Long reads

The ‘long tail’ of underachievement

The ‘long tail’ of underachievement

[Image © Shutterstock/marekuliasz]

In my recent Teacher article ‘Big five’ challenges in school education I argue that one of the biggest challenges we face as educators is to find better ways to meet the learning needs of the many students who fall behind in our schools, fail to meet year-level expectations (often year after year) and, as a consequence, become increasingly disengaged.

The OECD estimates that approximately 40 000 Australian 15-year-olds (that is, one in seven students) fail to achieve an international baseline proficiency level in reading. After 10 or more years of school, these students lack the reading skills that the OECD believes are required to participate adequately in the workforce and to contribute as productive citizens in the 21st century.

The situation is worse in mathematics where an estimated 57 000 Australian 15-year-olds (that is, one in five students) fail to achieve the international baseline level. At the completion of their compulsory study of mathematics, these students lack the mathematical knowledge and skills judged by the OECD to be adequate for life beyond school.

By international standards, Australia does not have an unusually large percentage of 15-year-olds performing below the international baseline. Some countries have significantly higher percentages. Nevertheless, it is of concern that so many Australian 15-year-olds are failing to achieve minimally adequate levels of reading and mathematical literacy. And it is instructive that a few countries have less than half Australia’s percentage of underperformers.

Students who perform below expectation at 15 years of age have generally performed below year-level expectations for much, if not all, of their schooling. They tend to start each school year behind most of their age group and they are poorly equipped for the material they are about to be taught. Most struggle, and this is reflected in their poor performance on the year-level curriculum. Many students receive low grades year after year, reinforcing the message that they are not succeeding at school – or worse, that they are inherently poor learners.

In Australia, as in many other countries, part of the policy response to underachievement has been to set higher standards and to hold students, teachers and schools accountable for achieving those standards. Curricula have been developed that make explicit the standards that all students in each year of school are expected to meet. And we have made it a national requirement that teachers judge and grade students (using A to E or equivalent ratings) on how well they achieve year-level curriculum expectations.

In other words, the policy response has been to confirm existing practice – to set clear curriculum expectations for each year of school and to judge and grade all students on how well they achieve those expectations. The difference is that these expectations have been redeveloped and agreed nationally, and there has been some strengthening of accountability arrangements.

However, it is questionable whether higher standards and increased accountability will benefit students who have fallen behind in their learning, reduce levels of disengagement among these students, or decrease Australia’s ‘long tail’ of underachievement. Progress in addressing these challenges almost certainly requires a different set of strategies.   

A national key performance indicator (KPI)

One indicator of progress in reducing Australia’s long tail of underachievement would be a reduction in the percentage of 15-year-olds not meeting the OECD’s baseline proficiency levels as measured by PISA. Figure 1 shows these percentages for reading, mathematical and scientific literacy in 2012. The corresponding percentages for some of the world’s highest performing education systems are also shown, indicating the levels that some countries have achieved.

Figure 1.  Percentage of 15-year-olds performing below the international baseline proficiency level (2012)


The organisation and delivery of school education have been largely unchanged for decades. Although composite classes are common, students tend to be grouped into year levels by age, and progress automatically with their age peers from one school year to the next. A curriculum is developed for each year of school, students are placed in mixed-ability classes, teachers deliver the curriculum for the year level they are teaching, and students are assessed and graded on how well they perform on that curriculum.

Underpinning this practice is a tacit belief that the same curriculum is appropriate for all, or almost all, students of the same age. This assumption might be appropriate if students of the same age commenced each school year at more or less the same point in their learning. But this is far from the case; the most advanced students commencing any year of school are typically five to six years ahead of the least advanced students. This variability in students’ levels of achievement and learning readiness is often underestimated.

As a consequence, the learning needs of some students are not well met. Year-level expectations can be much too ambitious for some less advanced students and not sufficiently ambitious for more advanced students. The challenge for teachers is to meet all students at their points of need with learning opportunities that stretch and extend them. There are several strategies to consider.

Diagnosing where students are in their learning

An alternative to assuming that individuals’ levels of readiness and learning needs can be reasonably well inferred from their age or year level is to undertake assessments to establish where students are in their learning. Assessments commonly are undertaken after teaching to determine how well students have learnt what they have been taught. However, to maximise the probability of successful teaching and learning, information is required about where students are in their long-term progress before teaching commences. This information can be collected at varying levels of diagnostic detail. For example, teachers may wish to establish individuals’ overall levels of achievement in an area of learning, but also to confirm that they have mastered particular prerequisite skills and/or understandings. The collection of detailed information about where individuals are in their learning prior to commencing teaching is not yet routine practices in many schools.             

Personalising teaching and learning

The purpose of diagnosing where students are in their learning before teaching commences is to ensure that learning opportunities are well targeted on individuals’ current levels of achievement and readiness. It is now well established that learning is most likely when learners are given activities at an appropriate level of challenge – beyond their comfort zone in what Vygotsky called the ‘zone of proximal development’ – where learners can succeed, but often only with assistance. Differentiated teaching and personal learning plans are widely used in schools. But these practices sometimes compete with an alternative policy view that the best way to raise standards is to hold all students to the same high expectations, coupled with a belief that this is more ‘equitable’ than recognising that students have different learning needs. Improved outcomes for less advanced students depend on establishing in some detail the points individuals have reached in their learning and then providing targeted teaching to address specific skill deficits and misunderstandings and to establish stretch targets for further growth. New technologies have the potential to assist in these diagnostic and personalisation processes.

Monitoring learning progress over time

An alternative to simply holding all students in the same year of school to the same year-level expectations and judging and grading them on how well they achieve those expectations is to expect every student to make excellent progress in their learning, regardless of their starting point. In this way, what it means to learn successfully is re-defined as the progress (or growth) that learners make. Rather than judging less advanced students as ‘poor performers’ year after year, the progress these students make is made visible and acknowledged. While every student is expected to achieve high standards eventually, this approach recognises that, because of their less advanced starting points, some students take longer to reach high standards than others. It also recognises that the best way to build students’ self-confidence is not to judge and label them as poor learners year after year, but to help them see and appreciate the progress they are making.

Sharing progress with parents and families

School reports typically show how students have performed against year-level expectations and/or the performances of other students. Such information is likely to be of continuing interest to parents. Much less common is information about the progress students have made in their learning over a semester or school year – information that better indicates the amount of learning that has occurred. This information is important because some less advanced students can make good progress during a school year even though they are still below year-level expectations. It is important that parents appreciate this progress rather than concluding from students’ low grades that they are poor learners. Failure to recognise and report progress not only provides parents with an incomplete picture of learning, but also can undermine students’ understandings of the relationship between effort and success.

The long tail of underachievement is also a long tail of disenchantment with school. Many less advanced students remain or fall further behind with each year of school and become increasingly convinced that they are poor learners and that school is not for them. By the middle years of school, many of these students have become disenchanted and disengaged.

As a nation, we cannot afford to have large numbers of young people marginalised in this way. Part of the solution lies in more flexible ways of organising teaching and learning to better target individuals’ current levels of achievement and learning needs. Another part of the solution lies in reconceptualising what it means to learn successfully – defining success and failure not so much in terms of age or year-level expectations but as the progress that individuals make in their learning, regardless of their starting points. In short, the long tail of underachievement will be reduced by expecting and ensuring that every student makes excellent progress every year.


  • About a decade ago Western Australia abandoned efforts to record and report progress in a manner very similar to that described here. The principal problem was that the measurement of progress was too dependent on individual teacher judgement, and it placed an unrealistic burden of record keeping on teachers. The philosophy is not enough: it needs an appropriate framework to support it.

    09 February 2016
  • Dear Prof Masters,
    There is one main mitigating factor against the capacity of the school systems in Australia to address, with flexibility, the slower start and subsequent development of some children because of inherent learning disabilities, socio-economic factors or any of the myriad factors that affect child development . It is the inadequate undergraduate pre-service training of our school teachers. Our mainstream primary teachers simply have not been taught how to teach using the best evidence-based practices in English and how to modify curriculum to meet individual needs.
    What other profession is asked to perform professional duties for which their education/training has been so inadequate? 
    For mathematics, the over-riding major factor is the crowded primary school curriculum that fills the school day and limits the time spent on mathematics in the early years. In order to fit it all in students are moved on to the next topic before conceptual mastery and automaticity of recall are achieved. I think as a society we have forgotten what true mastery looks like for a class of students and the effects are cumulative over a student’s school years. We see large numbers of students ‘opt out’ of mathematics in Years 11 and 12 possibly for this reason. The National curriculum was evaluated and modified quite recently but the effects of curriculum overcrowding in mathematics will be ongoing for some time yet.
    It is not my intention to make an anecdotal, simplistic evaluation of our schooling systems but 40 years as a passionate and highly experienced teacher has pointed to these causes as two central issues, the first of which needs immediate and evaluative investigation.

    09 February 2016
  • Enjoyed this article. points to the work of Carol Dweck and growth mindset

    09 February 2016
  • Good points but teachers are time poor to implement the ideal flexible learning programs you are talking about. High school teachers have hundreds of students entering their classroom everyday. There are syllabuses to get through in little time. It’s not only about content but controlling the class as well - and at times content suffers because of this. Teachers are not given enough time out of the classroom to reflect, plan and focus on individual differences - unless they go home and work for six hours until midnight and then suffer burn out as a result. The Govt. is doing little to support teachers with cuts to curriculum experts. So it’s all well and good to propose solutions which mean more work for teachers but it is imperative that the realities of a school day are taken into account as you do this. You seem to propose pre-testing to identify gaps in knowledge and skills of each student - sounds good but noone is designing those pre-tests for teachers ( they don’t come with syllabus documents). So it’s up to teachers to spend time designing a pre-test for each topic and the reality is that this rarely happens as teachers do not only teach lessons in schools but also attend to other tasks and they have lives outside of school too.  Perhaps you could spend some effort on lobbying the govt. to give teachers more time to plan, reflect and cater for individual differences in collaboration with each their colleagues and do some research on time poor teachers. It’s not easy and it’s getting harder.

    09 February 2016
  • Some (many?) students may well face disengagement across their schooling, but some teachers (this one to a degree) face disenchantment across their teaching years. I’ve been reading articles like Geoff’s for a number of years - with his being consistently among the best. I know my understanding of content and delivery is so much better, my ability to differentiate, as well as acknowledge and address particular individual needs also improved ... yet the progress (or lack thereof) of my students has remained much the same. I’d be very interested in seeing articles by Prof Masters and others offer ideas in this area. Surely I’m not alone in this?

    10 February 2016
  • Another great article from Geoff, who was one of the inspirations for my Grattan report last year called “Targeted teaching: how better use of data can improve student learning”. Report is free and downloadable from http://www.grattan.edu.au.

    Colette: totally agree that this links to growth mindset/Dweck. Hearing the stories from teachers following Geoff’s prescription is heart-warming: children flourishing once they are shown they can be good learners (in progress terms) that then helps hem to start catching up (in achievement terms).

    Glen: my research came to one stark conclusion. Systems in Australia now need to step up and support schools and teachers to implement targeted teaching. Many years of letting every school choose its on adventure has been an abject failure in this space. It is simply too hard in practice for nearly all schools to make the changes Geoff is talking about without help.

    But there is hope. Schools can implement targeted teaching, just as Geoff is describing it, with help from education systems: Time, Tools, Training, Trust, and Teamwork.

    My report describes two systems that are rolling this out at scale, including EarlyAction for Success which is now in over 300 disadvantaged NSW government primary schools. Also Greg Whitby’s work in Parramatta Catholic Diocese.

    Change is possible.

    10 February 2016
  • I loved the article and have read many like it already. What I find far more challenging is the comments which always seem to follow an article such as this one. ‘Time poor, not trained, under resourced, etc, etc”. In my school we call these Below the Line responses - blame, excuses and denial. They do nothing to change what is currently happening and perpetuate another group of young people proceeding through schools with less than ideal results. What is currently being achieved is not good enough, that means stop doing the same thing and do something different. “Stop watering the rocks” is a great old quote. There will always be a reason we can find to not do something but when it results in the children and young people of Australia getting less than they deserve I think it’s about time we started focussing on “What part of this can I do differently today?” and build the new model piece by piece.

    25 February 2016
  • “Time poor” teachers do a lot of good work and try and improve. But the reality is the reality - overworked , underpaid and burnt out teachers can only do so much. In the end the academics or the govt.  people with all the good ideas are not the people in the classroom with 30-35 times 5 each day with rarely a break to sit down and plan and reflect ( like all the research says teachers should do). Some of these people have no idea what being in a school and teaching students is all about. Oh yes, good teachers still plan and reflect - in their own time - after school and on weekends. There is only so much time - and unfortunately not everything can be done. Burnt out teachers leaving the profession is very common. I call for less time in the classroom for teachers during a typical school day ( “less is more”)  and more time having time to mark, plan lessons, attend PD and have professional conversations with colleagues and parents.

    24 April 2016
  • One question I have with the OECD estimates of 40000 (reading) and 57000 (maths) students not meeting international baselines (who established those baselines as valid anyway) is “Where are they occurring predominantly?” I am not arguing over the policy approaches however if the bulk of the “long tail” are occurring in particular schooling areas or particular socio-economic situations (I don’t know myself) then more targeted policies may be appropriate. I think the leap from broad estimates to policy approaches, no matter how evidence based, may not be addressing the localised effects. In schools where they don’t have the funding or the teacher capacity or school structures to implement the policy strategies nothing will change.

    26 July 2016
    • Hi Adrian,
      In this report - PISA 2012: How Australia measures up (https://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-2012-Report.pdf 13MB) - Chapter 9 includes a section looking at the relationship between socioeconomic background and performance. Here’s a snippet:

      “Across the OECD, 39 score points separate the mathematical literacy performance of students from advantaged backgrounds (those in the highest quartile of socioeconomic background) and the average
      student. ... the difference between advantaged students and disadvantaged students (those in the lowest quartile of socioeconomic background) is even larger: 90 score points on average across the OECD and 87 score points in Australia. This is the equivalent of more than two years of schooling and one full proficiency level.”
      (Jo Earp, Editor, Teacher magazine)

      View comment

      28 July 2016
      • Adrian, my recent Grattan report Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress (http://grattan.edu.au/report/widening-gaps/) used NAPLAN data to look at the relationship between socioeconomic background, achievement and progress.

        Although the measures of socioeconomic status in NAPLAN are different from those collected for PISA, the overall results are highly consistent with Jo’s quote from the OECD report.

        Year 9 students with parents with limited educational backgrounds (less than a diploma) are on average 2 years 6 months behind Year 9 students with at least one parent who has a university degree. (See Figure 10 in the report.)

        More alarmingly, even when we compare students from these two groups who performed equally well in Year 3 NAPLAN, the disadvantaged students make between 1Y 1m and 1Y 9m less progress than the advantaged students. Bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds have the biggest progress gaps. (See Figure 11).

        However—and this is a big however—there is a very wide range of achievement in the typical school (see Figure 6) and even high SES schools have students who are many years behind in numeracy and literacy. [Selective schools are an exception.]

        Therefore the ideas that Professor Masters is putting forward need to be thought about broadly, not just in a few struggling schools or those with a very disadvantaged population of students.

        Pete Goss, Grattan Institute

        View comment

        28 July 2016
  • Thanks Peter and Jo for your replies.

    I both agree and disagree with your last paragraph Peter. If we are truly going to transform our schools we need to do both the broad actions (as Geoff suggests) and the targeted work in the struggling schools and disadvantaged populations. Why? The broad policy addresses the need to shift the general culture of the way that schools operate and think about learning. It is about creating the expectation and practice and shifting an entire education system. The targeted action is about providing the capacity building and addressing the huge support the schools, students and community need to even getting to the starting post. Consider that the inequality of learning outcomes has been rising in Australia and I suspect that it is because we have not been doing the necessary work in the targeted arena.

    29 July 2016
  • Fair call Adrian. We tried to balance these issues in our recommendations for the Widening Gaps report:

    Recommendation 1: Put analysis of relative student progress and learning gaps at the centre of the policy agenda and use it to target policy and resources more effectively.

    Recommendation 2: In light of the very large spread in student achievement, implement better systematic support for targeted teaching so that all students make good learning progress, regardless of their starting point.

    Recommendation 3: Given the very large gaps that open up by Year 9, increase efforts to lift the progress of disadvantaged students.

    Effectively, recommendation 2 argues that all students in all schools deserve a focus on progress, while recommendation 3 acknowledges your point that we need much more targeted action to support disadvantaged students.

    29 July 2016
  • Thanks Peter. I did read the executive summary of your report AFTER I read your comment and replied and saw that you and I are on the same page. Whilst there is a big challenge at the policy level the real challenge is to support teachers and schools to shift their practice. That’s the end I work at. A lot of school leadership planning and development practices are part of what is causing the inertia in many schools. The systems, processes and structures are archaic and keep things the way they are.

    29 July 2016

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