To ensure every student achieves success our schooling system must provide high quality learning opportunities to meet the educational needs of all young New Zealanders. Schools are required to set targets and plan strategically, to focus their actions, and ensure they make a difference for any students at risk of not achieving. To reduce identified achievement gaps, leaders and teachers must also know whether their planned actions are having the desired effect on the students that need to make the most progress.

In this evaluation the Education Review Office (ERO) investigated the extent that targeted actions of schools supported the rate of progress of students who were at risk of not achieving. ERO did this to understand:

  • how setting and responding to annual targets helped schools make a difference for selected students and reduced the gap in student achievement
  • how actions in setting targets for selected students improved teaching practice
  • how strategic and evaluative capability 1 of leaders in participating schools was applied in the school improvement process. 2

ERO’s evaluation focused on the 2014 targeted actions of schools and their outcomes for learners, and 2015 targets and plans. The evaluation included 41 secondary schools (representing a total roll of 32,874 students) and 310 primary schools (representing a total roll of 59,871 students) reviewed in Terms 1 and 2, 2015.

ERO found that many schools had a focus on underachievement when setting targets. However, schools were less effective in taking actions to raise achievement. Two key conditions were required for effective target setting in successful schools. These were having:

  • optimum challenge in the targets, to ‘stretch’ expectations for success
  • maximum visibility of targets, so that those needing to take actions (trustees, leaders, teachers, students, parents and whānau) shared responsibility.

Some of the most successful schools (especially primary schools) set targets for fewer students than the less successful schools. They had a clear understanding of who the students were that they needed to target actions to accelerate progress for and were able to monitor their actions to determine if they resulted in positive actions for them.

Successful schools had a range of other conditions or practices that contributed to their success in accelerating achievement. The most important of these were: 

  • their explicit moral commitment to excellence and equity when framing targets and taking action for selective students, to close the achievement gap between them and other learners
  • the quality of their leadership at multiple levels when planning actions
  • the quality of their teamwork and professional learning conversations when taking actions
  • their successful application of professional capabilities to build school capacity for sustaining improvement in future.

In the less successful schools targets were often more generalised, without clearly identifying the students that teachers needed to focus on. As a result, there was less coherence in the actions that teachers used to respond to at-risk students’ needs and interests. Individual teachers may have been taking actions to raise the achievement for selected students, but these actions were not coordinated across the school.

There were two key qualities that distinguished the actions of the more successful schools in raising student achievement from the less successful. These were coherence and alignment:

  • coherence meant plans made sense to those implementing them in practice
  • alignment meant the actions of a range of people had a common purpose.

School leaders played a significant role in creating both coherence and alignment in successful schools. Their ability to influence teaching practice, the school culture and its central values lifted outcomes for students. Leaders effectively managed a series of cyclic school processes and action-planning conversations that meant everyone from the board to the parents, whānau and students knew their role in raising achievement. Some key features of the cyclic processes (top half of Figure 1) and action-planning conversations (bottom half of Figure 1) that created both coherence and alignment of targeted actions are outlined in Figure 1.

This image shows a large circle with the outer ring showing the four pou which are Whanaungatanga, Manaakitanga, Ako and Mahi Tahi. The inside circle is divided into 5 coloumns and they are from left to right: 1 Evaluation inquiry and knowledge building for improvement and innovation. 2 Stewardship internal evaluaiton. 3 Leadership of conditions for equity and excellence Inquiry and knowledge building cycles. 4 Professional capability and collective capcity and 5 Responsive curriculumn effective teaching and opportunity to learn.

Figure 1:Creating coherence and alignment by targeting in successful schools