Under Part 28 of the Education Act 1989 the Chief Review Officer has the power to administer reviews either general or relating to particular matters, of the performance of applicable (pre-tertiary) organisations in relation to the applicable services they provide, and prepare reports on the undertaking and results of such reviews.
An exemplar report may be produced when ERO finds an organisation demonstrates effective practice in relation to specific aspects of performance.
ERO reviewed East Taieri School to investigate the teaching approaches and strategies that have led to a significant increase in the number of students at or above standards in the upper primary school years (Years 5 to 8). We wanted to learn more about any short-term interventions or long-term strategies that the school had implemented which may have been influential in bringing about these positive achievement trajectories.
East Taieri School was selected from a database of 129 schools, with rolls over 200. The school was chosen because increased numbers of students were achieving at or above standards as they moved through Year 4 to Year 5. The school’s achievement levels were also higher than the average for their decile.
Before the review, we sent the school a set of discussion points and questions for leaders to consider. We asked leaders what they saw as the reasons for their positive achievement trajectory. We then looked for evidence of the approaches and strategies used, and the outcomes, by:
National data shows that while many New Zealand children make good progress during their first three to four years at primary school the rate of progress slows during Years 5 to 8.
Like the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) before it, the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) has found that many more Year 4 than Year 8 students are achieving at the expected curriculum level. Its 2013 report on mathematics and statistics found that 81 percent of Year 4 students were achieving at or above the expected level (Level 2) while only 41 percent of Year 8 students were achieving at or above the expected level (Level 4). Its 2012 report on writing found that 65 percent of Year 4 students were achieving at or above the expected level compared to only 35 percent of Year 8 students. The results for writing were very similar regardless of gender, ethnicity, decile and school type. asTTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and learning) data from schools using e-asTTle reveals a similar trend.
International assessment studies confirm a decline in the rate of progress in the upper primary school years and show that this pattern continues into secondary school. According to recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, the reading achievement of our 15 year olds is on a steady decline and New Zealand is one of very few countries in which the mathematics and science achievement of 15 year olds is on a trajectory of accelerated decline. PISA data also shows that within the same school, young people can experience widely divergent opportunities to learn. This within-school inequality is amongst the highest across the countries that participate in PISA assessments.
East Taieri Schoolin Mosgiel has a roll of around 300 children in Years 1 to 6. Most are Pākehā/European; approximately one-tenth are Māori.
The number of children achieving success rises as children move into the upper primary school. In reading and writing, about 60 percent of children achieve at or above the expected levels in Year 1, while around 90 percent reach or exceed the expected levels by Year 6. Leaders explained the positive trajectories occurred as they focused on:
In this narrative, we look specifically at how the school has gone about increasing learner agency.
The initial inquiry
“At East Taieri School learner agency is about using pedagogical approaches that enable students to take change of their own learning. A positive and structured environment is created to enable students to develop the skills and attitudes to become active learners. Through choice, reflection, goal setting and assessments, learners will be empowered to take ownership of their own learning.” School statement
The leaders of the middle and senior syndicates were participants in theNational Aspiring Principals’ Programme. During a weekend course, they heard leaders from another school talk about their collaborative teaching and learner agency practices. Subsequently the leadership team (and later, other staff) visited the school and saw some of the practices in action. As part of their involvement in the programme, the two syndicate leaders then initiated a joint leadership inquiry in which they sought to further their understanding of collaborative teaching and learner agency.
The school already had a culture of continuous improvement. Teachers had high expectations of themselves. They continually looked for ways to make a difference for their learners. They willingly helped each other and shared strategies they were using with children who needed extra support. They enjoyed opportunities to inquire into areas they were passionate about and would share their findings with others. Through honest and open conversations in syndicates and staff meetings, they acknowledged each other’s efforts, while at the same time, scrutinising them to evaluate their impact on student outcomes. A natural next step was to develop collaborative teaching practices that would support the implementation of new teaching and learning strategies.
The changes were led by the two syndicate leaders. Their inquiry gave them the opportunity to research further the relationship between learner agency and improved student outcomes, and to consider how they could lead implementation of new practices. They found Julia Aitken helped clarify their thinking about the ‘why’ of change whileSimon Sinekgave them ideas on how they could enlist the cooperation of their colleagues to bring about far-reaching change.
Recognising experience and knowledge were prerequisites for significant change, the syndicate leaders decided they would start with teachers who were keen to be involved. There were four in this category, plus a fifth who wanted to limit their commitment to the reading programme.
Leaders and teachers identified that, to have agency, students must understand the learning progressions, be able to recognise what they have mastered, and know what to do next. So they broke the curriculum into bite-sized portions and progressions and then introduced ‘learning pathways’ for use in reading, writing and mathematics.
Using the pathways, the children identified and then highlighted in yellow what they had already accomplished, in purple the steps for which they had proof of capability and in green their next steps.
Teachers and leaders also examined their own assessment beliefs and practices to make sure they supported learner agency. They identified the following as key principles:
Following the introduction of this more collaborative approach to assessment, the children became familiar with and understood the learning progressions, and they used them with some confidence to develop goals. Children also reviewed how they were going with theKey Competenciesand set goals in relation to them. They spoke knowledgably about the ‘testing’ they did ‘to see where we are’.
“There are different types of assessments. Snapshots tell teachers where we are; they are about strategies we know. Snapshot tests are also used to find out how we are coping with a new strategy. After a test we go into our guidebooks and put in our goals for maths, writing and reading. After every knowledge test our goals change and we highlight more in our learning pathways. Our goals come from this pathway tracking.”
“PATs [Progressive Achievement Tests] are painful to do, but it’s good to see the results. We talk to the teacher about our results.”
“Our writing samples are ‘marked’ by teachers using a code and a ‘score’, e.g. 3B, which shows us where we are at. The teacher told us where we should be, e.g. 3A. She said to not to freak out – it tells her where we are at so she can push us along.”
Children in the middle and senior syndicates had assessments from earlier years in their learning journals (portfolios) and could refer to these. These included exemplars with teacher feedback as well asPATsand other diagnostic tests. The extensive use of Google Docs ensured that each child’s achievement and progress was visible and could be discussed, analysed and monitored by the class teacher, in syndicate meetings, and by leaders.
The learning journals were also extensively used by the students and their parents.
“We have two to three years of learning in our learning journals now. We can look back and see how we are going. We use them in our reports and three-way interviews. We are in charge of them.”
“I can look to see what I’ve done. I noticed I had been two years on the same stage. In the third year I moved up to the next level because I tried. I tried a new strategy because I was always getting the same score and was doing the same thing. Plus we had freedom to choose and have more control of our work, so that helped.”
“Our learning journals help us make decisions about our own learning. We can go back and see what we need to work on and we choose an activity to do this. The pathways let us know what we are strong at and what to work on.”
“Our journals help us doing reports with parents. Our parents work on things at home – things we are not good at. We take them home after our interview so we have more time to show them and talk about the things in them.”
“We have mentor buddies. They help us by talking with us about what we can do and help us decide our goals. We also role play parent interviews. Our buddies help us improve what we share.”
Classrooms displayed vibrant looking learner prompts and checklists to encourage independent learning and reflection.
Each week children monitored their progress and identified their next steps with the help of curriculum overviews. They were supported to take risks with their learning and were open to feedback that would improve their work.
Systems and processes, often formalised as in the example following, provided structure and support for independent learning. (Note the influence here of the Key Competencies.)
In classrooms, we saw children working independently, in small groups, and with the teacher. Children revised earlier learning, did lots of work in pairs, and quickly completed critiquing activities before beginning their own writing. The teachers worked collaboratively and seamlessly; when the one leading the activity needed to work with individual children, another would take the lead.
Joint planning and shared expectations gave teachers the confidence to move into shared teaching. We noted too, that teachers had a deep understanding of how to tap into each child’s interests and engage them. They used approaches that promoted inferential thinking, expanded comprehension, and highlighted connections across the curriculum.
Classrooms provided rich environments where children were able to learn where, how, and with whoever they wished. Children talked about the fun, creative activities they were involved in. They felt their teachers pitched their work at the right level. They particularly enjoyed using information technologies for research, e-ako maths, and contributing to their own website.
Monitoring and evaluation systems highlighted improvements, while cycles of inquiry were well embedded, sustaining and increasing student agency and wellbeing.
For any new development to succeed, leaders and teachers need to develop shared understandings about what is wanted or expected. In this case, they developed shared expectations about effective pedagogy and more detailed expectations for teaching reading, writing and mathematics. The following table lists some of their shared understandings about effective pedagogy.
The school’s organisational structures, processes and practices allowed two leaders to develop their interest in new teaching approaches. Collaborative learning and decision making made sure the new approaches were well known and were implemented for an increasing number of children.
It is vital all schools have organisational structures, processes and practices that enable and sustain collaborative learning and decision making and are designed to continuously improve student achievement.
Many schools are able to describe a wide variety of programmes and strategies they are implementing, yet often with little knowledge about which of these are contributing to improved achievement. It is just as important to know what is working as it is to know what the achievement issues are. Schools that focus deeply on a small number of areas or systematically practise teaching as inquiry are better able to identify approaches that warrant continuation or extension. They are also better able to monitor the impact of new strategies to determine whether and how effectively they are working to accelerate the progress of students who have been achieving below expectations.
In some schools, leaders assume – wrongly – that whatever is introduced as a consequence of PLD is then implemented as agreed and will work for the children. Others do regular classroom visits and observations, providing feedback and ongoing support for teachers. Through classroom observations and by talking to children, ERO has found that agreed strategies are sometimes not implemented, or that children are unaware of them or how they might benefit from them. Without ongoing monitoring, worthwhile strategies may be abandoned, not because they did not work, but because they were never properly implemented.
ERO recommends that school leaders continue their improvements and share with other schools their approaches related to:
ERO also recommends that school advisers and PLD providers share this exemplar with other schools to improve their performance.
Deputy Chief Executive Evaluation and Policy
On behalf of the Chief Executive/ Chief Review Officer
10 January 2019