Another dot in the blogosphere?

Not one-size-fits-all?

Posted on: July 13, 2018

An issue that refuses to go away is that of class sizes in Singapore schools. It should not until our leaders relent.

Our current Education Minister provided at least three main objections to reducing class sizes (reducing student:teacher ratios):

  1. Studies elsewhere showed little or no benefit
  2. Teacher quality was more important than class sizes
  3. Local schools already have some autonomy to make small but strategic changes

No study on the effects of reducing class sizes is perfect or absolutely generalisable. Each study will have its own context, constraints, and focus areas. Each study will also suffer from inadequately answering these questions:

  • What are the measures of success and why were these selected? (Academic results are not the only and best measure.)
  • When are the measures taken? (The effect of class size reduction takes time and can be easily undone if not consistently applied over the entire student experience.)
  • What of the less measurable or even immeasurable benefits of small class sizes like teacher morale, social bonding, mentoring and apprenticeship, etc.? (These “intangibles” are just as important, if not more so, when trying to increase the contact time between a teacher and every learner.)

No one in their right mind or in the face of good data will argue that teacher quality is paramount. A great teacher might strategise how to allocate her time and energy in an unfairly large class. Now give that same teacher smaller classes and what might happen next?

That question needs to be answered even though most people have good guesses or be able to cite anecdotes. This is why other ministers in parliament have suggested that we have official trials of our own. Our schools, our teachers, our contexts, our findings.

As for giving schools the option to decide what to do with teacher deployment, the fact of the matter is that they have always had that option whether it was policy or not. After all, which school principal would not see that disadvantaged kids need more time and attention? Which teacher would not provide small group or one-on-one coaching?

The official answers to a concerted and official reduction of class sizes avoid the crux of the issue: Make it policy to reduce the student:teacher ratio not just administratively, but also realistically.

This means not just taking the total number of students and education officers in Singapore to get that ratio. It means providing a range of smaller numbers that each school can target given its context and constraints. It means focusing on better ways of teaching and learning, not on simply crunching numbers.

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