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Is setting higher standards the answer?

Is setting higher standards the answer?

Raising the expected performance standard in each year of school and holding all teachers and students accountable for achieving these higher standards may not be the most effective way to improve levels of performance in Australian schools.

It seems obvious; the way to lift performance in schools is to introduce more rigour into the curriculum, set higher year-level performance expectations and hold all teachers and students accountable for achieving these higher standards.

This is essentially what we’ve been doing. We’ve developed a national curriculum and benchmarked it internationally. We’ve set clearer year-level performance expectations. We’ve required teachers to assess and grade all students against these expectations using ‘A to E or equivalent’. We’ve insisted on all students sitting national literacy and numeracy tests through the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) four times during their schooling. We’ve made schools more accountable, including by publishing their test results on the My School website. And, despite this, results from the most recent cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment show the literacy and numeracy levels of Australian 15-year-olds have been in steady decline. NAPLAN tests show no improvement at most year levels in most of the country.

Attempting to lift performances by holding all students to the same expectation flies in the face of what we know about learning. People learn best when given learning opportunities at an appropriate level of challenge: beyond their comfort zone, but not so far beyond that they become frustrated and give up. And this is the nub of the problem. For many students in our schools, the year-level curriculum is either well within their comfort zone or so far ahead of them that they are unable to engage with it meaningfully.

The reason is that students enter each school year with widely different levels of attainment. The most advanced 10 per cent of students are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent. As a result, less advanced students often are not ready for, and more advanced students often are not adequately challenged by, the year-level curriculum. Raising the expected performance standard in any year of school will be appropriate for some students, but is likely to be inappropriate for students who are already struggling.

An alternative, more equitable, system would be one in which every student’s current level of attainment was identified and used to provide learning opportunities at an appropriate level of challenge. Rather than teaching, assessing and grading all students against the same year-level expectation, every student’s learning would be stretched and extended by well-targeted, personalised teaching.

Success would be defined and judged in terms of the progress an individual made, regardless of their starting point, and every student would be expected to make excellent progress every year. This is an ideal, but if we could better approximate it, we may see more students learning successfully and overall levels of performance in Australian schools improve.

Chris Barker 06 March 2018

What Geoff has written here reminds me of a TED talk where Ken Robinson talks about parallels between the traditional schooling model and a factory production line. Bring on the revolution!

Richard Williams 06 March 2018

I’m interested in the fact that “the most advanced 10 per cent of students are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent”. Obviously this can’t be true of preps.  What stage of schooling does it apply to?  And is there any material published about this that you can point me to?

>Hi Richard,
We’ll be exploring this at the end of March in an infographic. We’ll post a link here to the content once it is live. Thanks, Jo [Teacher editor]

Sue Armstrong 06 March 2018

i agree with some statements in the article .However, it is possible to raise the expectations for individual students to achieve at the highest level for their capability. Certainly all students should be working in their ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). The new National Progressions will be extremely helpful for teachers to identify what indicators a particular student has achieved for Literacy and Numeracy development, at any point in time, to inform their teaching.

Naomi 06 March 2018

And now if the department of education could just create those opportuities for schools. The whole education system needs to shift!

Anne Doody 06 March 2018

Is it a case of and, rather than or? Do we strive for supporting each student to reach age appropriate standards by responding to their individual needs, and challenging ourselves to shift outside our past teaching comfort zones to try new methods as required? And identify and celebrate student individual growth data along the way? Is the greatest danger accepting students not achieving standards without trying everything possible?

Rod Gillies 06 March 2018

In my Economics class the students are rewarded if they beat their average mark. They compete against themselves. The reward is a frozen mars bar and all can be successful at any one time with this system. The aim is to improve the person no matter what his/her education levels are.

Leanne Chesterfield 06 March 2018

Sounds ideal(istic?)....but I have to confess that this suggestion both excites and terrifies me at the same time. 
1. I agree with the need for & importance of students working in their zone of proximal development but careful & strategic funding and restructuring (of our national curriculum and reporting legislation along with “the way schools work”) would be required to avoid a return to the “dumbing down of the nation” that seemed to occur a few syllabi ago when things were quite “loosey goosey”. 
2. Working with students across a wide & complex range of abilities requires a major rethink of the core day-to-day business of schools and teachers and so many of our teachers are already overwhelmed and skeetering along the brink of burnout.
3. In education we have a tendency to ride pendulums from one extreme standpoint to the opposite resulting in increased workloads & diminished wellbeing for teaching staff and leadership when instead we need a degree of moderation and to find the mid-ground.

Please be careful and make considered decisions before jumping onto the back of this pony and galloping off into the sunset.

Dr David Zyngier 06 March 2018

Who really are the under performers? New research finds that private schools are often dragging down national averages! It is often claimed as fact that private schools outperform public schools. New analysis of MySchool data and 2017 Victorian Certificate of Education year 12 results shows that public schools with similar Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) rankings or Socio-Economic Status have very similar or even better VCE results than private schools. However, these public schools achieve these results with far less funding per student.
Those who argue in favour of public funding for private schools claim that private schools are more efficient and academically outperform public schools. So what is the actual return on investment for parents when it comes to private schools? The conservative side of politics believes there is no equity problem to address in Australian education. The Liberal Party relies on conservative researchers’ evidence denying any causal link between socioeconomic status and student academic outcomes.

New analysis of the Year 12 results “school ladder” compares 455 private and public schools (schools with fewer than 20 students at year 12 were excluded) based on their VCE ranking and then compares both their VCE results and school based data including funding available from MySchool website.
Even excluding select entry schools public schools outperform private schools with similar ICSEA rankings (Table 1). The median VCE score of these public schools is slightly above the private schools. Public schools had 18% of VCE scores over 40 or more (out of 50) compared to 17% in these private schools.

The research ranks Victorian schools VCE results of similar or “like” private and public schools and median score, per cent of 40+ scores, total government (Federal and State) funding per student as shown on the MySchool website and Year 12 fees found on individual school websites.

While most media base rankings on the per cent of scores over 40, a more robust statistic is the median VCE score achieved by each school. That is the score achieved by the exact middle student in the year 12 class when their scores are ranked from lowest to highest. The median is a better indicator of overall student performance as it is not affected by relatively few high (or low) performances.
When it comes to funding, private schools on average outspend public schools by a minimum of $9000 per student to achieve a similar result with almost 50% of their funding coming from federal and state funds for independent schools and almost 80% or more for Catholic schools. The School Resource Standard base amount is set at $13,764 for secondary students in 2018. This is what the majority of public schools receive from government funds.  On average in top performing private school parents paid over $25, 000 per student (Geelong Grammar with an ICSEA of 1149 ranked 124 in Victoria out of 455 schools and was the most expensive school in Victoria charging $36000 in 2017 just for school fees for year 12 (non-boarding) while parents in high performing public schools paid less than $1300. Wesley College ICSEA of 1159 charged almost $35000 and ranked 130 (Glen Waverely campus) and 78 (Melbourne Campus.
It is also claimed by conservative commentators – notably Dr Kevin Donnelly - that socio-economic status has little impact on student academic performance.  This analysis of the 2017 VCE results clearly demonstrates that school performance is very strongly correlated to the socio-economic index of the school. The higher the ISCEA the better the school performs in VCE. There are however some exceptions to this as is shown in Chart 2
Spending more money on students and on school buildings, well-being centres, international campuses, playing fields, equestrian facilities, rowing sheds, music centres and swimming pools seems to make no difference at all when students have similar social and Jane Caro recently asked, “If money makes no difference to education, why do private schools need so much?”
Table 2. Highest spending private schools and their VCE ranking. Spending more clearly doesn’t always work
A new review of research studies has found that money matters in education. It shows that there is strong evidence of a positive relationship between school funding and student achievement and that certain school resources that cost money have a positive influence on student results. As well, more equitable allocation of funds between schools increases equity in student outcomes.

The best-performing education systems worldwide are those that combine equity with quality. They give all children opportunities for a quality education.

Caroline Rickard 06 March 2018

I’m with Anne. Whatever the aspirational standards to be attained we have to have the expectation (barring a very good reason) that all students will get there even if it takes some of them a much longer time (and so often beyond the year group the learning was intended for) and requires us to rethink our teaching approach. Okay, so they’re on a lower rung of the ladder to start with but if I can offer experiences that help them to take a step in the right direction, all to the good.

Rebecca Vukovic 29 March 2018

Hi Richard, Here is the infographic showing approximate distributions of students in NAPLAN Reading: Thanks, Rebecca (Teacher)

Mary Keating 03 April 2018

“The most advanced 10 per cent of students are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent.” In reading. Maths? Science? Writing and other literacy tasks? None of these children with excellent reading skills has covered the syllabi for any of these subjects. I’ll bet they get a lot of one-to-one with a tutor and always have. Is this article presenting an argument for streaming? For individual learning programmes and overloading the teachers even more? And then also, academics are not everything. What are they like at sport, social interaction? They may really belong with their age level. What is being presented here is (1) a statement that attainment levels in each year level are greater than they have been in the past, and (2) what are the implications for classroom teaching and school management? I think it is the answers we are more interested in.

Wendy 03 April 2018

Articles, like the non-referenced one presented here, frustrate me. They often spruik the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of “alternative, more equitable, systems”, but rarely the ‘how’. I don’t know of any teacher who wouldn’t love to differentiate their teaching and learning programs to meet the physical, social/emotional and academic needs of every child in their class. It’s not a debate between public and private education, nor is it an argument for or against streaming or ability grouping. It’s a matter of what teachers can do to make a difference in their students lives with the 4.25 hours a day they have to cover the curriculum in the context of their school and classroom. There are a lot of great things happening in schools with regard to determining where students are at in their learning, how to target their teaching at student’s ZPD, and ways to effectively monitor and track student learning progress. There are also a number of very useful tools to help teachers do this critical work. If the authors of the above article want to really help teachers differentiate their programs to improve learning outcomes for every student, offer practical, evidence-based suggestions focusing on the ‘how’. Really disappointing.

Rebecca Vukovic 04 April 2018

From Professor Geoff Masters: Thanks Wendy. I can see how this article could be misread as a comment on the extent to which teachers currently differentiate their teaching to challenge all students. But the intention was not to be critical of the excellent work teachers do. The point of the article was to question the appropriateness of setting the same year-level expectations of all students, given the wide diversity of achievement levels within each year of school. As Pasi Sahlberg said recently (Education Review, March 2018), the lesson from Finland is that ‘we should care less about age and grade level standards’. The alternative is to measure success in terms of the progress individuals make in their learning, regardless of their starting points. (Rebecca Vukovic, Teacher magazine, posting on behalf of Professor Geoff Masters).

Steve Passey 05 April 2018

Leanne Chesterfield is correct with her second point regarding teaching conditions. Like the failing systems in some other anglo-speaking nations, we have a runaway workload constraining teacher productivity. This is not helped by continued reference to ‘best practice’ by those who are no longer at the coal face day-after-day or who have never actually been there.

Simone 05 April 2018

This is exactly what a ‘needs-based’ models should be about.  ‘Need’ should be a measure of educational achievement and the gap between it and a standard, rather than wealth or socio-economic data.  This would put the resources where they really are needed, based on educational measures, rather than in the hands of those who have the means and knowledge to ‘manage’ the system best.

Michael Kaissis 22 April 2018

Hi Geoff and Rebecca Vukovic,

I am currently completing my masters of educational leadership and I am hoping to look at doing my doctorate on this topic of mastery/proficiency scales/learning in schools. I would be really appreciative if you could pass on some journal articles or resources that are looking at implementing this approach in local schools and plausible ways of introducing it at a national/school level. I understand that there are multiple moving parts to this new(ish) approach. I have access to a journal database. I would also appreciate your opinion on this topic Geoff and the wider ACER community. An email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with possible resources would be great. I also understand that you two would be busy as well so I won’t hold you to it 😊

Kindest regards

Anna Di Guglielmo 14 June 2018

...And once again there is really no mention of the accountability universities have in training individuals to adequately prepare them for the ‘pit face.’ Reading this article reminded me of my initial shock in seeing the difference between studying to be a teacher and operating in that environment. In all of this you have teachers desperately applying their skills, talents and strengths to manage how many kids at any given time..and the goal posts seem to shift constantly.

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