How Much Can We Really Expect From Teachers?

By Michael Edmonds 21/05/2012

In an OECD comparison of 15 year olds across 65 different countries, New Zealand students gained the 4th highest score in reading and science and the 7th highest score in mathematics. These scores outstrip countries such as Australia (6th, 7th and 9th), the US (14th, 25th and 17th) and the UK (20th, 11th and 22nd).

So while not top of the scale, New Zealand seems to be doing pretty well. So why are politicians fiddling with our education system? The common excuse is that many students are not gaining NCEA. But let us take a look at the figures. According to media reports NCEA pass rates at level 2 increased to 82% in 2011. That’s not a particularly bad score, however, it does indicate that 18% of the year 12 population were unable to achieve these standards.

So what is the government’s answer to aiding these failing students? It is to increase class size.

Seriously, to help students achieve they want to increase class sizes! This is typically justified by pointing out that research shows that other factors such as feedback and quality of teaching are more important factors. However this reasoning is flawed for several reasons:

1) The naive presumption that these factors are not interrelated. Larger classes will make it more difficult to provide substantial feedback for all students, it will also reduce the amount of time students will be able to receive all important face to face, one on one feedback.

2) Most of the research is based on other countries with different education systems, cultural values and other confounding factors.

3) Even if the research is correct in showing that a DECREASE in class sizes has a small effect on student performance, it does not automatically follow that an INCREASE in class size will have not have a negative effect on performance. Furthermore, the physical size of New Zealand class rooms will be a limiting factor – overcrowding classrooms will NOT aid student achievement.

Education Minister, Hekia Parata, attempts to deflect attention from increased class sizes by suggesting that teacher quality is far more important. This might be the one point we agree on, but the way it is constantly presented in the media, it seems to imply that our teachers are not as good as they could or should be. This is both unfair and inaccurate. Most teachers in New Zealand demonstrate excellent teaching skills and bring enthusiasm into their classrooms, in what can be a most challenging job. Seriously, how many of us would happily spend the day trapped in a room with two dozen potentially hormonal teenagers with semi-developed brains? A challenging career choice to say the least.

Over the years I have met many talented and dedicated teachers. These are the teachers who drive for an hour in the evenings to bring their students to chemistry competitions at CPIT – provided, of course, they aren’t coaching sports teams or attending parent- teacher interviews on that evening. These are the teachers who work on committees such as the Canterbury Science Teacher’s Association which organises professional development for local teachers, helps with conferences and produces practice exams for students around the country.

New Zealand has high quality teachers, we just fail to recognise them.

When Ms Parata talks about improving “teacher quality” in New Zealand*,  all I see is a political smoke screen being used to disguise an economically driven policy. And for all the talk about improving “teacher quality” there is very little detail as to how this will be achieved.

Increasing class sizes in the short term may not affect student learning, only because of the pride our teachers have for their craft. However, in the long term we will most likely lose teachers as they burn out, attempting to make this flawed and economically driven approach to teaching work.

If the government wants more students to succeed they need to leave class sizes alone and better resource teachers so that students get the feedback, direct instruction and quality teaching that they need.

*Not to mention that Ms Parata seems to use some pretty dodgy figures in making her arguments, as have been pointed out by fellow sciblogger Alison Campbell.

0 Responses to “How Much Can We Really Expect From Teachers?”

  • Great post!

    I’m an English teacher at an Auckland high school and my class size already averages 32 students. It’s barely manageable as it is and I literally have no. more. room. in my class.

    It’s a slippery slope, I tell ya!

  • You should try 35 year 10 students in a lab built & furnished for 30. I had to manage a class like that, back in my secondary teaching career. I had hoped that we would not return to situations like that, which are difficult even for experienced teachers at times & with the potential to be quite risky (depending on the activity du jour & the individuals involved).

    I can’t actually understand why it’s a bad thing that teacher numbers rose somewhat faster than student numbers over the last decade. The result would surely be more opportunity for the one-on-one class time, quality feedback, & personalised planning that John Hattie’s work tells us is so important for student success.

  • The part that worries me is the “performance based assessment” of teachers. How do you judge their performance? A teacher might have a class mostly full of students who need a lot of help; the students might make great progress because of the teachers abilities, but not quite enough to get NCEA levels that are declared “good performance” indicators. (I’m not a big fan of NCEA in total, but that’s another story…)

  • ShadowMind,
    I agree with you completely re performance based assessment. To accuratley measure performance you have to be able to assess what level the students are performing at when they start the class and what level they are at when they finish the class for the year. And do we really need teachers spending all their time assessing the students rather than teaching them?

    Even if accurate assessment were to be possible how do you account for factors beyond the teachers control for examples issue at home which interfere with learning?

  • And do we really need teachers spending all their time assessing the students rather than teaching them? Hell no – this seems to be the route they are travelling in the States & I don’t see how that’s good for anyone.

    As you say, to measure performance you need pre- & post-testing. Even that won’t cover everything because of course there are other things going on in kids’ lives that will have an impact on what & how they’re doing in the classroom. But it would be a start…

  • ah, double drat. I meant ‘everything’ not ‘anything’! Can you fix it please, Michael (she said plaintively…). Must.Stop.Multitasking(or trying to)!