Archive for May, 2012

For years, Treasury has been telling governments that the preponderance of research suggests that class sizes aren’t directly related to the quality of education, and for the first time, they’ve found a government willing to listen.

In some respects, Treasury may not be entirely wrong. When you get motivated students in a large class with a good teacher that relies mostly on theory, there may be little or no need for individual-level tutoring. This is the system that most university papers rely on, because on the most part people who actually show up to their classes are likely to learn well so long as their lecturer is audible, reasonably informed on the subject, and not terrible at teaching. In that kind of environment a 100-level spanish paper with hundreds of students is likely little different to a 200-level or 300-level German paper with just a few students, assuming the same teacher.

There are a few things being overlooked by extending that analysis to secondary, intermediate, and even primary schools, though:

  • Very little of the academic analysis on class size is backed up by evidence. The only large-scale study that randomly assigned students to classes found that younger students benefit more from smaller classes than older students- exactly how you’d expect given the different paradigms in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In particular, years one and two get the largest benefit from reduced class size. Other studies have only approximated rigorous experimental conditions and I would say it’s unwise to give them too much weight.
  • Queries and the need for direct supervision are much higher in primary and secondary education, which makes class size a quality of work issue. The best, most in-demand teachers will be drawn to opportunities for smaller class sizes where they do not feel harried by students, and can run a more relaxed classroom where little of their energy is needed to direct their students to the topic at hand.
  • Any detrimental effect to adding an additional student to a class probably shrinks relative to the existing class size. The leap from a teacher that manages forty students to one that manages fifty might be similar to the leap between a teacher that manages 50 and one that manages a hundred.
  • Class size is an exacerbating factor to other difficulties in our education system. Kids with learning difficulties, kids who go to low-decile schools where poverty is common, and kids from homes that don’t value learning or provide additional resources for learning will likely all notice a much larger difference in outcomes from reduced class size than those that don’t. Cutting funding for teachers for private or very high standard public schools might make little difference, but extending that policy below the highest decile schools is likely to have a large effect both on education outcomes and generational poverty.
  • As many people are pointing out, class size is an infrastructure issue. Many rooms are designed around a set number of students, especially technology education, and can’t easily be modified to take additional students. There are additional hidden costs waiting to happen.

Increasing class sizes could be a good cost-saving measure, that allows our best teachers to educate more students- if it’s done at high levels of education for only the best or most advantaged students. Ideally, we should operate some sort of scaling class size system, where classes shrink as other challenges increase. Unfortunately, as with all education funding, this is a matter of inter-generational theft, and people into their working age don’t want to fund the possible success of the next generation- or rather, some don’t, some do, and some don’t care because they’re going to make sure their family’s kids go to private school.

The view from privilege

Posted: May 29, 2012 in feminism, queer, race

Often are minority groups presented with the little canard I like to call “the view from privilege”. It’s a simple ditty, really, that anyone can learn:

But you can’t be objective on this topic, you’re a(n) [queer/ethnic or cultural minority/woman/disabled person].

The hidden assumption here is that the view from privilege is the one that’s objective, not the view from under oppression. The view from privilege isn’t what happens when privileged people make observations, rather, it’s the assumption that privilege is objective, the same way that the view from nowhere in the press is the assumption that no view is ever objective. Sometimes the view from privilege is jaw-droppingly obvious, at least to most of the world: consider complaints that a gay judge couldn’t overturn California’s proposition eight forbidding same-sex marriage because as he was gay, he was biased. Are they proposing that a straight judge couldn’t have upheld it either? No, of course not, straight people are always unbiased. Wink. Welcome to the view from privilege.

But it isn’t always so obvious. The view from privilege can manifest in odd ways- for instance, it’s often internalised even in equal rights advocates, so they can doubt that their own experiences are valid until someone of privilege agrees. When I say that privileged people often need to be in a supporting role in fighting against oppression, this is the kind of sad reality I’m talking about- oppressed people may often require validation that their views and criticism are reasonable and real.

In some ways the phenomenon of gaslighting, a term used to describe when men manipulate the environment around their partner and say they don’t notice any change, is a prime example of people buying into the view from privilege- it can feel easier for women exposed to this sort of manipulation to ‘acknowledge’ their own insanity than question their partners.

There are two really simple steps to fighting this idea: Listening to people who aren’t privileged, and validating them when you honestly feel they have a point. It sounds simple and easy, but in a media culture where increasingly people have to doggedly search for minority viewpoints, we can dismiss those people we actually meet and know as outliers instead of the reality.