How to achieve excellence in Australian schools: a story from the classroom

by Pete Goss

Published by John Menadue, 7 December

A new Gonski review is examining how to achieve educational excellence for Australia’s 3.8 million school students. The success of the review will ultimately depend on whether its recommendations lead to better practice in the classroom. And the best way for policy makers to improve classroom practice is to develop a more adaptive education system.

For once, rather than starting with policy or theory, let’s start in the classroom. This is the story of Kate, Naomi and Natalie*, three primary teachers I met in early 2015.

Kate, Naomi and Natalie work in a disadvantaged regional school I’ll call Bright Vale. Four years earlier, unable to tell which of their methods was really working, they were tearing their hair out. But by 2015 they could identify what was working best to help students learn, by regularly tracking each student’s capabilities in literacy and numeracy.

One surprise was that Kate’s students consistently made about two months more progress each year. What was she doing differently? Kate settled her kids down more quickly. So Naomi and Natalie focused on better routines at the start of each lesson. That is, they changed their ways based on evidence. And it worked.

This new level of rigor had a profound impact. The three teachers felt better about their jobs. Naomi even used the ‘a-word’: she felt more accountable now that she knew exactly how much or how little her students were learning. They all did: accountable to the students, the parents, and each other – not some faceless bureaucrat. This professional responsibility is the best form of accountability.

Now, this is not a story about classroom behaviour, or gathering data, or accountability. It’s a story about how systems can help teachers to adaptively improve their teaching by continually evaluating what is (and isn’t) working.

To do this, teachers need high-quality ‘small data’ about student progress, data they trust, gathered regularly enough to inform the way they teach. And then they need to use the data: as Bright Vale’s principal explained, “It’s the dialogue, not the data”.

This is easy to say, but hard to do in practice. In preparing my 2015 Grattan Institute report Targeted Teaching, I spoke to many schools that were trying to use data better, but I did not find a single school that had nailed the process without outside help.

So what was different about Bright Vale? How had it managed to change so much from four years earlier? The answer lay in part in the school’s own efforts, but even more in the support it had received. A NSW department program called Early Action for Success had provided better tools to assess learning, more time for teachers to collaborate, and access to an expert instructional leader to show how use of small data could improve teaching.

The other teachers liked what they saw of Kate, Naomi and Natalie’s new, more systematic approach, and the principal rolled the model out across the whole school. Rather than telling Bright Vale exactly what to do, the education system had created an environment where the school would improve by adaptive, local decision-making.

Bright Vale is no fluke. Early Action for Success has been implemented in more than 400 NSW primary schools. Principals have broadened the program in more than 70 per cent of schools, and a recent evaluation confirms that teaching practices are changing for the better.

My visit to Bright Vale got me thinking. If rigorous use of data can help teachers in a deeply disadvantaged school decide which practices to keep, which to stop, and which to start, could we embed this approach across all schools in Australia? Could we embed adaptive improvement in all schools? Because Australia has many bright spots, many Bright Vales. And we have many local examples of continuous improvement. But we do not have an adaptive education system that systematically identifies and spreads excellence.

Adaptation is an evolutionary process, selecting what works best and culling what doesn’t. But while it is automatic in biology – Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ – adaptation takes conscious effort in education.

The goal is not for all teachers to use exactly the same teaching methods. Teachers are responsible for how they teach their students (informed by the research), and for adapting their teaching over time to maximise impact. This is an inherently local process. The point is that it should not be done independently in every classroom. If each teacher or school tried to evolve and improve in isolation, we would never achieve the gains needed, because there would be no systemic learning or adoption of best practice.

The same logic holds true at higher levels of the education system: networks, dioceses, regions and states. At each level, the key to being adaptive is not more innovation, but better selection of what works best. This means an explicit focus on inputs (what is done), an equal focus on outcomes (what is measured), and a systematic learning process to decide what to do differently next time.

So let’s cut to the chase: here are four ways Australia can make its education system more adaptive.

First, teachers and schools must be better able to track the progress of their students over time in ways that directly inform their teaching. Naomi and Natalie increased their focus on classroom routines because their data showed that Kate’s students were learning faster.

Second, we need better ways to capture and spread evidence about best practices. Too often, schools waste time reinventing the wheel, rather than adapting pre-existing approaches to their local context.

Third, Australia should make better use of its most expert teachers, using them to teach other teachers and spread the word about what works best in the classroom. A key to Bright Vale’s success was its instructional leader, whose day job was to equip Kate and her colleagues with the skills they needed to be more rigorous and adaptive in their teaching.

Fourth, teachers and school leaders should embrace the benefits that come from standardising elements of teaching practice, including common assessments, and common language around learning progress. Standardising practice in core academic areas also creates more space to systematically innovate where the evidence isn’t strong, including how to help young Australians develop broader skills for a changing world.

Here’s the bottom line: To make these changes, education policy makers need a new model of system leadership. Australia won’t achieve excellence in school education unless policy makers give practical support to teachers like Kate, Naomi and Natalie to help them rigorously adapt and improve their practices. It would be worth it: an adaptive education system would build professional responsibility, and ultimately transform all our schools.

* Names have been changed