Grattan Institute Report Ignores Disadvantage in Education

A new report published by the Grattan Institute says that millions of dollars are being wasted on class size reductions which would be better spent on improving teacher quality. However, its analysis and policy recommendation are overly simplistic and fail to address the central issue of overcoming the effects of disadvantage in education.

The report ignores research evidence that lower class sizes can significantly improve achievement by low income and minority students. It fails to acknowledge that greater investment in teacher training and development programs could also lead to considerable waste if not well adapted to different learning needs. It also adopts a single solution, albeit important, approach which ignores other approaches that are needed to improve student results and reduce achievement gaps.

The report sets the main target in education policy as to increase Australia’s average results to be the best in world. To do this, average results would need to increase by about half a year’s learning for 15 year-old students, or by about 5% in each year level before students reach 15 years of age.

But, this is not the main challenge facing Australia. The central issue is to reduce the large achievement gaps between high income students and low income, Indigenous and remote area students. The gaps are of the order of 2 – 3 years of learning.

These gaps are not even mentioned in the report. Yet, they constitute a grave social injustice, are a major source of social and economic inequality and curb Australia’s productivity growth and general economic prosperity.

The report correctly says that across the board reductions in class sizes are unlikely to significantly raise average student achievement. The research evidence is that large reductions bring only modest improvement in student achievement which is largely confined to the early years of schooling (K-2). Other studies show larger improvements from increasing teaching quality.

Given this, it is not surprising that general class size reduction programs implemented across Australia are not showing up in improved student results. For example, class size reductions implemented in the K-3 years in Canberra’s government schools from 2001 have shown virtually no improvement in average literacy and numeracy results and no reductions in achievement gaps.

However, the Grattan Institute report ignores the almost universal finding of research studies that class size reductions have a much more significant impact on the results of low income and/or minority students. Studies show that the improvement for these students is more than double that for other students. Even those academics most sceptical of the benefits of class size reductions acknowledge this.

This evidence points to more selective use of class size reductions by targeting them at schools with a high proportion of low income and minority students. This approach allows for quite large reductions in class sizes (down to 15 students or less per class) where it matters most. For example, it will be much more effective to fund large class size reductions in disadvantaged schools in the west and south-west of Sydney and remote NSW than include schools on the north shore of Sydney which have close to 100% of their students above the national benchmarks in literacy and numeracy.

Not only would such a strategy better help in reducing achievement gaps but it would also contribute to the Grattan Institute’s goal of increasing Australia’s average results in comparison with other countries.

The report advocates greater investment in improving teacher effectiveness, but this is just as indiscriminate as general reductions in class size and could also lead to much waste. Improving teacher quality in north shore schools in Sydney may do just as little to increase average student results as reducing class sizes. However, it could make a big difference in overcoming disadvantage in the west and south-west of Sydney and in similar disadvantaged areas in other cities and regions.

Not only is this approach indiscriminate in terms of targeting resources but it is also indiscriminate in terms of the skills required in different learning environments. A good teacher in a school on the north shore of Sydney does not necessarily have the skills to be a good teacher in a school in the south-west of Sydney or in a remote Aboriginal community. So, teacher training and development programs also need to be well adapted to meet differing learning needs.

The Grattan Institute report also puts all its eggs in the basket of improving teacher quality. While this is a very significant factor in overcoming disadvantage if it is well-targeted in terms of schools and skills, other factors are also important. These include expanding learning support and student welfare programs in schools, parent engagement in children’s learning, and early childhood education and health programs. All these approaches have been shown to make a significant contribution to improving results for disadvantaged students.

It is a little dismaying that a major public policy institute cannot identify the main education challenge facing Australia and that it restricts its advice to a single solution approach.

Overcoming disadvantage in education is the main priority for education policy in Australia. It is a complex problem requiring multiple and complementary policies and programs. Large targeted reductions in class sizes have a role to play just as does improved teaching in disadvantaged schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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