Thursday, 20 November 2008

Someone help me add this up

I am going to present to you some tables of numbers, and I want you to think about what you see in these numbers.

Number 1
  • 2002 - 50,084
  • 2003 - 50,016
  • 2004 - 50,215
  • 2005 - 50,704
  • 2006 - 51,385

Number 2

  • 2004 - 56,161
  • 2005 - 57,184
  • 2006 - 58,528
  • 2007 - 59,225
Number 3

  • 2004 - 69,757
  • 2005 - 71,310
  • 2006 - 74,450
  • 2007 - 75,821

Although the years do not match exactly, these three tables exhibit a common characteristic - as time goes by, the number goes up.

I am now going to give you some additionals sets of numbers.

Number 4

  • 2000 - 761,836
  • 2001 - 756,740
  • 2002 - 754,800
  • 2003 - na
  • 2004 - 745,507
  • 2005 - 741,578
  • 2006 - 740,415
  • 2007 - 738,636
These numbers appear to be going down year by year.

Number 5

  • 2003 - 8,213
  • 2004 - 9,088
  • 2005 - 9,248
  • 2006 - 9,944
Number 6
  • 2003 - 10,555
  • 2004 - 11,675
  • 2005 - 11,905
  • 2006 - 12,423
But in this last lists, the numbers are going up year by year.

All these numbers are from the NSW Department of Education annual reports. They are statistics from the state school system.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are different measures of teacher headcount. I'm not sure which table is most accurate, but they are supposed to show the number of teachers and support staff at our state schools. Whichever table you choose, there has been growth in the numbers.

Number 4 shows the number of pupils enrolled in the NSW state school system. It has been steadily declining for years. I think it peaked around 800,000 some years back, and has dropped by over 50,000 from its peak. But note that as student numbers have fallen, teacher numbers have grown.


Numbers 5 and 6 are supposed to be the cost per full time equivalent (FTE) student. Note that the cost per student has gone up markedly over that period as well. I have no idea how this number is calculated.

Think for a moment about productivity. In almost every facet of economic endeavour, we aim to do more with less. We replaced a horde of shovel wielding navvies with a bulldozer and one driver. Computers have replaced acres of clerks. McDonalds led the way in cooking more burgers, faster with fewer staff. Car manufacturers are constantly looking at ways to cut the number of man hours that it takes to build a car. Even plumbing fittings have been rethought so that they can be installed by fewer people with less effort. No matter what we do, we are always trying to think of a way of doing it faster, cheaper, easier and more productively and efficiently.

Except for teaching.

It is the one area where a massive fall in productivity is seen as a good thing.

When I was a wee lad, there were 30 of us to a class. Now the norm is closer to 20, and in the state system, there is one support person for every 3 teachers. Don't ask me what the support people do - maybe they teach special classes to the special kids that the special teachers are unable to teach properly.

Take these easy to digest numbers.

When I was at school, with a class size of 30 and no support staff, you would require 10 teachers to stuff knowledge into the heads of 300 ignorant, befuddled, spotty youth (that was us).

In the time since I was at school, the development of the microchip has spawned generations of labour saving devices. Whilst it might have taken 100 man-hours to build an XA Falcon when I was leaving school, it probably takes 30 to build the current Falcon. Human operated plug-type switchboards will still in operation when I was getting hard-ons in maths. Seen any of them in use lately?

For that same group of 300 spotty little ferals, we would now require up to 15 teachers, and those 15 teachers would be supported by a further 5 support staff - making a total of 20 teaching staff.

Are kids being taught astrophysics in Grade 3 these days? I think not. I helped Junior with his maths homework this year, and it is not beyond me yet. Here are some examples of the sums that he was completely unable to do a week ago, and he can now do thanks to my tutoring:
  • -5x-3x-4
  • 14-3x6
  • -5+2x-7+8
Are children stupider than they were 20 years ago? Has the modern diet rendered them thicker than two short planks? Has an overload of TV shrunk their brains to the size of golfballs?

Have they introduced some really far-out subjects into the curriculum? I'm not talking about golf and windsurfing - are they now teaching Latin for instance? Dad did Latin at school, and he always said it was a right bastard of a subject.

I think the answer to most of these questions is "no". The coursework does not appear to be tougher. The students are not stupider. There are some whacky subjects that you can do, but not many kids are studying them.

If that is the case, why then do we need more teachers when we have fewer students?

I can only surmise that the teachers have gotten thicker since I was having dusters thrown at my head for failing to concentrate in maths.

Oops, I think that is the wrong answer. The teaching establishment would have us think that more teachers will produce better results for Master Johnny Thickchild. More teachers equals better grades.

Well, I trawled through reams and reams and reams of statistics about this on the Department's website, and I couldn't see any evidence of that. None. OK, there might have been a tiny improvement here and there, but you have to ask this question:

Is the cost worth it?

In 2003, the average cost per high school student was $10,555. In 2006, that had grown to $12,423 - an increase of 18% (yes, you can discount that somewhat for inflation blah-blah-blah). Let's say the after-inflation growth was 10%. What did that buy us? A 10% improvement in grades? A 10% improvement in literacy and numeracy? 10% less truancy and violence against teachers?

I believe the following:

A smart, motivated kid will learn an enormous amount in a class of 100.

An unmotivated bonehead will learn nothing with one-on-one tutoring.

I have read most of Junior's textbooks - they are far easier to read than anything I ever had. Classrooms are better equipped today than they were 20 years ago. Teachers supposedly have better training than at any time in history. We have more gadgets, aids and programs to support learning than.....I don't know, than a dog has fleas. Smart people have produced untold numbers of gizmos and online training tools and robots and distance learning aids and all that crap - all of it should make a teacher more productive. A teacher, properly equipped with all these fandangled doo-dads should be able to teach a class of 50 by now to the same standard as a teacher of 20 years ago had with a class of 30.

And yet.... class sizes have fallen rather than grown. All that technology, all that investment in support systems and aids - it has all been for nothing. If anything, it has so cluttered and confused the modern classroom that teachers are unable to cope with trying to stuff knowledge into the heads of 20 brats.

How is it that we have been brainwashed by the education establishment into thinking that a decline in teacher productivity is a good thing? It has led to an escalation in labour costs that has choked off capital investment in schools, reduced our ability to pay good teachers a good salary, and ensured that only chicken feed is left in the budget to pay for incidentals for kids.

I know that this idea will upset some people. More teachers is a good thing - right? That is not a position that you can fault, apparently. More teachers must produce better outcomes.... think of the children.

Providing more teachers is only a good thing if the quality of the additional teachers is as good or better than the existing crowd. There is little point in having 100 good teachers and adding 50 moronic drones to their ranks. Diluting the quality of anything never improves it.

There just aren't that many people out there that are cut out to be good or great teachers. The supply is very, very finite - but bureaucrats, policy makers, teacher's unions and politicians seem to think that it is infinite. In their drive for quantity, quality has been ignored.

Saying that we might be better off with fewer teachers will send most special interest groups ballisitic. The thing that amazes me is that teachers, who are supposed to be educated, fail to understand that resources are finite. The government budget is only so big. Yes, it can grow each year as the general economy grows, but the money is just not there to massively increase salaries. In every other walk of life, if you want to be paid more, you have to lift your productivity. If teachers are to be paid say $120,000 instead of $80,000, then the easiest way to do that is to lift their productivity by 50%. You want that money, get used to the idea of a class of 30 instead of 20.


Have a think about this comment as well:

A paltry $76.62 for each child for the whole year is the budget for one NSW public primary school a principal revealed this week.

According to the education department, it costs $9,944 per primary student this year. A school of 500 kids should therefor have a budget of 9944x500 = $4.9 million.

$76.62 per child is 0.7% of the amount spent per child (on average) in state primary schools. How can the budget be so screwed up that so little can be allocated to this line item? Who is in charge of school budgets? Do principals really have $9,944 per student to play with, or does the department control most of the spending, allowing the schools have only a smll portion of that to actually work with?

Does the $9,944 include all the overhead of the bureaucracy, or is this the amount that is actually spent at the front line on teaching? It is no good saying that the average spend per kid is $9,944 if $5,000 of that is absorbed in cushy offices in town by bureaucrats, and only $4,944 reaches the school for spending on maintenance, salaries and so on.


1735099 said...

Everyone is an expert on child-rearing, driving, and of course, teaching. After all, just about everyone went to school, has children and drives a car. Our newest expert on teaching is Boy on a Bike.

I don't believe I've seen such a cliché-rich post in a long time. His use of "statistics" is completely misleading. The world has changed a bit since BOAB went to school. It has changed even more since I started teaching in 1968 (when I had a class of 45). Back then, if a teacher said "jump" - well you know the rest.

In the forty years I have been in the game, there have been fundamental changes in the community, ranging through the rise of the plaintiff lawyer industry, a commitment to education for all, irrespective of disability, location, and ethnicity, and the view of education as a marketable commodity rather than a birthright. It is probably this last factor, combined with rampant materialism which has had the most insidious effect. The notion that teaching and learning can be commodified and managed efficiently through a culture of corporate managerialism is totally destructive.

Having said this, anyone who looks at the most basic of statistics (retention rates and participation rates, for example) will detect improvements since BOAB went to school.

The rot started in the early nineties, as across the country, Director-Generals of Education began to be recruited from the ranks of corporate CEOs rather than educational administrators who had effectively worked their way up through the ranks from the classroom.

BOAB has swallowed this post-modern view of education, hook line and sinker.
Education is about learning (which can be defined as "a permanent change of behaviour"), not about inputs and outcomes. The pseudo-science of measuring outcomes as they influence the quality of the lives of students has about as much credibility as The Three Little Pigs. To quote Albert Einstein - "Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted".
Much of my career has been in the education of students with low-incidence disabilities. The parents of these children, like all parents, want their offspring to lead happy and productive lives. Much of the "fat" that BOAB insists has developed around educational institutions is taken up by personnel and programmes designed to help these children achieve independence, which saves the community millions in the lifetime of one individual. These programmes weren't around in 1968 – and these children were hidden away in Dickensian institutions. I vividly remember visiting one of these "homes" in the sixties and seeing children with maggots in their ears because they weren't able to chase the flies away. Before making grand pronouncements about how much more "efficient" schools were in the good old days, consider such situations – make sure everything is "counted".
When the "science" of educational measurement has reached a point where is has a vague relevance to classroom practice, it might begin to be useful. In its current form, it's totally useless. The "experts" are unable to agree on what should be measured, let alone develop the capacity to actually measure. Long-term studies are conspicuous by their absence.
Probably the greatest degree of change I have observed since I started teaching in a bush school in 1968, relates to issues of the mismatch between teacher capacity and the ever more demanding expectations of the community, harnessed for profit by the plaintiff lawyers.
The media also has a responsibility, because it generally sensationalises the negative aspects, and ignores anything positive. As a school principal, I remember feeling deep frustration at the local media's unwillingness to publish any positive stories - and there were plenty to publish. The politicisation of education also has a negative effect, as principals, in particular, are aware that any decision made can land the school on the front page of the newspaper on a slow news day.

Perhaps one of the issues that hasn't been canvassed is that of the hobbling of learning communities (which is what schools are or should be) by this morass of issues. Anything that sidetracks the energy of teachers and principals away from learning and teaching imposes a cost on kids and their parents.

In the short term, we need to get behind our teachers and principals in much the same way as we support our military, irrespective of whether or not we support their political masters.

Boy on a bike said...

173, thanks for your insightful comments. I was particularly interested in your statement that the growth in teaching numbers has been driven by what the less-PC amongst us would call "special schools".

Consider this. For decades, we (the public - the consumers of education, and the taxpayers, or funders of education) have been fed a line that average class sizes are shrinking. I used stats direct from the Education Dept website that said just that.

But you have just told us that much of the teacher growth has been in special education. Does that mean that there has been little or no growth in teaching numbers in what you might call the "normal" teaching areas? Have we been bullshitted to by governments for years over average class sizes? I'm interested in your take on that.

As for retention rates - yes, they have improved. But two of my friends, who entered the teaching profession in the last 10 years (and then left a few years later in disgust) never had a good word to say about trying to retain students who simply weren't interested in being at school.

Headmasters always seem to have a hard-on for higher retention rates, but I don't see this desire being mimicked by those at the front line who actually have to teach the little rotters!

I think you are absolutely correct when it comes to the use and misuse of statistics. There are many "soft" factors that are very difficult to measure, and if you ask me, the soft factors are more important when it comes to education than many of the "hard" factors. The focus on measuring the measurable, such as test results, has meant ignoring things like discipline, respect, morality and all those other things that go into turning out a well-rounded individual.