What we know and don't know about improving low-performing schools
Volume 87 Number 10, June 2006; Pages 729–734
Many studies have investigated the reasons why some struggling schools have been able to turn around poor results and achieve significant improvement. However, significant gaps remain in this knowledge base. The reasons why schools begin to decline in the first place is poorly understood. Decline is often attributed to an influx of disadvantaged students; yet some students from disadvantaged backgrounds do well academically. Good teamwork already occurs in many struggling schools. Decline may have other causes such as teachers’ resistance to instructional reforms or poor resource allocation. Teamwork between teachers is often cited in general terms as a key element in school improvement, but teachers already work well together in many poorly-performing schools. It may be that some teams, or types of teams, are more central to improvement than others. Too much team structure may impede teaching. It may be necessary to free meetings from information delivery that can be done in other ways, to free up time for decision making and allocation of tasks. Intervention programs such as Reading Recovery tend to produce only aggregated information. It would be more useful to know more about how individual students respond to locally developed interventions. At the end of each year schools should summarise knowledge gained about such interventions, and make it available, in summary form but still with recognition of local conditions, to other educators. Research is needed on ‘subtle mid-course corrections’ during reform programs that may escape formal recognition, as well as subtle, informal pitfalls to reform, such as demoralisation about the disruption inevitably caused during the implementation phase of reform or a slackening off at the first sign of improvement. Researchers should follow up success story schools to see if successes have lasted. Unanticipated consequences of reforms should be highlighted, eg a drop-off in attention to strongly-performing students due to reforms focusing on struggling students. To detect such results, evaluations of reforms should have a ‘wide aperture’ that goes beyond the narrow target of the reform program. Literature on school improvement tends to attribute success to good leadership, ‘a convenient catch-all for things that are not well understood’. Success stories often read like ‘fairytales in which hard work and commitment prevail’ and may ignore the role of power, conflict, threats and confrontation in school improvement. ‘Low-performing’ schools are defined as failing to meet ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ criteria officially defined in the USA, or failure of the school to achieve state accreditation.
Subject HeadingsEducational planning
United States of America (USA)
Thinking, not just learning
Eight years ago, AB Paterson College, a Queensland Independent school, began a transformational process to prepare students more effectively for twenty-first century life. Academic goals were developed by the school board, parents and staff. These goals were initially implemented using the then fashionable Toolbox model, where students were taught thinking skills in pastoral or special lessons. Under this approach academic outcomes were high, but there was little evidence of independent thought or deep thinking in students. The school introduced a new whole-school approach described in the book Smart Schools by David Perkins from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The program was titled the Teaching for Understanding framework. The framework assesses students' work in a variety of ways to allow each child to demonstrate understanding. Essential to the framework was the need for teachers to collaborate in planning, evaluating student work and providing worthwhile student feedback. This in turn required open communication. The change process became a five-year plan under which all previous practice at the school was re-evaluated. A major requirement was found to be extensive and ongoing professional development. Changes were made to meeting structures to allow for weekly professional development. Changing the students' understanding of what classroom learning was about also took considerable time and development, although parents were generally supportive. The result has been that students continue to achieve high academic outcomes and thinking skills are also embedded in the curriculum. AB Paterson College is currently the only school worldwide to adopt Teaching for Understanding as a whole-school approach.
Thought and thinking
Volume 85 Number 15, 4 September 2006
Almost 200 New Zealand teachers are currently completing Teaching English in Schools to Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL) courses, funded through Ministry of Education scholarships. The courses aim to help teachers accommodate the diverse backgrounds of New Zealand students, who come from more than 165 different countries. Participants are offered ways to incorporate students’ home language and distinct cultural experiences in the English classroom. The courses also cover the language demands of different subjects such as maths, music and science. Participants are encouraged to teach relevant subject vocabulary prior to each task to improve students’ success. The training has helped transform teaching and learning for previously disengaged ESOL students, and to clarify technical language for mainstream students. Mainstream and specialist primary and secondary teachers are awarded scholarships for demonstrated commitment to teaching ESOL, and can study extramurally or on-campus through a range of teacher education providers. Information will be sent to targeted schools and advertised on the New Zealand Education Gazette in October, or is available by contacting the Ministry of Education. Applications close by 27 October 2006.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Subject HeadingsMulticultural education
English as an additional language
Outcomes-based education: reform faces uncertain outcome
September 2006; Pages 44–48
In the former, industrial economy, teachers were expected to present the same material to all students in a class, under the same conditions and within the same time frame, in order to rank their performances against a set norm, to feed them into the professions, trades and unskilled work. In response to economic changes governments have seen a different, competing need, for the entire workforce to acquire scientific literacy and key generic competencies. The latter goal has directed attention to why some students have failed in the past, leading in turn to a focus on the different learning needs and styles of different students. Outcomes-based education emerged as a strategy to offer different sorts of learners various methods to achieve strong educational results. It was trialled in Queensland as the New Basics and modified as the Essential Learnings in Tasmania. However, it has struggled to achieve success for a range of reasons. It has become associated with a ‘simple formula’ introduced from the USA to Australia in 1993. The central planners who grasped the value of the curriculum reform have not grasped the requirements for school-level implementation. Teachers have not acquired a full understanding of the value of the reforms. The changes have been introduced to the curriculum without corresponding changes to timetables and age-based year levels, which were part of the earlier system aiming to stream students through norm-referenced ranking under standardised conditions. A media and political backlash against the outcomes approach has seen a re-emphasis on norm-referenced A–E grades for reporting that cuts across the entire logic of the outcomes-oriented curriculum. Some people have a ‘vested interest’ in the norm-referenced system, including elite independent schools, and ‘some tertiary perspectives’ that value the convenience of ranked results for selection of students. Schools that adopt a hybrid of the two approaches risk confusing and burning out teachers. Some schools have achieved an outcomes-based approach with compatible pedagogy, structures and reporting mechanisms. However, the backlash against ‘outcomes’ risks the introduction of mandated compromise measures that would cripple these local successes. Rather than trying to impose central solutions, policy makers should encourage schools to cooperate to explore new approaches.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
The freedom to teach: contrasting history teaching in elective and state-tested courses
Volume 34 Number 2, Spring 2006; Pages 259–282
A case study of two exemplary social studies teachers in two New York secondary schools investigated the influence of state testing on teaching practice. Both teachers taught eighth-grade history classes which were tested at a state level. Both also taught elective courses which were not linked to state assessments. As part of a colleague’s graduate research, the two teachers documented their planning and evaluations for both classes over 17 days. Their records were supplemented by interviews and some classroom observation. Both showed a marked difference in their objectives and teaching methods between their two classes. In the state-tested classes, both identified preparation for state assessments as foremost in their aims. Aims for the electives were more varied and open-ended, such as expanding student perspectives, giving them ‘a feeling for’ a historical period, or exploring connections between the past and the present. Both used more note-taking and individual writing tasks in their state-tested classes, compared to more frequent and prolonged class discussion in the electives. The pace of the electives was often dictated by student engagement, accommodating deep exploration of topics of interest. Conversely, the rapid transition between topics to ensure coverage in the state-tested classes resulted in a ‘sense of fragmentation’. Both teachers reported having a ‘great class’ much less frequently in their state-tested classes than in their electives. Assessment in state-tested classes combined short, tightly-structured, content-focused essays with multi-choice tests. Longer, analytical essays dominated assessment in the electives. One teacher noted that analytical essays more accurately gauged the depth of student learning, but that he felt an obligation to align classroom testing methods with state assessments. The mixed ability levels in both their classes prove that neither teacher was reserving more open-ended teaching methods for more able students, supporting the hypothesis that state testing was the dominant influence on their practice. Overall, the findings suggest that testing may inhibit teachers’ ability to apply ambitious, authentic and innovative teaching methods.
Key Learning AreasStudies of Society and Environment
Subject HeadingsSocial education
United States of America (USA)
First aid for female casualties of the information highway
Volume 21 Number 1, June 2006; Pages 26–32
Girls tend to develop negative attitudes towards Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as they progress through schooling, limiting later access to highly-paid jobs in the ICT industry. Initially funded by an Education Queensland ICT Innovators Grant, two female teachers set up a girls-only ICT group in their school, go gURLs, to help foster positive skills and attitudes in ICT among their Year 8–9 female students. About 22 girls met once a week, outside school hours or during lunchtimes. Each meeting began with a social activity, followed by an investigation of new technologies or project work. Projects incorporated material relevant to girls in the target age group, such as sport, fashion, music and television. Surveys were administered to all girls in the group to determine whether their participation over a 12-month period had changed their skills and attitudes in ICT. Boys in an ICT class taught by one of the go gURLs facilitators were also surveyed. Surprisingly, no differences emerged between girls’ perceptions of their skills and attitudes at the beginning and end of the program, which remained lower than their male counterparts’. This contradicts anecdotal evidence from participants and facilitating teachers that the program had boosted the girls’ confidence and enjoyment in ICT use. The girls’ comments indicated a very positive reaction to both the social and technological elements of the group. Their teachers reported that the group had also helped the girls develop maturity and responsibility for their learning, a sense of belonging, and created valuable opportunities for teachers and students to learn together. Further research into the subsequent career and life choices made by participants in such programs would be necessary to determine whether girls-only ICT groups represent a quick-fix or a long-term solution to girls’ disengagement with ICT. The Queensland Government continues to support girls’ participation in ICT through its Girls and ICT Strategy.
Subject HeadingsGirls' education
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Comparing teachers' strategies for supporting student inquiry in a problem-based multimedia-enhanced history unit
Volume 34 Number 2, Spring 2006; Pages 183–212
Problem-based inquiry (PBI) about social issues remains rare in social studies classrooms. Obstacles to the implementation of PBI include the time and cognitive effort required to guide and monitor student thinking. For this reason, researchers developed a multi-media resource, Decision Point!, which provides storyboards for students to record their opinions, counter-arguments and justifications. The intention was to remove pressure from teachers to monitor student thinking in the classroom, enabling them to determine the direction of student discussion before the next class. The resource was initially trialled over three years with a social studies teacher whose practices typified traditional didactic instruction. Although her use of PBI increased, she remained inhibited by a predisposition against the kind of uncertainty and flexibility that PBI produces. The resource was then trialled with two teachers who were already using PBI to some extent. Interviews, notes and observations revealed similarities in the two teachers’ methods which distinguished them from their more traditional colleague. Both demanded higher levels of engagement and rigour in the inquiry process from their students, applying a number of deliberate strategies to contextualise knowledge and support student reasoning. Both embraced risk, were comfortable with uncertainty, and readily handed students control of the learning process. Examples of dialogue from the two teachers’ classes reveal some differences in their approaches, chiefly in the amount of information they felt they should provide before students could construct their own learning. One believed that adolescents were not developmentally ready to ‘think critically and view both sides of an issue’, and therefore provided a greater level of support. The other saw his role as extending the critical capacities his students already possessed. Neither teacher used the resource as researchers had anticipated, preferring to monitor students’ thinking ‘on-the-fly’. Although both remarked that a more reflective use of the resource may have improved their understanding, workload pressures are not likely to leave them with any opportunity to chart student thinking between classes as intended.
Key Learning AreasStudies of Society and Environment
Subject HeadingsInquiry based learning
Teaching and learning
Volume 31 Number 2, Summer 2006; Pages 82–83
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI) proposes that there are another six or more types of intelligence beyond the logical, mathematical and linguistic abilities measured by IQ. The theory proposes the existence of spatial, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic intelligences. The theory has profoundly influenced the education world by encouraging teachers to adapt lessons to the preferred ‘learning styles’ of their students, depending on which type of intelligence they possess. Despite its popularity, key aspects of the theory do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Gardner identified the eight intelligences not through empirical studies of human behaviour, but on his own value judgements about which categories of human proficiency warranted recognition. A lack of clear criteria means that applying the categories also requires considerable subjective judgement. MI assumes that children who possess a particular intelligence will naturally blossom into proficiency in that area, given appropriate opportunities. However, modelling human learning on biological growth may prove to be ‘a fast track to non-achievement’, as it ignores the importance of social induction, or initiation of learners into what sorts of knowledge and behaviour society most values. MI is correct in disassociating IQ from intelligence, but educators do not need a ‘grandiose psychological theory’ to reveal this ‘commonsense truth’. Intelligence refers to humans’ ability to adapt means to meet different ends, from academic to aesthetic to personal goals, and it is self-evident that different purposes will favour different methods. In the end, MI may prove just as constraining as IQ as a means of determining intelligence. Young people are coming to identify themselves as ‘spatial’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ learners, trapping them in the myth that they have been ‘made this way’. Teachers have used MI as a means to assist some difficult students, but there may be better ways to reach these individuals.
Subject HeadingsMultiple intelligences
Thought and thinking
Children's representations of violence: impacts of cognitive stimulation of a philosophical nature
Volume 3 Number 2, September 2006; Pages 209–234
Violence prevention is a vital element of peace education. Research suggests that one major source of violence is an individual’s social representations, or how they construct, interpret and respond to social ‘realities’. Social representations distorted by ignorance, fear or prejudice are more likely to lead to violence. A study of eight preschool classrooms in France and Canada investigated the effects of a Philosophy-for-Children-based program in modifying young children’s social representations of violence. An experimental group of students were read The Tales of Audrey-Anne, a text aimed specifically at preventing violence in four- to seven-year-olds. Students created ‘philosophical questions’ after each reading, and answered them through guided group discussions. The control group of students did not undertake these activities. Pre- and post-tests and student interviews explored how children’s representations of violence had evolved. Children’s responses were grouped according to seven dimensions of violence: manifestations, causes, impacts, means of regulation, means of defence, and emotions of both the victim and the perpetrator. Responses along these dimensions were grouped into four levels of awareness: incomprehension ('I don’t know'); egocentricity, for responses based on 'the certainty of what is concrete and observable', such as punishments as means of regulation, or material property as a cause; plurality, for responses which showed awareness that violence may take more subtle forms and have less clearly defined causes; and intersubjectivity, where ‘certainty’ was replaced by awareness of the need to question violent acts and place events in context. Progression through the four levels included a shift from reliance on external authority figures towards students’ appreciation of their capacity to resolve conflicts themselves. Responses from both groups situated most children at the second level (egocentricity), before and after the research activities. However, while the control group showed no change at all over time, post-tests for the experimental group returned more third-level responses across some dimensions of violence, and even some fourth-level responses. The research suggests that violence prevention activities may help move young children’s social representations beyond incomprehension or egocentricism, reducing prejudice and the likelihood of violence.
Volume 10 Number 2, July 2006; Pages 249–270
For the first time, data has been collected in England which shows that girls’ academic achievement is ahead of boys’ from their first year of school. Girls’ preschool experiences may prepare them better for school than the experiences of their male peers. Research shows that parents are more likely to encourage their daughters to undertake intellectual tasks such as reading, while encouraging their sons towards active, physical pastimes such as sport. Girls are therefore more likely to be comfortable in sedentary, intellectual classroom environments. Mothers are also more likely to discuss emotions with their daughters than their sons, meaning many girls arrive in school adept at understanding others’ perspectives, an essential precursor to the development of sophisticated communication skills. Even if girls do not initially possess these skills, they are more likely to have the opportunity to develop them in their school peer group. Boys and girls tend to form segregated social groups in the playground, with girls engaging in communication-oriented small-group activities such as chatting, make-believe, or collaborative games. Boys tend to prefer physical activities in larger but loosely-connected social units. These tendencies reinforce perceptions of ‘appropriate’ behaviour for each gender, and may cause boys to shun intellectual activities as un-masculine. The ideal classroom would be a place where all activities were seen as non-gender-specific. However, research has found that current teacher behaviour often exacerbates gender differences, as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are often convenient ways to divide a class for classroom activities. Teacher-organised mixed-sex groups have proven to be effective in overcoming young children’s predisposition to sit with members of the same gender, as well as in redefining gender as an incidental, not predominant, aspect of a child’s identity. Students should also be encouraged to participate in classroom activities that they have not tried before, to overcome differences in preschooling experiences. In the playground, controlling the dominance of gendered activities and providing opportunities for mixed-gender games can reduce the likelihood of undesirable gendered behaviour being transferred to the classroom and undermining academic success.
Subject HeadingsGirls' education
Early childhood education
Volume 11 Number 2, June 2006; Pages 141–157
Fostering students’ natural tendencies to lead, teach and care for others is fundamental to creating a good society, especially in adolescent years when social identity becomes particularly important. Two US programs, Youth Leader Corps and the Apprentice Teacher Program, are seeking to foster leadership in ‘at-risk’ adolescents. All program participants to date have previously been part of primary and middle school values-based sports clubs. The two programs extend their leadership development into secondary school by giving participants the opportunity to plan, teach and evaluate the sports and life skills lessons for younger students. Evaluation of the programs revealed four stages of adolescent leadership development, illustrated in the article with detailed case studies of four individual students. The first level was the ‘what can this do for me’ attitude, where students focus too strongly on their own needs to see themselves as leaders, or recognise the importance of leadership. The challenging backgrounds of program participants makes this a difficult stage to overcome, as many experience deficits in basic needs like belonging and love. The second stage focuses on competence in program tasks, such as planning and teaching lessons, without incorporating reflection or self-actualisation. The third stage, reflective leadership, was exemplified by a student who came to understand her own leadership style, and developed quiet confidence in appraising and assisting others. The final stage, compassionate leadership, represents the ultimate goal of the program. Compassionate leaders both teach and exhibit care and respect and derive satisfaction not only from what they gain from the program, but also from what others learn. Few youth leaders reach this stage, and no participants so far have demonstrated the desired ability to transfer these skills beyond the programs. However, the programs show that a model of gentle instruction, high expectations, authentic choices and opportunities for reflection can enable young people to take a step further towards reaching their leadership potential.
Key Learning AreasHealth and Physical Education
Subject HeadingsPhysical education
Values education (character education)
United States of America (USA)
Best policies and practices in urban educational reform: a summary of empirical analysis focusing on student achievements and equity
Volume 11 Number 1, June 2006; Pages 19–37
A three-year study in the USA has examined best practice in urban educational reform. It focused on 22 major urban school districts involved in the Urban Systemic Initiative (USI) program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NFS). The tested model was based on six educational reform 'drivers', ie conditions required for successful reform. The requirements were seen to include a standards-based curriculum, instruction and assessment in every classroom, and coherent, consistent policy support for high quality learning and teaching including professional development and student support. Another requirement was the convergence of material and financial and intellectual resources into a focused, constantly upgraded education program. A stakeholder/community driver requires broad-based support from parents, business and other areas of the local community. An attainment driver is a requirement to measure program effectiveness through student outcomes, including student performance outside the program. The equity driver requires improvement in achievement for all students, including disadvantaged students. Qualitative and quantitative data was collected using the Key Indicator Data System (KIDS), based on a cross-site longitudinal evaluative study. The data was supplemented by reviews of documents in school districts and site visits. The study found support for the six identified drivers. The two essential requirements for reform were found to be the belief that students can and must learn challenging content, and that all students must be evaluated equally. If these beliefs were in place then the four process drivers worked together dynamically to support the two outcome drivers. The direct goal of systemic educational reform is to prepare students for mathematics and science-based careers, which indirectly benefits society as a whole. The importance of continued professional development for teachers was also emphasised.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsUnited States of America (USA)
Education aims and objectives
Re-invigorating civics and citizenship education
Volume 41 Number 3, 3rd Quarter 2006; Pages 50–52
Despite the delivery of the Discovering Democracy resource in the late 1990s, Civics and Citizenship Education (CCE) has struggled to find a place in the ‘crowded curriculum’. It is time to restructure the SOSE curriculum and re-evaluate the importance of the CCE agenda. In
Key Learning AreasStudies of Society and Environment
Subject HeadingsNew South Wales (NSW)
A state of crisis in public schools has been proclaimed more or less continually for most of the last century. The current focus of the ‘crisis’ is improving teacher quality, thought to be the most important contributor to the wider goal of improving student outcomes. The ‘crisis’ claim is linked to a longstanding ideological debate. Teaching practice today exists within a neo-liberal policy framework, which emphasises accountability and ‘compliance with system objectives.’ This framework appears overwhelmingly influenced and supported by an empirical approach to educational research. Empirical methodology seeks definitive answers to research questions. It is based on the view that knowledge is only valid until it can be proven by observation and experimentation, and that knowledge obtained in this way is free of any personal or ideological bias. It is questionable whether this simplistic, superficial approach to gathering knowledge is appropriate for understanding the deep complexities of the teaching profession. A case study is provided which shows that, while empirical research results may present a clear link between teachers and student achievement, deeper analysis suggests that more complex factors may be affecting the relationship than can be readily revealed in the empirical statistics. A methodology based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu may be more appropriate to educational research. Bourdieu’s own research focuses on the role that schools and education systems play in reproducing social and cultural inequities, and is founded on the premise that teaching practice is complex and multi-faceted. Any research, for Bourdieu, must recognise ‘the limits of objectivist knowledge’, and not seek to project ‘formal’ theories onto the ‘informal’ realities of practice. By acknowledging his or her own position in relation to the researched topic, the researcher adopts a stance of ‘reflexive objectivity’, allowing knowledge to come to light which may have remained hidden in a more superficial, objective analysis. Such a research perspective may enable a shift in policy focus away from the teacher, and towards a more comprehensive understanding of the factors which influence educational attainment.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning