By Andreas Schleicher
Opinion: An international analysis shows several unintended consequences of reducing class sizes, writes Andreas Schleicher is Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills of OECD
The UAE’s ambition to be “one of the best countries in the world,” driven by a concerted focus on education is laudable.
In my numerous visits here, I have seen remarkable progress in the education sector including the country’s commitment to promoting STEM- based curricula and a focus on leveraging technology as an education enabler.
When the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the first survey for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, the participants were mostly member-nations. The UAE was among the first in the region to participate in the three-year survey nine years later and has since then consistently enhanced its overall score and rank.
The integral link between the quality of education and progress was further underpinned when the UAE Vision 2021 outlined eight pillars of development, the first of which is the nation’s aspiration and commitment to be among the top 20 countries with the highest performance in PISA.
As the nation recently outlined its ambitious Emiratisation goals, including its focus on the skill-set development of young people, the role of the education sector in building a new generation of talents, fit for the market, assumes more significance.
Among many measures suggested in improving the quality of education is making class sizes smaller. I have observed that this policy measure is quite popular in many nations and is often supported by parents, regulators and teachers. I have also seen a recent decision made by the Sharjah Government to reduce class sizes to 25 students. But an international analysis shows several unintended consequences of reducing class sizes.
Across the OECD member countries, class room size fell by 6 per cent between 2005 and 2014. All else being equal, smaller classes contributed to slightly better outcomes, in particular, for disadvantaged students.
But there were several unintended trade-offs: smaller class sizes meant greater number of classes, which required more teachers, and in turn, higher costs. The result: A reduction in teachers’ pay.
In fact, between the same period mentioned above, the salaries of teachers decreased in a third of the countries with comparable data, in real terms.
Middle-school teachers are now paid only 88% of what other tertiary-educated full-time workers earn. If teachers’ salaries are not competitive, teachers will not invest in themselves; and even if they do, they are likely to leave the profession if their expertise is better used, recognised and more highly compensated elsewhere.
Countries can spend their money only once and reducing class size usually means diverting funds that would have been better spent elsewhere – such as more investments in the quality of teaching. Further, with smaller class sizes, the cost of education becomes higher with education providers having to invest in more classrooms and school expansion.
Globally, the highest-performing education systems in the PISA rankings tend to prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Whenever they must choose between smaller classes and investing in their teachers, they go for the latter: For example, PISA’s highest performer, Shanghai in China, has class sizes well over 40.
Reducing class size means less money is available to raise teachers’ salaries. Often small classes have contributed to a situation where teachers end up doing nothing else than teaching. They don’t have the time for individual students support or for collaboration with other professionals or for engaging with parents – which are all the hallmarks of high-performing education systems.
Reducing class size also means finding new teachers. In a tight labour-market, it often leads to lowered standards for entry into the teaching profession, and those tend to hit the most disadvantaged students first. Together, these factors explain why, across countries, smaller classes tend to be associated with lower levels of student achievement.
Even the belief that smaller classes mean happier teachers is not borne out by evidence. When the OECD surveyed 89,000 teachers in 2018 across advanced economies, the data showed no relationship between teacher job satisfaction and class size.
In fact, the most important predictors for teacher job satisfaction were consistently teacher’s professional knowledge – what teachers know about their subject, about how students learn that subject, and what they know about their students; teacher professional autonomy; and the collaborative culture in schools. Precisely the kind of things that high- performing education systems prioritise over smaller classes.
It is only better outcomes and well-paid teachers that will make educational administrators popular in the long run. The UAE’s schools today will shape the champions of UAE’s economy tomorrow, so it is important to get this right.
Andreas Schleicher is Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills of OECD