(Delivered in Parliament on 7 November 2017)
Few subjects are as important to the future of our economy and our society than education. The quality of human resources is key to boosting investment, innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship in a developed economy like ours. Effective education is tied to quality of life and good physical and mental health.
In this speech, I shall argue for smaller form class sizes in primary and secondary schools with consequent reductions in the size of all classes conducted. This is not a magic bullet solution and we should push for improvement on other fronts – like reducing the script marking workload for teachers which my colleague Mr Dennis Tan asked about recently. But smaller class sizes for core subjects have the potential to unlock many other benefits, especially given the need to grow innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship in an era of artificial intelligence and disruption, where growing non-cognitive skills and attributes are so important. This is not a new subject and has been raised multiple times in this House by current and former Workers’ Party MPs and NCMPs such as Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Png Eng Huat and Professor Daniel Goh.
Average and median form class sizes in primary and secondary schools range from 32 to 36. This is above the norm for other developed countries and also substantially above the norm for the Gifted Education Program classes, private tuition centre classes and classes for most international schools operating in Singapore. Having said that, subject-based banded classes and remedial classes may be smaller, though I was informed in a reply to an earlier Parliamentary Question that the size of remedial classes is not tracked by MOE.
The overall class size in the OECD fell by 6.8% between 2000 and 2010 to a little over 20. Class size decreased in countries with the largest classes in 2000 whereas it stayed the same or increased slightly in the countries which already had small class sizes in 2000.
Let me first discuss the academic evidence for the benefits of smaller class sizes.
Smaller class sizes allow teachers to focus on obtaining more teacher-student interaction during class time. This achieves several benefits as demonstrated by research:-
(a) Smaller classes allow deeper internalization of subject matter through more engagement – weaker or less engaged students have less room to stay quiet and not be engaged in the lesson. A literature review by the US Centre for Public Education based on an analysis of 19 studies showed a positive link, even if there are other factors at play. “Some researchers have not found a connection between smaller classes and higher student achievement, but most of the research shows that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented in the primary grades (K-3), student achievement rises as class size drops.” The famous randomized experiment Project Star in the US State of Tennessee concluded that “students placed in smaller classrooms performed better than their peers in larger classrooms across all grade levels tested and across all geographic regions.” And I note that Project Star, while not perfect meets the basic gold standard for research, namely a controlled, randomized experiment. A University of Glasgow study by Valerie Wilson for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Department of Education, concluded that class size reduction does increase student achievement especially among those who most need it. A 2008 British study by Blatchford, Bassett and Brown with the University of London involving close observation of classrooms in 22 primary schools and 27 secondary schools concluded that low attaining students were more than twice as likely to be disengaged in classes of 30 students than they were in classes of 15. In a 2003 Review of Educational Research article, Finn, Pannozzo and Achilles cited evidence for the visibility principle – students in a small class experience increased encouragement to participate as they may be called upon more frequently to answer questions or to participate in a class activity. There are many other studies that have arrived at similar conclusions, too numerous to mention here.
(b) Smaller classes may stimulate non-cognitive skills (NCS) or soft skills among students such as confidence, curiosity, leadership, communication & social skills – through participating in discussion, arguing one’s case, debating and encouraging students to pose questions and answers. These skills – to do with communication, confidence and self-mastery – are needed for competitiveness in the 21st century and may lead to economic benefits that would justify the additional investment. A scholarly article by John Johnston of Memphis State University using STAR data also found that students in smaller classes were more willing to take risks, less inhibited, less afraid of being wrong, volunteered to answer questions more, felt safe with their ideas; were more curious, enthusiastic and eager to participate versus those in regular sized classes. In a 2015 article in the British Educational Research Journal, Harfitt & Tsui found evidence for smaller class sizes being linked to higher frequency of volunteered responses and greater interactions with teachers via asking questions or clarifications, which relates to communication and confidence. In a US National Bureau of Economic Research article in 2008, Dee and West found links between smaller classes and non-cognitive skills that are highly predictive of long-term education and labour-market outcomes.
(c) As a result of the factors above, smaller classes may reduce our dependence on Singapore’s massive private tuition industry. In the tuition industry, much smaller classes are near-universal. Less tuition and less remedial classes as a result of more effective teaching in smaller classes would free up children’s time to explore and develop other aspects of character, learning and skills.
Class size reduction also has an egalitarian dimension. Better-off students can always afford to cultivate soft skills and content mastery through private tuition, enrichment classes or parental coaching. Smaller classes may help level the playing field and enhance equality of opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – which in turn may crucially unleash talent from disadvantaged families, the kind of talent that our economy needs. An analysis of multiple studies by David Zyngier of Monash University, drawing on data from several countries and reviewing 112 papers over 35 years, concluded that “smaller class sizes in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting impact on student achievement, especially for children from culturally, linguistically and economically disenfranchised communities.”
In a previous exchange I had in this House with Minister Ng Chee Meng relating to class size, the Minister cited that smaller class sizes could be found in subject-based banded classes and remedial classes and classes under the Learning Support Program, though it was revealed in reply to my previous written PQ that the size of remedial classes is not tracked by MOE. However, remedial classes with smaller class sizes do not fully address the arguments I have shared here for two reasons.
Firstly, being sent to remedial classes or special pull-out classes may stigmatize students and erode their self-confidence. There is evidence that self-confidence or self-esteem affects academic performance, potentially creating a vicious cycle, for example a 2011 study by Booth and Gerard.
Secondly, having to attend remedial classes on top of regular classes, as with tuition, erodes available free time, which has other adverse effects on weaker students, such as less free time to explore and develop other aspects of character and learning.
There is also some evidence that smaller class sizes may increase teacher retention. This a worthy goal to pursue. Continuity matters to learning outcomes because a teacher who knows his or her students deeply and builds rapport with them will be a more effective teacher. A 2008 paper by Price and Terry of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration in the USA found evidence of a link between smaller classes and a higher level of teacher satisfaction because smaller classes allowed for more and better enrichment activities. The same study also found evidence that smaller classes may reduce teacher attrition. Using data from the SAGE study, Molnar, Smith and Zahorik, in a 1999 paper, found evidence for a link between smaller classes and fewer discipline problems. The 2015 Harfitt study found that teachers linked smaller class size to having more freedom to plan and interact, less trial-and-error, less worry over deadlines for marking and homework preparation, improved classroom management and the ability to know their pupils better.
Opponents of class size as a driver of outcomes often cite the work of John Hattie, an Australian researcher, which some have cited as disproving that class size makes a difference. This work has been criticized by other researchers, notably Ivan Snook from Massey University. The criticism centres on the problems associated with Hattie’s methodology of synthesizing a whole range of meta-studies on a simple quantitative scale. No control separates good research from bad and more robust gold standard research, like the Tennessee STAR study, from other kinds of studies. Also Hattie’s work focuses on quantifiable academic performance, not attributes like non-cognitive skills and attitudes where evidence suggests smaller classes are of significant benefit. The same objection applies to the work of Wormann and West in 2002 which, while it claims zero class size effect in Singapore, relies mainly on historical data from the TIMSS database on maths scores, is not a randomized experiment nor measures other subjects let alone non-cognitive skills.
It should also be noted that class size is not the same as student teacher ratio or STR. In terms of STR, the gap between Singapore and other countries may not be as large. However favourable STRs may be consistent with unfavourable class sizes, depending on how much of a teacher’s time is spent teaching, how many classes are held and so on.
If the issue is that academic evidence is divided, we suggest there should be a large randomized trial in Singapore (along similar lines to the massive, seminal Tennessee STAR project that is still being referred to by educators today) to study the impact of reducing average and median form class sizes to the 20-25 range. If the trial is positive, we should move towards a universal form class size of 20-25 as a goal. 20-25 seems a good balance point between what is desirable and what is feasible in respect of cost and availability of teachers. It is a little above the 2010 OECD average.
Cost is never irrelevant. However the cost implications of this suggestion should be less of an issue with current declining enrolments, which give us an opportunity to redeploy teachers to smaller classes. And I can think of few other more important national priorities in long-term spending than getting our education right. Education is really one of the key, if not the key, competitive success factor for our economy going forward because it creates pathways to innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship. If incremental cost is an issue, let us debate this with the benefit of the numbers so that potential trade-offs can be explored in a concrete manner.
In summary, I urge the government to conduct a large, randomized trial for smaller classes to determine the effects on academic achievement, levelling up poorer students and non-cognitive skills as well as attributes such as confidence. Such a study should be designed and supervised by recognized academics and the results published for scrutiny. If the results are positive, we should target a form class size of 20-25 as a mid-term goal, and use falling enrolments while keeping the number of teachers stable stable to make the changes necessary, so as to minimize cost increases. The reduction in form class size should have a cascading effect to reduce the size of most classes as they currently exist, be they remedial or banded. The change should be used as a pivot to revamp our pedagogy in schools, to shift it towards more classroom participation designed to engender non-cognitive skills and attributes as well as to level up across students from different socio-economic and family backgrounds. The speed at which we can move towards this goal will depend on fiscal resources. But such a change should reduce the need for remedial classes, which may generate cost savings. This change may also produce benefits in terms of teacher satisfaction, which may be linked to productivity, effectiveness and reduced attrition of teachers, which has cost benefits too.
Mr Speaker sir, effective teaching – teaching that levels up, and that instils non-cognitive and non-academic skills – is a critical goal for Singapore. Our economy’s competitiveness as a developed country in the 21st century, amidst all the disruption from artificial intelligence and other factors that will unfold, hinges on the quality of our human resources. We need to churn out future entrepreneurs and disruptors.
MOE has reduced average class sizes before, for Primary 1 in 2005 and Primary 2 in 2006, and in Parliament in 2007, the outcome of this change was described by the government as positive.
Let us not shrink from giving all students the kind of benefits of small class sizes that Gifted Education Program students now enjoy, and not by way of remedial classes that have their own down-sides. Let us not shrink from making the changes needed to turn Singapore’s future classrooms into incubators of innovation and catalysts for equality of opportunity.