Wellingtonian editorial: Education policy flaws exposed

Last updated 09:48 24/05/2012

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OPINION: The Government has been pushing two key education policy planks - larger class sizes and performance pay for teachers.

Not surprisingly, teachers from all around the country, including plenty in Wellington, have been outspoken in opposing both policies.

They are then characterised as speaking out merely to protect their jobs. The fact that they might have some expertise in the area and therefore be worth listening to does not even seem to be considered.

To listen to Education Minister Hekia Parata, there are convincing studies that show class size is largely irrelevant in children's learning. She has staunchly maintained that the quality of the teacher is all- important.

The research that is most consistently cited is Professor John Hattie's. A closer inspection indicates Hattie's message has been distorted.

His judgments need to be treated with care because, as he said, he removed the socio- economic factors before reaching his conclusions, which seems bizarre and counter- productive.

He then emphasised the area of quality teaching as the most important factor in children's learning, and only a fool would dispute that; but that has now been twisted by some to a message that class sizes aren't important.

Of course the size of a class is important, especially in the modern "inquiry learning" thrust of New Zealand education.

"Inquiry learning" requires more individualised learning, which will hardly be helped by having bigger class sizes.

The Government will apparently save $40 million a year by running bigger class sizes.

If the size of a class truly doesn't matter, why not go all the way and treble them to about 100 and save even more money?

That won't happen because even the staunchest money- focused boffins know class sizes do matter.

Otherwise, why would private schools make such play of their small class sizes and why would people send their children to private schools?

At times like this, a little common sense would be helpful.

We've all been to school, and we all know that we connected better with our teachers, and received more of their time and energy, when there were 15 or 20 in the class than when there were 35.

That's still the case. Nothing magic has happened in the meantime to change that obvious piece of logic.

Performance pay for teachers is the other thorny issue.

It sounds great in theory. Pay the good ones, get rid of the rotten apples.

But who is the more valuable teacher: the one who gets more students through year 13 scholarships or the one who takes the school drama and coaches a basketball team?

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Is there any mechanism for judging teachers at one school against those at another?

If a school is gaining more scholarships, is that actually helping the struggling bottom 20 per cent, the "tail" of students?

Will performance pay reward teachers whose students pass exams with flying colours, or those who do the hard graft with the problem cases?

If performance pay is such a wonderful idea, perhaps the Government might start closer to home with a controlled experiment.

Maybe MPs could be subject to performance pay. Can't you just feel politicians getting itchy under the collar at the mere suggestion!

- The Wellingtonian

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