ImperatorFish: Teacher Development and Smaller Class Sizes: We Can Have Both

Written By: - Date published: 2:19 pm, June 18th, 2012 - 60 comments
Categories: education, newspapers, schools, tertiary education - Tags: ,

Scott at Imperator Fish has kindly given us permission to syndicate posts from his blog – the original of this post is here.

It’s not often that I get grumpy enough to take a Herald on Sunday columnist to task over their opinion piece.  I would certainly never be spoiled for choice. I don’t mind that a newspaper presents a range of opinions, from left to right, so long as they’re not of the barking-mad variety (e.g. Paul Holmes on an off day, Michael Laws every Sunday), and so long as there’s some attempt at balance overall.

Of late, however, the Herald group of newspapers seems to have taken a frenzied approach towards the hiring of curmudgeons, Actoids and libertarians to write opinion pieces. Have they spotted a hole in the right-wing opinion market that others (Roughan, O’Sullivan, Hopkins, Holmes. Woodham etc) aren’t filling?

The column by one such opinionator, Damien Grant, in the HOS got my blood boiling. I don’t know much about Grant, except that he’s a liquidator and a libertarian. I’m not sure if he’s a full-blooded objectivist, but he does appear to contribute regularly on Lindsay Perigo’s odd Solo Passion site, including on discussions regarding their prophet, the somewhat batty Ayn Rand. And when I say “odd” I’m actually being charitable.

So it stood to reason that Grant would hold views somewhat outside the political mainstream, I was not disappointed.

Bill English mocked the demonstrating post-graduates and suggested they take lessons in rioting from the Greeks. They do not need to look that far; New Zealand’s teacher unions have provided a fine lesson in how vested self-interest groups can defend their entitlements.

That these teachers dared to defend themselves when the government tried to sack a bunch of them! The shame! The shame! Presumably they should have just rolled over and agreed to the loss of their livelihoods so that people like Damien Grant would feel better about the tax cut he got.

What has been lost in the debacle is that the Treasury Secretary pointed to hard evidence that showed class sizes made little difference. What mattered was teacher quality. John Key made the point that in the past 10 years the teacher roll had increased 12.5 per cent to 50,000 and student numbers had risen by 2.5 per cent. Rebalancing was in order.

“Rebalancing” is one of those terrible euphemisms, like “collateral damage”, that means something much more unpleasant that it sounds. In this case it means firing teachers and sending them to the scrapheap.

The “hard evidence” Grant refers to doesn’t say what he thinks it does. There is evidence that marginal changes in class sizes are not as critical a factor to a child’s education as the quality of the teacher, but the argument does not follow that we can therefore just increase the average class size without any impact. There will be some impact, however minor.

Otherwise, why wouldn’t we just create classes of 100 kids per student? If you think that’s an absurd argument to use, bear in mind that it’s pretty much the same argument John Key used in the 2011 election campaign to attack Labour’s minimum wage increase policy: if a marginal change has no effect on employers, why not make the minimum wage $20 or $30 an hour? Allow me then to beat Mr Key with the same stick, since he’s no longer using it.

There is a larger problem with Grant’s overall argument. It relies on with the assumption that we have a general problem with teacher performance. I would argue the opposite. Sure there are some rubbish teachers (I have also met some terrible, terrible liquidators in my time), but New Zealand’s education system is admired around the world. I would guess this is in no small part down to the motivation, enthusiasm and dedication of teachers. For many teachers it isn’t the money that motivates them, because if it was all about the cash most of them would have found another career by now. Sure they want to be remunerated fairly, but if you paid them a bit more it wouldn’t necessarily result in better quality teachers.

In a tight economic environment, a policy was devised to cut the teacher roll marginally and introduce performance pay to attract and retain quality teachers. How hard a political sell is that?

The problem with such a sell is that voters can usually sniff out bullshit when it’s served up to them. As for “marginally”, when the policy was first announced some schools said they were going to lose up to 10 or 11 teachers. Intermediate schools were going to have to drop or severely curtail metalwork, woodwork and other technical subjects.

Would you rather have little Johnny in a room of 30 kids being taught by a competent, energetic pedagogue or in a class of 28 being taught by an unmotivated dullard?

Where are these dullards? Which schools are they currently teaching in? How would the proposed policy have got rid of them?

This, however, was not the question that was asked in the mindless vox pop quiz to the “man in the street”.

The question was “do you want larger class sizes” and not “do you want your kids taught by unmotivated dullards?”

Perhaps because that would have been a really stupid, dishonest thing to ask people. Most teachers are not unmotivated dullards, so how would not increasing class sizes make them so?

Teacher unions were always going to react to a cull. Overstaffing benefits them significantly but the burden of this is spread over all taxpayers.

Clearly this is untrue, considering that some taxpayers got rather handsome tax cuts, and that a large number of our super-wealthy continue to use every trick under the sun to minimise their taxpaying obligations. To Rand-worshipping objectivists those avoiders are probably heroes, but to the rest of society they are the real bludgers.

The “burden” as Grant describes it, is a world-class education system that other countries admire. It should also be remembered that in most private schools the average number of students per class is even smaller. Clearly those who choose to pay for private education (including our Prime Minister and a significant proportion of his cabinet) understand the importance of small class sizes, even if some of them refuse to countenance the same ratios in public schools.  New Zealand schools are not overstaffed.

We remain passive while the unions successfully exert enough pressure to keep their snouts in the Government’s trough.

No we don’t remain passive at all, as the debacle over classroom sizes shows. Grant is one of a small minority who don’t get the genuine anger most parents of school-age children felt over this issue. It wasn’t something the unions just whipped up. If it was it would gone nowhere, just as union protests over National Standards have.

Presumably Grant thinks those unions with their “snouts in the Government’s trough” should just disestablish themselves on the basis that our wise and benevolent government will do the right thing by our kids. However, this fiasco shows that teachers and parents know more abut what’s good for kids than Treasury officials.

We can only assume that Grant has never himself sipped from the Government’s trough. Presumably he has a firm policy of never acting for Government agencies, and has never claimed any sort of benefit or entitlement from the Government.

Key talks about economic growth like farmers talk about summer. It will arrive; we just have to wait long enough. If only that were true.

Well we agree on something at least.

Improving the standard of education was something real he could have achieved and it would have had a positive impact on economic growth. It is an opportunity missed.

Grant appears to think that if he repeats this line about improving the quality of our education it might become true. I fear his hopes will be disappointed.

If Grant wants more money spent on teacher development (and that’s a big “if”; I suspect his frustration over National’s backdown comes from watching an opportunity to slash teacher numbers go by, rather than a desire to increase the quality of our education system), then he should argue for the government to still spend that money. There’s plenty of money to pay for it, and we wouldn’t have to increase class sizes, if we reversed some of National’s tax cuts or re-prioritised some of National’s other spending.

Following the unions’ example, the demonstrating postgraduates must feel confident about overturning the Budget change that prevents them being able to claim student allowances. They can, however, borrow money from the taxpayer at the very attractive interest rate of zero. They can still apply to tutor undergraduates, seek sponsorship, do private teaching work or, heaven forbid, get their hands dirty working at McDonald’s, assuming McDonald’s will take them.

Many students already work part-time to supplement their measly student allowances. I would confidently predict that students work much harder in general than they did when Mr Grant was at University (I am making an assumption that Grant was university educated). Such is the cost of accommodation and transport that many students still struggle to survive.

Let’s keep in mind that student fees do not cover the total cost of a university education. The budget provides $1.1 billion for universities (presumably including renamed technical institutions like AUT) to cater for 118,000 students. This comes out at more than $9000 a year per student, or $29,000 per degree. Plus student allowances.

The Government still subsidises the cost of postgraduate education. Expecting students to do some work is not a cause for rioting.

This boils down to Grant saying that by investing more in the development of teachers we will keep them motivated and performing, and by investing less in university students we will achieve the same result. Can anyone else see a problem with that argument?

The government tried to sell this policy as a trade-off between smaller class sizes and better teachers, as if we cannot have both of these things. If teacher development is so important to the government they should find the money for it. There’s plenty of money for motorways. Let’s put some of it into education.

60 comments on “ImperatorFish: Teacher Development and Smaller Class Sizes: We Can Have Both”

  1. quartz 1

    Presumably he has a firm policy of never acting for Government agencies, and has never claimed any sort of benefit or entitlement from the Government.

    Damien has spent some time at the taxpayers’ expense:

    Helpfully, the National Business Review this week detailed in technicolour some of those mistakes, specifically that in my early-20s I spent just over a year in prison for dishonesty.

  2. Adrian 2

    ” liquidator is the wrong nomenclture, dude ( apologies to the Big Lebowski ) it’s White-Collar- Looter.
    The best thing a leftist government could to for this country is the abolishment of all private liquidators and form a Management service. Liquidators are a seething nest of corrupt, lying, thieving arseholes.

  3. Dr Terry 3

    Not easy to get much background on this guy who is apparently impersonating a journalist. How is it that the HOS took such a person on as a columnist?? He even admits “My failure was one of character and personal integrity”. Well, that seems to be what he is charging our fine teachers with! (Projection, in a word!) Fortunately very few teachers lack character and personal integrity but are above reproach, professionally and personally. Possibly Grant attended university, I know not, but even if he did, that does not tell us whether or not he graduated, and is not a guarantee that he learned anything (of value).
    Does anybody know more about him? Maybe there is something worth knowing?
    Grant does not offer an “argument” you will notice, rather, he is “telling us” through a heap of spurious rhetoric. I have been hoping the Herald might at last depart from employing very little other than extreme opinions of the Right, but it is not looking promising. (John Armstrong does make some endeavours at impartiality. Matt McCarten, deserving of attention, gets a bit at the bottom of a page. Bernard Hickey is certainly worth a look).
    The offering above from the Standard is first class, and makes the points most calling for strong emphasis.

  4. ianmac 4

    No word on just how are “they” going to improve teacher quality?

  5. Murray Olsen 5

    “Solo Passion” is such a great name for a libertarian site.

  6. Adrian 6

    I wrote my comments about liquidators before I found out that this particular CLTA had done time. I rest my case.
    P.s, how the hell did he get a job like that with dishonesty offences. I suppose his employers recognised a kindred spirit.
    Oh, Murray it just sounds like a euphenism for “wanker”.

  7. Adrian 7

    Oh Murray, its just a euphenism for “wanker”. I’m surprised at his self realisation.

  8. Georgy 8

    NZ consistently comes out in the top few countries ranked by OECD for educational achievement. If this is the case is there actually an issue around teacher quality? What is the real issue the nats are trying to ‘deal to’ ?

    • Draco T Bastard 8.1

      If this is the case is there actually an issue around teacher quality?


      What is the real issue the nats are trying to ‘deal to’ ?

      There’s two issues:
      1.) They want to cut taxes for themselves and their rich mates and that means cutting public services and
      2.) They don’t want the majority of people to be educated well enough to think and thus realise that the policies that NACT espouse are bad for the country.

    • Murray Olsen 8.2

      They don’t see a need for universal education, but they do see an opportunity to shovel more wealth into their mates’ snouts via charter schools. The only issue for them is that there are still a few crumbs left that they haven’t got their thieving hands on yet.

  9. Logie97 9

    Seems we are not the only country discussing the issue

  10. Damien grant 10

    The issue, folks, is that class rolls went up 2.5%, teacher rolls went up ten percent.

    The idea proposed was to pay better teachers more and pay for this by dropping poor performers.

    This would result in better education for children, that was what Heika Parata wanted.

    The teacher unions killed this off, as they should, they are there to protect their members. That is what us libertarians think a union should do.

    As for my past, yep. Knock yourself out. If you cannot play the ball play the man.

    • millsy 10.1

      So you think that overcrowded classrooms are acceptable then?

    • felix 10.2

      “The idea proposed was to pay better teachers more and pay for this by dropping poor performers.”

      Really? The govt, especially Key and Parata, have been very keen to note that they were only adjusting the funding and any decisions on how that (smaller amount of) funding was spent would be up to the schools.

    • Murray Olsen 10.3

      Personally, I don’t give a stuff about your past. I do care about our kids’ futures though, and in a way that would be completely foreign to anyone who thinks Ayn Rand was a goddess.

    • Draco T Bastard 10.4

      The issue, folks, is that class rolls went up 2.5%, teacher rolls went up ten percent.

      Yeah, probably has something to do with maths and the fact that both numbers start off quite considerably different.

      The idea proposed was to pay better teachers more and pay for this by dropping poor performers.

      This would result in better education for children, that was what Heika Parata wanted.

      Except that’s not what would happen – we’d lose the best teachers because they couldn’t be bothered putting up with the BS that the government was dishing out. Teachers don’t do teaching because of the money but because they want to do it. Put more stress on them and they won’t want to do it.

      • Draco T Bastard 10.4.1

        Yeah, probably has something to do with maths and the fact that both numbers start off quite considerably different.

        100,000 pupils with 1 teacher per 26 = 3847 teachers
        102500 pupils with 1 teacher per 26 = 3942 teachers

        Do the sums and that’s a 2.5% increase in students and a 5% increase in teachers while keeping the ratio the same.

        Fuck, you RWNJs are idiots. Can’t even do basic maths.

  11. Damien grant 11

    Millsy, no. I think that good teachers do not get paid enough and leave the industry. You get what you pay for.

    If the state wants to teach children and has limited money, it is better to a smaller number of good teachers than a larger number of poor ones.

    • Murray Olsen 11.1

      If a state has limited money, why the tax cuts for the top income earners? How will the good teachers be evaluated? As with the poor, will we see categories of deserving and undeserving teachers? Why was the Moerewa school attacked when it was succeeding in teaching kids whose needs weren’t otherwise being met? If the teachers killed off this enlargement of class sizes, did the parents play no role at all? If the union is so powerful, why haven’t they been able to overturn nactional standards? Which teachers have left the profession (not industry) because they did not get paid enough?

      • Damien grant 11.1.1

        Murray, lots of questions. The government is runing a deficit equal to four percent of GDP, so we are borrowing, there is limited funds.

        Performance ranking of teachers, not that hard. The unions say it cannot be done. Really? There is now way to tell if a teacher is useless? Nonsense.

        • Murray Olsen

          Lots of questions, maybe, but a real paucity of answers from you. Try answering them one at a time if it’s easier.
          1. If the state has limited money, why the tax cuts for the top income earners?

          • Damien grant

            Because if you tax the highly productive they work less, swapping time at work for time watching television.

            It is also important to note that the top two percent of tax payers pay seventeen percent of all tax (or close to, I’m going from memory), fairness dictates they get a break.

            • felix

              “Because if you tax the highly productive they work less, swapping time at work for time watching television.”

              lolz, not a chance. Highly productive people are highly productive people. They don’t quit being highly productive because they. get paid 2% less on the top 10% of an enormous amount of money.

              Pure fantasy, never demonstrated in a real life situation.

              “It is also important to note that the top two percent of tax payers pay seventeen percent of all tax “

              Wow, I wonder why that is. Any ideas? Maybe, I don’t know, they get paid, like, 17% of the money or something…

            • Murray Olsen

              My idea of fairness dictates that children have clothing, housing and food. Your idea seems to lead to the idea that the tax evasion uncovered recently should be rewarded by knighthoods. After all, if the poor things hadn’t been busy hiding this taxable income from the IRD they might have had to watch television instead.

    • McFlock 11.2

      Your assumption is that teachers are just mercenaries. What about the possibility that good teachers are leaving because they can’t do a good job with National Standards or other constraints imposed by national? The old “vocational pride” coming into play?

      • Damien grant 11.2.1

        No. I am assuming that teachers, like everyone else, respond to incentives. Teachers are not angels. They are people. You need to praise and reward success and manage the performance of those not doing well and fire the no hopers

        • McFlock

          Cash is not the only incentive. ” I think that good teachers do not get paid enough and leave the industry.” leaves no space for vocational incentives.

          • Damien grant

            I agree, but cash is both an incentive and a just reward for good performance.

            • Draco T Bastard

              But not enough of one to counter the fact that NACT were making it impossible to do a good job.

            • McFlock

              But not the only incentive, so it’s not just about money. It’s also about being under constant threat of the latest budget cuts, worse conditions, and being servants of barbarians who think that the only things schools should produce are peons who can perform the 3 Rs just enough to be exploited in the workforce by people who got tax cuts in times of austerity.

              • Damien grant

                The private sector is very good at doing just this. The idea that teachers are the only profession whose performance cannot be measured is nonsense.

                I agree money is not the only incentive that matters but it does matter.

                • McFlock

                  Indeed money matters.
                  Which is why those who benefit most from our economy should pay a greater proportionof their income for the privilege. Otherwise we can’t afford class sizes of 35, let alone 28 students.

  12. Damien grant 12

    Felix, Parata has been very clear on linking performance pay with this policy.

  13. Damien grant 13

    Murray, Ayn Rand has nothing to do with this. As a libertarian, however, I think unions should support their members, I am most surely not anti union. But this is a narrow issue of how to allocate limited education money for best effect.

    • felix 13.1

      “Limited” only by the govt’s willingness to prioritise education higher than some of the other bullshit they’ve wasted money on.

      They didn’t have any trouble finding 1.7 billion to cover bad investments including paying interest (!!!!) in the SCF scam.

      This policy was pennies in comparison. “Limited education money” my arse.

      • Damien grant 13.1.1

        Yes. Well. You will not find me supporting the scf bailout. Nor the AMI bailout. I’m pretty consistent there.

        • felix

          Yes I suspected you would be.

          And what about education? Why is that money “limited”?

          • Damien grant

            Because all capital is limited. The government does not have unlimited resources. If smaller classes were better, ok, but there is not enough money or competent teachers to teach kids one to one. There is a trade off to be made. Who says 28 is the optimal level?

            • Draco T Bastard

              If smaller classes were better, ok, but there is not enough money or competent teachers to teach kids one to one.

              We aren’t looking for one to one – just a reasonable ratio and there’s enough money for that if the government cancelled useless roading projects and/or put taxes back up.

              • Damien grant

                Or charged parents for the cost of sending their kids to school.

                • Draco T Bastard

                  We already do – it’s called taxes and it’s far cheaper and more efficient than charging individually. That’s why we do it that way.

                  • Damien grant

                    No. Actually. State run outfits usually work less effectively than private run ones. This is why wealthy parents like to send their children to private schools.

                    • Kotahi Tane Huna

                      If that were true, you would have to demonstrate it by comparing apples with apples. So let’s do that. Before public education was introduced, private schools manifestly did not work more “effectively” – they simply didn’t educate the majority at all.

                      In fact, they still don’t – not in NZ anyway. Show me some private schools that educate all deciles and make your case.

                      Then explain how it is that the best education in the world can currently be had in Finland, with NZ five places behind that.

                      Put up or shut up.

            • felix

              Who said anything about one to one ratios?

              You must have done your research – how much was the proposed education clusterfuck supposed to save?

              • Damien grant

                Enough to pay good teachers more, to attract and retain them, so the students get a better education.

                • felix

                  You must know the numbers though – you wrote an article about it.

                  How much?

                  • Damien grant

                    Felix, I did when I wrote it a week ago it has been a long week and it is tomorrow already. What does it matter?

                    • felix

                      It matters because you said there were limits.

                      I’m asking you to define them, in a round about way.

                      How much exactly was too much to spend on improving teaching, such a burden that it had to be cut from elsewhere (from teaching, as it happens)?

            • ianmac

              Pay the “good” teachers more.
              This rewards those who are already good.
              It does nothing for the bulk of teachers who do not fit the good.
              It discourages the sharing of innovation which NZ Education has previously flourished in.
              Many studies have been done on just what a “good” teacher might be. So far there is no consistent criteria. Good teaching has been measured for strict and for liberal and everywhere in between. Some kids flourish with one teacher but in the same class others do not. How would you measure Primary teachers as they teach in 7 subject areas, and do not have pass/fail exams to measure by. And what a dumb way to assess teaching anyway.

              Damien Grant. There is nothing that you have written which would stand inspection by any informed reality. Nothing.

        • ianmac

          Teacher pupil ratios increasing faster than pupil growth because it was a catch up on international figures. Still way behind OECD figures.

    • millsy 13.2

      Damien, now that you are outed as a libertarian, this discussion is moot, as the ultimate libertarian goal is to close down the public education system.

  14. Damien grant 14

    Bed time.

    Good night Standard Readers, maybe I’ll see you in two weeks.

    Nice to drop by,


    • felix 14.1

      Bye bye. Next time bring some facts to go with your beliefs.

    • Kotahi Tane Huna 14.2

      Swapping criminal dishonesty for journalistic dishonesty doesn’t seem like a particularly long journey to me.

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