Take an apple for the teacher

Early this year the media widely reported research by Auckland University Education professor John Hattie telling us that smaller class sizes had minimal effect on student achievement and it was a teacher’s relationship with his or her students which was the most important factor.

Hattie went on the say it would be a waste of money for the government to reduce class sizes and instead it should introduce so-called performance pay for teachers.

What gives John Hattie’s research such prominence is the claim it is based on a “meta-analysis” of 50,000 pieces of educational research world-wide which involved some 83 million students.

Some have called his results education’s “holy grail” because it has supposedly gotten to the bottom of what actually makes the most difference in improving student achievement.

Unsurprisingly Education Minister Anne Tolley was thrilled. She welcomed the research and says it will have a “profound influence” on National’s education policy. She wants John Hattie to discuss how “performance pay” for teachers could work and he’s a keen starter. National has longed to introduce “performance pay” with its real purpose to break down national teacher pay scales. It was thwarted when it failed to get bulk funding of teacher salaries introduced in the 1990s but Hattie’s public statements now open the door for National’s ideology to enter centre-stage.

However the research has only just been published and has not yet been subject to serious analysis by other New Zealand education researchers. It is therefore irresponsible for John Hattie to make the sweeping claims he has at this time. So how much store should we put by his conclusions ahead of a critique of his research and scholarly methods?

We should certainly withhold judgement, as should Anne Tolley and the media, until the research is evaluated. In the meantime there are plenty of warning signs. His

dismissal of class size as a significant factor is extremely suspicious because there have never been properly controlled studies anywhere in the world where similar groups of students have been taught the same material by similar teachers in classes of 15 students compared to 30 for example. It would be expensive and governments worry positive results would lead to parental pressure for more spending to reduce class sizes. Most comparisons in New Zealand would involve comparing classes of 26 to 30 with any valid comparison being undermined by a host of other factors.

John Hattie freely admits he hasn’t read all 50,000 pieces of research and we shouldn’t blame him avoiding such an Herculean task but it will likely take much more credible research before dismissing class size as blithely as he does.

In the introduction to his research Hattie says his book is “not a book about what cannot be influenced in schools…thus critical discussions about class, poverty, resources in families, health in families, and nutrition are not included…but this is not because they are unimportant, indeed they may be more important than many of the influences discussed in this book. It is just that I have not included these topics in my orbit”.

This is a small entry in the fine print by which Hattie acknowledges he has ignored several elephants in the room. There is plenty of robust research to show the most important determinant of student achievement is the socio-economic status of the family and community from which he or she comes. This is not what politicians want to hear because it means the long tail of underachievement, the greatest issue facing education in New Zealand, is a result of government social and economic policies.

For politicians it’s much better to do some teacher bashing and we’ve seen it many times before.

Several years ago research in South Auckland on an initiative to improve literacy claimed to show achievement was not related to the socio-economic background of the students. Education Minister Trevor Mallard was taken in and excitedly proclaimed the magic bullet for underachievement had been found and teachers were to blame. However a peer critique of this research showed the claim was not supported by the research data. Quite the opposite in fact.

This is not to say teachers cannot have a strong influence on student achievement and there are no excuses for any teacher to make assumptions about students or have lower expectations based on race or class. In fact teachers in schools in low-income communities need higher expectations of their students to try make up the missing ground. Improved levels of professional development for teachers are what is needed most. Performance pay is an ideological red herring.

The purpose of educational research must never be to tell politicians what they want to hear and quietly self-censor in areas they’d prefer to ignore. Teachers face enough stress without being political footballs. Instead of taking John Hattie’s research too seriously yet, take an apple for the teacher when school starts this week.