How can we improve our schools?

High demand: tram or bike? (Fed Square, late morning, Tuesday 9 November, 2010)

The editorial writer in The Age today reckons many teachers and parents will be underwhelmed by the Government’s new $208 $258 million Education for Life promise. The writer bemoans the lost opportunity for the Government to advance some “big ideas”.

I agree that Education for Life won’t rattle the windows of most voters, but the objectives of the program are important and worthwhile. As explained by VECCI, it addresses the disengagement of many young people from the education system. This is a program that, if done well, might help to tackle the sorts of safety and security issues around trains that I discussed yesterday.

It’s a pity, though, that the Premier didn’t use the opportunity of the campaign launch to also pick up on the important message in the new report on teacher effectiveness released this week by Melbourne’s own Grattan Institute, Investing in our teachers, investing in our economy.

In the past I’ve wondered what the purpose of some of the Institute’s reports is, but not this one. Its message is clear and direct – improving teacher effectiveness is the single most important reform that could be put in place to improve educational outcomes.

The report makes three key points.

First, the benefits to be gained from further reducing class sizes are small relative to the cost. The idea that a teacher should be able to offer more to fewer students is intuitively appealing and has driven much of the expenditure on education over the last twenty years. However the Institute argues that the evidence does not support continuation of these policies:

The vast majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve schooling and student outcomes. For example, recent evidence from Florida that emphasised class size reductions in the early years of education shows that policies reducing average class size by about 2.5-3 students had no impact on improved schooling, but cost over $1 million dollars per school per year

Second, the Institute argues that investing in improved teacher effectiveness – rather than in the number of teachers – is the most successful method of improving student learning and creating top performing education systems:

It is more important for a student to have an effective teacher than to be in a class with a few less students. Teachers have a greater impact on student learning than any other factor outside of family background …. (or)….. any other school education program or policy

If all Australian teachers were 10% more effective – or alternatively if the bottom 14% of teachers improved to the effectiveness of the top 14% – students would learn 5% more in each year of their schooling and Australia’s schools would be amongst the best in the world.

The third point is that the economic payoff for the country from increasing teacher effectiveness would be substantial. GDP would increase by 0.2% p.a. and the economy would be $90 billion richer by 2050.

There’s something naturally attractive about this argument that anyone who’s ever worked in management should recognise – in a service organisation, the quality and motivation of the people matter far more than structures. The problem is that it’s usually harder to make radical changes to human capital.

The Institute argues that the way to get more effective teachers is to attract better quality applicants, train them better, and ensure they get continuous evaluation and feedback once they’re working. There need to be rewards for effective teachers. Ineffective teachers who haven’t been able to improve should be “moved on”.

Some groups, like the NSW Teachers Federation and the Victorian Greens, still argue for the primacy of smaller class sizes. The Institute’s response is essentially that improving teacher effectiveness gives considerably more bang for the buck. Its Director of School Education, Dr Ben Jensen, says the key lesson from education systems around the world is that more money is not the answer:

The highest performing systems consistently spend less than lower performing ones. The Australian experience is that substantial increases in education expenditure have not led to improvements in performance. If we want to improve performance, we need to change the way we spend money rather than simply spending more.

Policies to reduce class size have largely driven increases in education expenditure. These are not supported by international evidence but do substantially increase costs. The highest performing systems generally have larger classes than low performing countries.

Teacher quality is the key to improving performance. The international evidence consistently shows that teacher quality has the greatest impact on student performance. A student who spends a year with an effective teacher can learn at least double what a student learns with a less effective teacher.

Probably both smaller class sizes and greater teacher effectiveness are positive for educational outcomes, but the former seems to have already provided most of what it can offer. Beyond a certain point, the returns diminish but the costs don’t. But there’s now a consensus – an orthodoxy – around the benefits of reducing teacher-student ratios.

Improving teacher effectiveness, on the other hand, seems to offer much more at a lower cost. The problem – like so many reforms in education – is that it is likely to be opposed by conservative forces.

Thanks to Bruce Dickson for photo.

6 Comments on “How can we improve our schools?”

  1. Michael says:

    I agree that training better teachers and supporting their continued development is probably the single most effective strategy apart from improving parents, but the comparison between countries on class sizes sounds incredibly simplistic and self serving. Larger class sizes in some countries are coupled with a greater respect for schools and education and much stricter discipline. There are many factors that need to be addressed together.

  2. Michael says:

    Now I have had a look 🙂 Perhaps the money would be better spent on sending errant parents on a two week boot camp instead of teenagers. Since it is parental incompetence that is the single largest cause of problems in schools.

  3. Russ says:

    Smaller class sizes have always been both over-rated and popular amongst the unions (unsurprisingly). There is reasonable evidence that smaller schools are much better teaching environments (less clique ridden amongst the students, more collegiate amongst the staff, and more in touch with an individual student’s issues), but we’ve been moving in the complete opposite direction on that front. Although there are some benefits to larger schools as well, particularly for those engaging in fringe activities which need a certain core enrolment.

  4. Alan Davies says:

    Readers might be interested in this critical take on the Grattan Institute’s report. The writer says:

    The report’s chosen focus of “teacher effectiveness” is steeped in a paradigm of atomistic individualism that entrenches the notion of education as a private positional commodity rather than a public good.”

    Says it all really.

    Update: And here’s Kenneth Davidson on the wider problem of education

  5. Alan Davies says:

    Doesn’t look like financial incentives are the way to increase teacher effectiveness. Here’s the abstract from a new study:

    Financial incentives for teachers to increase student performance is an increasingly popular education policy around the world. This paper describes a school-based randomized trial in over two-hundred New York City public schools designed to better understand the impact of teacher incentives on student achievement. I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools. The paper concludes with a speculative discussion of theories that may explain these stark results.

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