photo: globalnation.inquirer.net

Low-achievers that we need to pay attention to, those who might already be struggling for reasons not of their making

by Dr Lee Siew Peng (UK)

(A much shorter version of this letter was sent to a local newspaper from which no response was given to the writer.)

I would like to respond to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s excellent comment that a smaller class size is not the panacea to all education problems.

I learned the hard way. My child was in an extremely small class. There was not enough diversity in the class for the boys to say, “I want to be like so-and-so at Maths” or “I want to beat so-and-so at football”.

With so few classmates to compete with, they stopped being aspirational. Standards dropped. Several parents took their boys out of this school. The situation was improved only when two classes were merged expanding class size from 11 to 20.

Thinking that a smaller tutorial group would benefit me, I once joined a Philosophy tutorial group with two other students. We sat in front of Mr Goh Swee Tiang at his desk (and learned that drinking honey in water was the secret to his youthful appearance). I often left quaking in my boots (cheap shoes, actually).

Eventually, I re-joined a tutorial group of ten students so that I could better hide my ignorance (and occasional laziness).

Did I envy my former classmates who were then at Oxford and Cambridge, having one-to-one tutorials with their dons … every week? It must have been pretty stressful for them.

Ipso facto, small classes do not work for all students.

What do teachers prefer? Large classes, of course. Why teach 20 pupils three times when you can teach 60 all at once, dispensing wisdom via a microphone as they do in China?

That more than one pupil can attain the required standards is evidence enough that one’s teaching was effective. Those who fail must be simply lazy, or stupid, or both, in which case no amount of extra coaching would make much difference.

The best excuse? Any lack of achievement can be blamed on large class size. Teachers can be absolved of personal inadequacies.

I have no access to the Hong Kong study to which the Minister referred, but we are talking about the (baseline) average class size for Hong Kong schools as being 27.4 (primary) and 27.6 (secondary) in 2017/2018 compared with Singapore’s 33.3 and 34.1 in 2016.

The Minister said of an Israeli study:

“The conclusion was in the first page of the report on the study, which said “No significant relationship was found between class size and achievement.”

However, the study did find that for learning of Hebrew, the larger the class size, the better the results!”

These contradictory statements led me to think – instinctively – that there is more to this than meets the eye.

If there are distinct benefits in larger classes, why does the MOE not increase GEP classes from the current low of 25 to 45 for the learning of Chinese, say, to ensure even better results? Can we imagine the parents of these children beating a path to the door at MOE demanding that class size be doubled?

In fact, reading the article closely, the correlation between large class size and achievement was declared to be spurious (ie false) by the authors, the reason being schools put higher-ability students in larger classes, and there were very few smaller classes to make a statistically valid comparison (see pp 199, 213-4).

With respect, it is disingenuous for the good Minister to highlight the lack of significance between class size and achievement in this study, and then followed it up with the declaration that larger class size yielded better results, omitting the fact that this spurious correlation is also noted “there on the first page [Abstract] of the report”.

Not being an expert on statistics, I found something troubling with the researchers’ use of dummy variables in their multivariate analysis. Not least of all, if there is an issue over prior classroom placement (selection) of students based on abilities, then subsequent analysis based on these data must also be skewed. No? Perhaps a statistician could set me right.

In any case, we are talking about a nation which in 2016 lamented that the average primary class size of 28 was still too large, despite it having dropped significantly from 31 in 1991.

What this study shows is that, clearly, self-motivated high-achievers will achieve given the opportunities, despite being in a large class with other high-achievers. It is the low-achievers that we need to pay attention to: pupils who might already be struggling for reasons not of their making (poor/absent parenting, housing and health issues, poor nutrition and sleep habits, etc).

The Minister is correct on various other aspects – let me give credit where credit is due – such as the benefits of smaller classes could be scuppered by poor teaching. A Maths tutor friend noted how boys from a certain local paying school were very badly taught, despite being in small classes.

The teachers’ rationale seemed to be the wealthy parents will have the resources to find private tutors to bring their son’s standards up to scratch, hence leading to lazy teaching. (Is this the same in Singapore?)

The Minister is right on the money in stating that “the most important school is family, and the most important teacher are our parents”.

There are a few institutions that I believe cannot be run according to the principle of ‘economy of scale’: schools, hospitals and orphanages. These should not be run – we hope – as factories churning out widgets because the personal (vulnerable) attributes of those involved cannot be categorized neatly into ‘modes of production’ à la an assembly line.

The Minister had noted that there are already smaller classes in ‘specialised schools’ for pupils with special needs. However, there are many children who do not fall within the category of having special needs in education but come from disadvantaged (or dysfunctional) families which result in a different type of special (emotional?) needs.

Would the Minister consider that in these circumstances children might thrive better in smaller classes because, let’s face it: which parent (surrogate or otherwise) could nurture 40 children effectively, all at once?