When children struggle to keep up with classroom learning, it can spark a vicious cycle. Lack of understanding, frustration, and disengagement can set in, stymieing their future learning. Unless teachers intervene quickly to help children get back on track, what starts as a small crack in the foundation of learning can quickly widen, as academic demands increase.
Last year, about a quarter of Tasmania’s year 9 students performed either at or below Australia’s NAPLAN minimum standard in reading and numeracy. The most recent OECD international data paints an even more sobering picture, suggesting that about half of Tasmania’s 15-year-olds fall short of Australia’s proficiency benchmark in reading and maths.
Grattan Institute analysis shows that the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students more than doubles between year 3 and year 9.
In reading, for example, year 3 students in Tasmania whose parents did not finish school are already more than two years behind students whose parents have a university degree. By year 9, that gap grows to more than five years. In numeracy, the gap between the same groups of students grows from about one and a half years in year 3 to more than three years in year 9.
The good news is that the Tasmanian government has clearly committed to improving student outcomes. But there is a lot of work to do.
Grattan’s research points to two key strategies to boost performance.
First, boost the effectiveness of the daily classroom teaching and learning.
How? By ensuring all teachers are equipped with high-quality, comprehensive classroom lesson materials, and that all teachers get high-quality coaching.
Early years teachers should be equipped with an evidence-based toolkit to teach word decoding skills to beginning readers. But building strong literacy also requires teachers of all year levels to be better supported to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary in a wide range of subject areas, from history to science, and civics to the arts.
Unfortunately, Grattan’s research suggests most teachers around Australia are still not given enough support to access or prepare the types of detailed, quality-assured, and knowledge-rich curriculum materials they need to ensure students develop this broad knowledge. Governments need to act now to tackle this problem.
Lifting the effectiveness of daily classroom teaching would go a long way to lifting the performance of Tasmanian students. But there will always be some students who need additional support to keep up with their peers.
The second priority, therefore, should be to embed high-quality small-group tutoring into all Tasmanian schools, to help close the learning gap between struggling and high-achieving students.
Done well, small-group tutoring can add about four months of additional learning over a single year.
Tasmania should work with its state and territory counterparts to investigate the most effective small-group tutoring approaches to tackle underperformance. Working together, governments should establish quality research trials to help answer practical questions about how to make small-group tutoring as cost-effective as possible. The trials could tackle key questions like what are the best literacy and numeracy catch-up programs to help secondary students who have fallen through the cracks, and what are the cheapest ways to deliver high-quality tutoring, so it can reach more students given tight school budgets.
High-quality research trials like this would be relatively cheap. Grattan Institute calculates that investing about $10m nationally would make a great start, so that in five years, governments could be confident that best-practice small-group tutoring is established in every school, at an affordable cost.
The social benefits of tackling the learning gap are obvious: it can change children’s lives.
The economic benefits are also significant: we calculate that if one-in-five students across Australia received high-quality small-group tuition in 2023, they could collectively earn an extra $6bn over their lifetimes – about six times the annual cost of tutoring programs at the national level.
The next National School Reform Agreement, now being negotiated between the federal, state, and territory governments, provides a powerful opportunity to commit to tackling underachievement in all Australian schools.
Boosting access to high-quality curriculum materials and small-group tutoring are two of the most powerful tools in the toolkit, and ones that Tasmania should use.
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