Dominion Post stoops to partisan politics – John O’Neill gets caught up in Fairfax’s anti-state school stance

Dear reader

There will now proceed a seriously unbalanced campaign against Labour’s education policies. It will be a campaign with an implicit slur on New Zealand public school teachers. The argument will be that having more teachers will be wasted by public schools. To improve education, it will be stated, teachers need to be controlled by programmes from the top, of which IES is a prime example. Forgotten by everyone it seems is that Labour’s policy is going to establish an advisory service of 200 based on applicants from the classroom.

Then there will be the argument over what research shows – well, as usual, anything you like. The only anywhere near valid research, though, is by Peter Blatchford’s of the UK.

I think Labour’s policy meets the Blatchford criteria to a T: freedom given to teachers to individualise; a call to our celebrated past on how to individualise; practical advisory service on hand; better funding of lower decile schools; better resourcing … and more to come, surely more support teachers.

Absorb what Blatchford had to say – how on earth did one of my most admired academics get in such a tangle:

‘It has often been pointed out that teachers do not necessarily change the way they teach when faced with smaller classes and this might well account for the relatively modest effects of class size on achievement. Blatchford, Russell, Bassett, Brown and Martin (2007) have suggested several ways in which CSR can be accompanied by pedagogical changes to enhance beneficial effects for students, e.g., taking advantage of the possibilities of increased individualization; adopting more adventurous and flexible teaching; and implementing more effective collaborative learning between pupils. Some have argued that teacher professional development is a better investment than CSR, but it is preferable not to see them in opposition. Rather, professional development should be used to help teachers harness the opportunities of small classes, and help teachers develop strategies for realizing educational objectives in large classes.’

This ladies and gentlemen is the best research available … and this is our way forward.

Very best wishes

Kelvin Smythe

– – – – – – – – – – –

Dominion Post stoops to partisan politics

This is the newspaper that, on the day following the last election, mocked teachers for being losers from the result.

The Dominion Post titles its article ‘Cuts only half the story – educators’, then interviews Professor John O’Neill, Hekia Parata, Wellington College principal Roger Moses, Judith Nowotarski from NZEI and, finally, a Mirimar ‘mum’.

The whole article is slanted to the neoliberal thesis that New Zealand teachers are the problem, unable to do things for themselves

O’Neill said recent research suggested making classes slightly larger or smaller did not greatly alter achievement levels for average students.

Can O’Neill assure us that this research was longitudinal in the way that such a topic for research demands; was it qualitative allowing it to encompass flexible and imaginative thinking; was it undertaken in New Zealand with its culture of individualised teaching; and was it undertaken in systems that provided freedom for teacher initiative to make the best use of reduced class sizes?

Is O’Neill knowledgeable about how extra staffing is used in New Zealand? Allowing teachers to be freed to undertake and oversee special needs; to provide expertise in other rooms; to develop home-school relationships; or to have increased teacher specialisation, for instance, drama or Maori language?

And for goodness sake – couldn’t he see the increased number of teachers was in a package? A package that already includes establishing an advisory service attached to schools of education drawing on a significant number of teachers from schools. This is a terrific idea because it means mentoring to those selected will come from the schools of education, not private companies working on contract to the government; it also means these advisers will have sufficient freedom to develop knowledge on their own account.

More stringent standards are going to be set for entry to schools of education and courses revamped.

Then there is abolition of national standards which will provide more space for teacher initiative and the opportunity for teachers to colonise official policies and make them work.

The donations policy will give low decile schools a more assured income, and the digital policy and associated teacher development funding, will also provide a stimulus.

And who knows what is to follow? More teacher support people; increased special needs funding; different review office functioning; more support for low decile schools to engage with their communities; co-operative development of curriculum policies; and less bureaucracy, for instance, the burdensome appraisal policy being readied.

I believe in New Zealand teachers: freeing them from bureaucratic distraction to allow their brilliance to show through.

Hekia Parata then had her say about quality being more important than quantity – another one of her continuing snide attack on public teachers. The point is that quantity is not incompatible with quality, and in New Zealand it palpably isn’t.

As well, private schools have much more quantity, so do charter schools – apparently state schools aren’t worthy of that state of affairs.

Then we have Roger Moses actually supporting Labour’s policy. He puts forward some mild provisos but concludes with:

‘But I know from experience that if you go from having to mark 30 exams to 20 exams then it frees up a lot more time to spend with students.’

And: ‘Common sense would suggest there are advantages to smaller class sizes.’

Judith Nowotarski, of course, gives her enthusiastic support.

Finally, a mum, plucked out by what means we will never know, saying: ‘Taking more teachers and chucking them into the pot isn’t going to make a difference. It’s about the training they get.’

What does that mean?  Perhaps, all I can say – it’s over to you John and the training of teachers. Are you up to the job?

I’ve written this in thirty minutes, in a bit of a rage. Allan, the editor, is asleep in London – and I want to get this out.  So, I’m sending it as a letter with attachment – putting it up later on the website in revised form (send in ideas to add).

The Dominion Post article is a bit of education fluff written, I would suggest, by a couple of neophyte journalists with both eyes on what the boss wanted.

The article begins ‘Labour’s proposal to reduce class sizes at schools has failed to win a universal gold star, with experts saying small cuts without improving teaching would do little to reduce the bar of student achievement.’

(I’m still wrestling with ‘reduce the bar of student achievement’. I hadn’t previously recognised student achievement as a bar, but the Dominion Post apparently has a different perspective.)

Which experts said small cuts wouldn’t improve teaching? Only one expert said that or did he? He seemed to say they wouldn’t in higher decile schools but would in lower ones? The other people weren’t experts, so why the plural?

Then, as I suggested above, perhaps the reason research shows reduced class sizes work for lower decile schools and not for higher, is that research isn’t focused on parts of learning more likely to be a feature in higher decile schools, however, those parts should feature in the of learning for all children and looked at accordingly. (I have written in previous postings why research on class sizes needs particular care.)

I go into many higher decile schools and find that while the children’s needs are not as basic as those from lower decile schools, they are very real, and would also benefit from lower class sizes, especially from a higher degree of teacher specialisation. The benefits, though, are not so much of the measurable sort. No government is going to be elected, and private schools will only flourish, if the needs of all children aren’t attended to.

In many respects, research on class size is bunkum: research on class size is system wide therefore does not benefit from Hawthorne – the camouflaged mainstay of nearly all quantitative research.

And one little word of caution – and this does not in any respect refer to John O’Neill who is a friend, of the utmost integrity, and a terrific educationist (he just happens to be off-key, in my view, on this one) – but any academic who speaks on the class size issue should be asked if he or she has a contract or appointment with the government or the prospect of such a contract or appointment, or is connected in any way with any private education company, both New Zealand or overseas.

So we have the expert all over the place. We have Hekia against, and Judith for. We have a principal for, and a parent against. How does that justify the title and introductory paragraph? I would remind all those concerned that this isn’t a game – this is about our children.

Poor show.

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One Response to Dominion Post stoops to partisan politics – John O’Neill gets caught up in Fairfax’s anti-state school stance

  1. Paul says:

    This is the same John O’Neil who said this two years ago.

    “O’Neill says that Professor John Hattie’s comments about class size being ‘less important’ have been misinterpreted by the Treasury.

    There is some background to consider here. Hattie’s book Visible Learnings gives class size a small effect on student achievement; however, a counter-publication, Invisible Learnings? A commentary on John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement’ by a number of Massey University academics, including O’Neill, looks at how Hattie’s findings have perhaps been taken out of context by others.

    “Hattie has been cited as ‘finding’ that class size is not important and this has excited the attention of those concerned about financing of schools, who conclude they can economise on class size,” the Massey text reads. “Hattie recognises that ‘class size’ cannot usefully be considered in isolation from other potentially important, pedagogically related variables. Reducing class size may have only a small effect when considered in isolation but that’s not the issue. What matters is that reducing class size permits the teacher (and children) to do things differently.”

    As suggested here, there is certainly much research available on the benefits of small class sizes. Classes with low student to teacher ratios are said to improve attendance, test results, monitoring of student progress and engagement in learning. Bullying and vandalism are less likely to occur in schools with smaller classes. Teachers are more likely to be engaged in professional development and school reforms.

    One of the most important benefits of small class size is that teachers are likely to pick up earlier that a student is struggling. O’Neill notes that New Zealand early literacy research in south Auckland schools show that learners with poorly developed literacy need smaller classes in the early years in order to have the support they need to become confident readers”.

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