Published by The Australian, Monday 27 July
On a wintry Monday morning, Mrs Cereno explains to her Year 8 maths class how to use ratios to solve a problem about mixing cordial for a picnic. Yet half her class is more interested in the pattern of raindrops on the window than her heroic efforts to reveal the hidden power of mathematics.
She knows many of her students will flunk next week’s test. Some of them still haven’t grasped basic fractions and multiplication — primary school concepts. But she doesn’t have time to go back to the very beginning and teach it all over again. At the same time she’s worried about the handful of students who will ace the test. They look bored stiff.
In schools across Australia, this scene is all too common. In any given year level, there is a five to six-year difference between the most advanced and the least advanced 10 per cent of students. In some subjects, the gap might even be larger. RMIT University researcher Dianne Siemon has found a six to eight-year gap in middle-school maths classes. The achievement gap in literacy is similar.
The huge spread of student achievement in the same year levels is one of the biggest challenges facing teachers and the school system. The Grattan Institute’s new report, Targeted Teaching: How Better Use of Data Can Improve Student Learning, explores what can be done about it.
For many children, the spread means they fall further behind as they miss the building blocks needed for later years. Meanwhile, higher achieving children are not stretched, and many of them also fail to reach their potential.
It is not a uniquely Australian problem, yet many other comparable countries have found better ways of addressing it. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment tests show one in five Australian 15-year-olds falls short of the minimum standard in mathematics, compared with only 9 per cent in the world’s top five education systems. Australia is also failing its strongest students: only 15 per cent reach the highest levels of proficiency, compared with 40 per cent in the top systems. In reading and science, we also trail the best.
What can be done? Educators and teachers have known for decades that students learn most when teaching is targeted to what they are ready to learn next. If the material is too easy, students can become bored and disengage. If it is too hard, students flounder and may choose to misbehave or give up. In either case, little is learned. But target teaching to what the student is ready to learn next and powerful progress can be made.
It sounds straightforward. But in many Australian classrooms it’s not happening. Instead, teaching is often focused on delivering the same instruction based on the year level curriculum to all students in a class, even though we know students are at very different points in their learning.
Some schools try to reduce the spread by streaming students or holding some back. But the research is clear that these approaches don’t solve the problem. Instead, we need to tackle it head-on. If we want to maximise the learning progress of every student, teachers must be trained and equipped to focus single-mindedly on targeting their teaching to each student.
Targeted teaching requires robust data from a range of sources to build a detailed picture of student learning. Data in the school context means everything from student test results, essays and projects to teachers’ observations of students working in the classroom. Without good data, it’s impossible to know what a student is ready to learn, let alone track their progress over time.
This doesn’t mean teachers have to perform complex statistical analyses for which they are not trained. It means they must investigate rigorously what each student knows and what is holding them back. It means understanding what is working well in class and what needs to change. It means close collaboration with other teachers, sharing their observations and the evidence they have gathered, and asking for help to get a student who is stuck moving again.
The best schools already do this. But for most, targeted teaching requires a significant cultural change.
Governments also need to step up to the plate. If they are serious about improving learning, they must equip teachers and school leaders with the time, tools and training they need to make targeted teaching a reality in every classroom.
NSW’s Early Action for Success program in disadvantaged primary schools shows how government investment can support teachers to use data to improve every student’s learning. Unfortunately, this kind of guidance and support is far from the norm. Education should be based on an expectation that every child will make at least a year’s progress for every year of school, regardless of where they start out.
How will we know when we have achieved this vision? When students are asked, “How did school go this term?” we want them to say, “It was great. The teachers understood what I could already do, and we set a goal for what I needed to learn. They gave me work that was challenging but not too hard; and when I showed I had learned it, we both celebrated.” In some schools this dream is becoming a reality. The task is to make it so for every child.