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Sharing good practice: Gonski and individual student achievement

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Sharing good practice: Gonski and individual student achievement

In this fortnightly series, Teacher takes a closer look at some of the Gonski recommendations and what they might look like in practice. Here, we explore the review panel’s focus on individual student achievement.

The Gonski review panel proposes a set of reforms to improve school performance and individual student achievement. A core focus is to maximise each student’s learning growth rather than ensure minimum proficiency at each year level.

‘An emphasis on the goal of student growth ensures that all students reach their full learning potential, regardless of the starting point and pace of learning compared to others,’ the report says.

Recommendation 1: Embed a focus on individual student achievement through continuous learning progress in the policies and practices of all schools and systems, with the expectation that each student should achieve at least one year’s growth throughout each year of schooling.

The panel says failing to recognise students have different starting points when it comes to their knowledge, skills and capabilities, and focusing on a minimum standard based on year levels and age leads to problems at both ends of the achievement scale. ‘This can lead to less advanced students falling further behind others, with the progress they make being largely unrecognised, and more advanced students not being stretched to reach their full potential, and at risk of becoming complacent if the good progress for which they are praised is actually well below their real learning capacity.’

The report raises the issue of ‘cruising’ schools – those achieving student learning outcomes above minimum standards, but delivering lower rates of learning growth.

During the review process, the panel held targeted consultations with education bodies and experts, and invited submissions from stakeholders, including teachers, school leaders, students, parents and community members. It says these discussions highlighted ‘common fundamentals’ needed to support all students.

In a submission Dr Chris Sarra, Professor of Education at the University of Canberra, says ‘high expectations relationships’ is the key to engaging students and improving outcomes. ‘This means matching professional rhetoric with professional actions so that children can meet the high expectations set and teachers can cater to individual students’ needs, instead of teaching to the middle. Educators must remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our schools are as hungry to learn as any other learner.’

The panel says a focus on maximising student learning growth will not only extend high performers, but also ensure ‘the potential of initially less advanced students is revealed and built upon’ so that they too continue to progress in their learning.

Different starting points

We know that effective school leadership teams have an expectation that every student will continue to make good progress in their learning. We also know that students start and end each school year at widely varying levels of attainment – the most advanced 10 per cent are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, has written about this achievement spread in Teacher. In this 2016 piece he says: ‘If school were a running race, all students would be judged against the same finish line (year-level expectations), but would begin the race widely spread out along the running track.’

Masters says the result is a predictable one – those at the back of the field (behind the average for their age group or year level) will continue to struggle against those year-level expectations. ‘When a student receives the same low grade (for example, a grade of ‘D’) year after year, they are given little sense of the learning progress they are actually making. They could be excused for concluding that they are making no progress at all. Worse, they may be sent a message that there is something stable about their ability to learn (they are a ‘D’ student). Little wonder that so many less advanced students become disenchanted with school and eventually disengage.’

Meanwhile, those students at the front of the pack are already on target to receive higher grades when the school year begins and some of them end up cruising to the line. ‘In fact, there is research evidence to suggest that the least year-on-year progress is made by some of our most advanced students. Teachers also report feeling least prepared to stretch and challenge these students.’

Knowing where individual students are in their progress at a given point in time is key, because successful learning is most likely when teachers provide targeted learning opportunities. In this 2017 Teacher column ‘The school curriculum: about time’, Masters explains: ‘More specifically, learning is maximised when individuals are provided with learning opportunities that stretch and challenge them, rather than being in their comfort zones or so far ahead of them that they lack the prerequisites for successful engagement and learning. At any given time, this “zone of proximal development”, as Lev Vygotsky called it, is likely to be different for different learners.’

A focus on stretching and extending every student means ‘success’ – for those who start at the back of the pack, middle, or at the front – would relate to the individual progress of that student.

The Gonski review panel’s findings and recommendations on individual student achievement, and references to supporting research, can be found in the Introduction of the report. A copy of the full report is available to download by clicking on the link.

References

Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2018). Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.

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