see that they are used to their best effect. The challenge is to know what the use is to achieve maximum effect and we have had too few micro economists of education to advise on this.

Unlike most service areas, the beneficiaries of the service, the students and their parents, have little say in how the resources should be used and almost none in being assured of the comptencies of those using the resources because in teaching our failures are easily blamed on the recipient of the service, the students, rather than the teacher who provides it. This quite the opposite to surgery where the failure is clearly sheeted home to the surgeon rather than the patient who may not stil be around when incompetence rears its head.

While languishing in Nepal recently, a country where there is something called a school on almost every corner in facilities best described as basic, with delightful names like the School of Sponge Learners, the School of Higher Learning, and the Happy Learning School tucked away near a couple of Montessori Schools, and where the parents pay all the costs, it was pretty clear that the clients, the students and their parents, have firm ideas about what should go on in those schools.

This led me to ponder on just how can we judge the performance of teachers in our schools when in a report in the Advertiser in Adelaide more teachers are dismissed for sexual misdemeanors than for poor teaching I came across an article by David Watters Chair of the Professinal Development and Standards Board of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in the magazine for medicos MJA Insight on Judging Performance.

Sound performance is pretty important in surgery because you can't hide your mistakes and they are clearly the surgeons. Watters lists nine competencies against which a surgeon should be judged according to the RACS in terms of their fitness for surgical practice. These are:

Professionalism and ethics

Medical expertise

Technical expertise

Clinical decision-making and judgement


Collaboration and teamwork

Health advocacy

Management and leadership

Scholarship and teaching

We can easily change the medical words in this list and exchange them for education words to give a list that would be helpful in judging whether a teacher has the required competencies to teach effectively, not only the students but also other teachers and particularly to train new teachers. Dean mentioned the poor state of teacher training in this country. It really is about time more universities took it seriously or got out of the game altogeher. Dean you have begun a great debate. Talking about it is the easy bit however. My challenge is to define what you have to do from next Monday to bring the change in resource use that is so sorely needed.

Ken Olah

28 February 2013

Whether by international comparisons of share of GDP or student attainment outcomes, it is in arguable that Australian public education has been grossly under-funded for a long time. The push to private education through increased public subsidy and other means is deepening the shameful inequality of opportunity and outcome that exists between different groups of Australian children and young people. In the longer term, we will pay a very heavy economic and social price unless we re-commit to a strong, quality public education system.

The rhetoric used by Christopher Pyne and the Coalition is deeply misleading and intended to preserve the changes in education created during the Howard era.

As others have argued, the issue is not whether the Gonski reforms to educational funding are necessary but how that funding should be spent. Money matters because it enables you to do the things that matter. Or, a vision without resources is a hallucination.

Class size reduction was more a political than an educational strategy, though it can make a difference and is sometimes the best thing to do, depending on student needs and the teaching practices employed.

"Principal autonomy" is the new con that will take school leaders even further into administration and away from educational leadership, while making it easier to cut individual school resourcing.

My suggestions are:

1. Less face-to-face time for class teachers so that they can improve the quality of their lessons and for senior teaching staff so that they can improve the quality of the educational leadership they provide.

2. A focus on quality teaching, starting with unlocking the potential of assessment; linking explicit, guided and independent learning and teaching; and appropriately strengthening the active role of the student in his or her learning.

3. Providing real continuous professional learning that is not simply the awareness raising that is today's norm but blends a range of adult learning processes.

4. Setting and enforcing standards of teaching that ensure every student receives the quality of learning that is his or her right and make possible the quality of life we want for Australia in the future.

Olive Mc

2 March 2013

I found this article interesting in that it relates principally to class size and funding. I would like to raise the thorny issue of the number of people funded by education monies who never see the inside of a classroom, or indeed a school. Over the many years I have been a teacher, I have seen the non-teaching education sector grow exponentially.

There are administrators, committees, those in charge of 'professional development', co-ordinators, team leaders, change leaders, quality assurance departments ... the list goes on and on. Many of these people earn more than classroom teachers but add little (if anything) to student learning. Indeed, many people in education no longer aspire to become better teachers but to leave the classroom and join this growing band of "supporters".

I don't believe additional funding is necessarily the answer. I would like to see every position in education which does NOT involve direct student contact analysed and a simple question asked: do we really need this position and the valuable funding it takes from the real work of educating?

Dr David Zyngier

13 March 2013

Dean has pointed out some very important issues about economic cost benefits of education spending.

While adequate and required resources are a necessary precondition for quality education outcomes for all they are not sufficient! This is where teacher quality pedagogy is part of the issue which Hattie and eveb Ben Jensen at The Grattan Institute have so eloquently and effectively argued for.

My concern with Deans article here is his attack on education faculties as if they are some kind of monolithic entity.

Chris Bonnor

28 February 2013

An enjoyable read. I really hope that this article does lead to a debate and also greater clarity around the class size issue.....although the extent of clarity always depends on at what level the debate is conducted. Hope springs eternal.

What does worry me is that the critics tend to generalize. In early years of schooling and in disadvantaged contexts the story can be quite different. I say “can be” because as with other structural changes, the pedagogy has to change as well, something which Hattie apparently mentions.

There are many examples of personalised and innovative strategies which are making a breakthrough for disengaged young people - in smaller groups. On the other hand it would be hardly surprising if variations in class size have less impact for mainstream students.

But we never seem to get told enough about research which questions the effect of class sizes. Glass concluded in another study that “well designed studies produced quite different results from studies with minimum controls”.

What is large, what is small? Is it class size or ratios? The two are not the same. How is student progress being measured? What about the progress that can’t be easily assessed – or outcomes that are important in the longer term? How do we measure impact of class size on engagement and depth of learning?

Maybe we should broaden the debate beyond the apparent cost effectiveness issues raised by some research – and talk about the continuing importance of teacher development and, where necessary, the need to sometimes do things very differently in the classroom.

David Zyngier

28 February 2013


My purpose in TC are related to 2 issues.

First, the lack of authority of the (non-peer reviewed) claims made by Jensen about 44% increase in education spending - in fact Jensen has told me personally that this figure is very rubbery and represents - but cannot be disaggregated easily - the flood of additional funds to private schools in the past 10 years.

Meanwhile over $5 billion has been removed in the last 3 years by Qld, NSW & Vic from state education alone.

Second I write about the efficacy of targeted or as Dean suggests tactical reduction of class sizes for certain groups of students - I make no claims of support for system wide reductions.

I would like to see in every school some small classes where it is effective and in some subjects or classes where it it is possible to have very large classes.

What is needed is flexibility and thinking outside the box.

We all know that system think is destructive.

Nic Barnard

28 February 2013

Ashenden is right that one of the key issues around Gonski is stewardship of public money and using public money to best effect. Unfortunately, as Gonski discovered, the past 20 years have seen billions of dollars of over-funding of private schools according to the Howard government's own SES funding model.

Since no government is prepared to address this by reducing funding to private schools even in real terms, Gonski's price tag of $5bn (now inflated to $6.5bn) was inevitable. You could almost hear him sigh as he uttered it. The people who lecture Labor on overspending seem to have no wish to address this.

I don't believe it's written into Gonski that the money must be used on smaller classes, and in fact its proposal of top-ups for various forms of disadvantage may even free it from being used solely that way, through greater use of integration aides, reading recovery and so-on.

But the other political dimension is that we are seeing an accelerating residualisation of the public education system as better-off or (more significantly) more motivated parents move their children to Catholic and Independent schools. Those schools often trade on their smaller class sizes, so as long as there is such an emphasis on competition in the system, the imperative for smaller classes will remain.

I'm afraid I see a similar political dimension in the work of Ben Jensen at Grattan, which often seems designed to win headlines in The Australian. It's easy to say it's not all about money, but all of the alternative strategies proposed, including better workplace PD, will also cost money. As Ashenden notes, this may be more cost-effective than smaller classes but as long as we have such a broken funding system, setting these two strategies in opposition seems to me a false dichotomy, or at least a failure to address the biggest problem.

David Donaldson

1 March 2013

From 20 years in the TAFE system, I echo this -

teacher effectiveness and professional satisfaction can be substantially improved by well-organised, workplace-based, collaborative appraisal and professional development.

Thanks Dean for succinct argument. Dead right.

Daniel Carr

1 March 2013

A great look at the cost/benefit of different measures to improve education is provided by the Sutton Trust in the UK.

I can't vouch for the validity of all numbers, but certainly a worthy endeavour and a much-needed way of framing debates about spending on schools:

Dean Ashenden

1 March 2013

For Chris, David (Zyngier), Nic, Roger and Ken: Yes, both the amount and distribution of resources matter. But so does the way resources are used. Quantums and shares of funding are very well understood on all sides, perhaps particularly by partisans of government schools (although perhaps first place in that comp should go to the Independents). But use is not well understood, or even noticed.

That is an unintended consequence of the reform program that began in the 1950s. The drive for ever-smaller classes of fixed maximum size all-but eliminated the capacity to decide how to use resources. Our ability to ‘see’ how resources are consumed, and to think about how they could be, shrank correspondingly – the ‘dead hand of history’ in education talk, research, and policy, reflecting institutional and industrial realities.

The point I’d like to emphasise, to put front and centre, is that without a much deeper and more widespread understanding of how resources are, could and should be used it is not possible to do a better educational job - or,as a second-order consideration, make credible, effective claims for more or better-distributed resources. One way of describing the task is to say that what economics knows needs to suffuse the ‘common sense’ of education talk, research and policy. Another that many educationists would find more congenial (and which, if I understand him correctly, is Chris’s angle) is this mouthful: we need ways of thinking that let us see what we now know about learning would mean for the design of the workplace, and for the nature and conduct of the daily work of students and teachers.

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