Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan’s valuable paper on school productivity (pdf) received lots of media coverage today, including a page one story in The Australian. They find that numeracy fell over the period 1964 to 2003, and literacy and numeracy fell over the period 1975 to 1998. It is a loss of productivity because we have put more resources into schools but have achieved worse results. In particular, we have spent a lot of money reducing class sizes, though the Leigh and Ryan paper confirms previous research showing that this has no positive impact on test results.
What it does have a positive impact on is the teacher’s workload. Teaching attracts people interested in, by the standards of the professional labour force, a low number of work hours per year. At least implicitly, they have traded-off higher wages for less work. This trend is self-reinforcing, because it attracts to teaching more and more people who would rather have time off than earn more money, and their interests increasingly dominate the union’s bargaining strategy.
The ABS’s school statistics shows a significant decline in the proportion of teachers who are male, and who are likely to think of themselves as family breadwinners. Between 1986 and 2006 the proportion of teachers in government schools who are male dropped from 42% to 30%. The drop was less severe in private schools, from 37% to 33%, presumably because some private schools offer better salaries than government schools.
But since the education sector is dominated by lower-paying employers, it is hard to see that this trend is going to reverse itself. People considering teaching as a career cannot assume that they will get a job in a private school. And given that private schools are in a labour market with a preponderance of potential employees looking for short hours, they may be limiting their pool of potential applicants if they go against the trend to smaller class sizes. (The two sectors have very similar student:staff ratios, with the private schools have slightly more students per teacher in primary schools and slightly fewer in secondary schools.)
So while Andrew L is correct to point out that, educationally speaking, lower student:staff ratios are of no benefit, given the nature of the teacher labour market they are almost certainly here to stay.