PISA’s class size myth

More PISA myths about top-performing school systems (part 3)

Analysis by Pat Thomson and Terry Wrigley 

Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills (the man in charge of PISA), recently circulated these comments to news websites. His title was ‘Seven big myths about top-performing school systems’ but some of his comments create more myths than they dispel.

This is the final section of our response. Most contentious is Schleicher’s claim that class size isn’t important – but PISA evidence is sound in its support for comprehensive schools.

Myth no 4   Smaller class sizes raise standards

Surprisingly no direct evidence is provided here. The briefing paper Schleicher links to (6) relies on the assumption of a straightforward choice between paying for higher quality teachers and having lower class sizes. Are these incompatible? It is right to emphasize the importance of teacher qualifications, the belief that all children can succeed, and the benefit of comprehensive schools which avoid streaming, but that does not mean large classes are just as good as small ones.

Class size reductions need to be accompanied by changes in teaching style to improve learning – but without the class size reduction, such pedagogical changes are less feasible. And, in fact, there is a great deal of robust research in both the USA and the UK to suggest that reductions in class sizes, accompanied by changes in pedagogy, may be of significant benefit to the most vulnerable in the school system. The presence of rigorous longitudinal cohort studies within particular countries does not deserve to be ignored in favour of simplistic conclusions.

We should also be aware that statistical correlations between spending and test scores do not enable us to look at wider benefits of smaller classes, nor can they take account of cultural differences which may make larger classes more workable in some Asian countries. Ironically, no mention is made here of the dramatic reductions in class size in Shanghai.

Myth no 5 Comprehensive systems for fairness, academic selection for higher results.

Here we can largely agree with Schleicher – but not simply on the basis of PISA results. PISA has shown time after time that there is no conflict between quality and equality. It pointed out that the main reason for Germany’s poor performance is its three-tier system of secondary schools, and that conversion to comprehensive schools brought major improvements for Poland. To quote: ‘None of the countries with a high degree of stratification, whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition, is among the top performing education systems or among the systems with the highest share of top performers’.

However, this PISA research is in tune with other research, and that is important. There is not just one piece of evidence for this claim, but a significant body of inquiry built up over time, which has been generated both across and within countries.

Myth no 6 The digital world needs new subjects and a wider curriculum

Here Schleicher argues against a curriculum which is divided into too many subjects and devotes insufficient time to mathematics, for example. He argues that top performing systems ‘tend to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth’.

There is a circularity about this argument: because PISA only tests reading, maths and science, it is quite possible that countries which maximise the curriculum time devoted to these subjects might do better in PISA.

That does not of course invalidate the argument for curriculum depth and breadth. The arts and humanities are important for citizenship and personal fulfilment, and cannot be sacrificed to PISA maths scores. (England seems to have the worst of both worlds: a heavy concentration on ‘core subjects’ in primary schools but without much success in terms of PISA scores.)

Schleicher appears to equate disciplines with subjects, and to ignore the ways in which interdisciplinary study is now understood as necessary in order to address the major challenges that the world is facing. Dealing with contemporary curriculum and pedagogical challenges requires much more than looking at test results.

Myth no 7. Success is about being born talented

There are decades of research to support this argument. It is not simply PISA which holds this to be false.

Ideologies of fixed ability have had a restrictive impact on the education of countless children, not least in England. They are generally linked to theories that intelligence is genetically inherited, and that children in lower social classes are born with less of it. Schleicher is quite right to warn that ‘teachers often expect less of students from lower socio-ecoonomic backgrounds’ and to highlight the importance of high expectations. We should recognise, however, that teacher attitudes are insufficient of themselves if an education system doesn’t provide intensive and timely help to children who are struggling to prevent them falling behind. (This was, indeed, one of PISA’s early discoveries about why Finland is so successful.)

Finally, high expectations are only sustainable in a society which provides good employment prospects for its youth.

(6) PISA in Focus 13

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