Identifying priority learners

Few schools in this evaluation could show accelerated progress for Māori students that were below the standards. The progress highlighted was not always an outcome of any specific targeted strategy. Few schools were able to show accelerated progress for Pacific students that were below the standards. This was also the case for schools with large numbers of Pacific students.

While different ethnicities were recognised, little was done to show that their identity language and culture was valued and responded to. As schools develop their curriculum they should take into account the cultures, language, interests and potential of all their students. Māori and Pacific students below the standards were often subsumed into the more general group of under-achieving students, with no recognition of their particular identity, and no implementation of strategies likely to build on their cultural capital and promote success.

Effective self review involves leaders looking across their data to find reoccurring skills or concepts with which their students are having difficulty. This involves more than knowing how many students are achieving below a standard. Leaders need more fine-grain information about what concepts or skills the students are most commonly finding difficult to master. The highly effective schools then use data about reoccurring achievement challenges to develop a collective response from the board, leaders and teachers. The information is used to make decisions about:

  • the provision of, and funding for, professional development which teachers need
  • short term additional programmes for individuals or groups of students
  • how to involve their families and whānau in their learning.

The PIRLs data shows achievement disparities for Māori and Pacific students are evident in many schools across New Zealand. This suggests that in most schools some teachers may have a range of effective teaching practices to increase priority learners’ progress and others will not be as confident with different teaching approaches.

Leaders play a key role in helping teachers own the responsibility for reducing achievement disparities in their classrooms and across the school. Leaders can identify the professional development which individual teachers require through observing teaching practice and their careful analysis of achievement data. Highly effective leaders also use achievement information to recognise the teachers who are making the most difference for priority learners and enable them to share their successful practices with other teachers in the school.

Three Ministry of Education strategies emphasise the importance of the family and whānau in raising achievement for priority learners.

Ka Hikitia: The Māori Education Strategy 2008 – 2012 has a vision for Māori to enjoy and achieve education success as Māori. Ka Hikitia highlights the critical role parents, whānau and iwi play in supporting the learning of their tamariki and rangatahi. The strategy stresses that ‘while high quality teaching has the biggest influence on Māori student success, learning is more effective when whānau and iwi are valued partners in the learning process and when educators, whānau and iwi are open to learning from and with one another’.

Similarly, the Pasifika Education Plan 2013 – 2017 has a focus on ‘more informed and demanding parents, families and communities supporting and championing their children’s learning and achievements’.

The Success for All strategy has a vision to create a fully inclusive education system. An aim of the policy is to have confident parents that know they are partners in their child’s education. Parents of children with special needs should see themselves as an important member of the multi-agency team that supports their child at school and at home.

Communities play a vital role in raising achievement for priority learners. ERO’s report Partners in Learning: Schools' Engagement with Parents, Whānau and Communities (May 2008) outlines how highly effective schools do not work in isolation - they work with their communities sharing information about achievement and valuing the expertise and contribution parents and whānau bring with their child.

Schools can really engage their communities when leaders and teachers are clear about what their students need to master to be successful. ERO’s report Partners in Learning: Parents’ Voices (September 2008) explains the importance of schools having a shared understanding about what each party can expect of each other. One parent’s comments highlight the benefits for her child when a school creates an environment where whānau and the school work together:

“I need to know exactly what is happening, which initiatives are available and the information that supports my child. When this happens there is a positive impact on my engagement with the school and with my child’s learning.” Māori parent

Developing community and school-wide approaches to accelerating progress for students achieving below the standards enables everyone to take a shared role in improving achievement. Māori and Pacific families in the community can only play a full part in contributing to improvements when they have a shared understanding about the most important things that should be done at home or at school to improve their child’s success.

ERO found that few schools were successfully engaging their communities in developing, implementing and reviewing school and community-wide strategies that could further improve outcomes for priority learners. Approximately 18 percent of the schools identified Māori students that were achieving below the standards as a group they should focus on, and 12 percent had seen that they should develop strategies for Pacific student target groups. However, even these schools were less likely to develop specific strategies to meet the students’ particular needs. Just a few schools had taken some specific steps to improve outcomes for these groups.

Here is an example of a school where everyone had worked together to improve outcomes for a group of priority learners:

Analysis of achievement information helped leaders to recognise the need to develop systems to engage, excite and nurture Māori learners and boys. They developed a formal Māori education plan to promote Māori student success as Māori. This plan is aligned to the strategic plan, professional learning and development, and performance management systems.

Achievement data is used to set specific targets for individuals and groups. Regular syndicate and staff meetings focus on analysing data. Teachers have accessed external professional support to improve writing programmes and the school’s curriculum design and strategic planning. The board and leaders set up a ‘change team’, which includes leaders, teachers and trustees to monitor the progress of targeted students. Staff held parents’ workshops to build home-school partnerships in learning.

As a result of these actions priority learners have shown accelerated progress in reading, writing and, to some extent, mathematics.

(A low decile, medium-size contributing primary school)

School-wide approaches for priority learners

In schools with a whole-school approach the trustees, principal and teachers share high expectations for accelerating student progress. Trustees seek a high degree of accountability for themselves, leaders and teachers throughout the cycle and expect regular reporting and review from the principal. Teachers are supported by the principal and board to develop and widen their range of strategies and teaching skills that accelerate student achievement. Highly informative student achievement data is used to identify students’ needs and monitor their progress.

Figure 2 illustrates the key components of a whole-school approach to addressing the needs of priority learners, resulting in ‘an unrelenting focus on student achievement and learning’.

Figure 2: Effective teamwork [7]

Figure 2 shows a four boxes surrounding a central box which reads An unrelenting focus on student achievement and learning. The four boxes are clockwise from the top right, Strong leadership - ensures whole school alignment and coherence across policies and practices that focus on resource and support quality teaching. Teachers - teaching is focused on student achievement and facilitates high standards of student outcomes. Trustees - Board decision-making focuses on improving student outcomes and monitoring progress towards achieving goals. High Quality Achievement Information - Information about what students need to know and do is used to identify what teachers need to know and do.

ERO found that while many teachers and leaders recognised the need to accelerate the progress of priority learners, only 23 percent of schools were employing effective practices across the school to achieve this. A further 62 percent were taking some deliberate actions in an attempt to accelerate the progress of priority learners. However, the extent and effectiveness of their actions varied considerably across the school. Eleven percent of schools had few effective strategies to catch students up. These findings (shown in Figure 3) indicate a need for ongoing development of teachers’ understanding of how to respond to and increase the progress of students who are not achieving well.

Figure 3: Evidence of school-wide practice accelerating progress of priority learners

Figure 2 is a bar graph called evidence of effective practice schools in accelerating progress of priority learners.  The x-axis is ranged from 0-80 at intervals of 20. The y-axis is lavelled from left to right as Many highly effective practices (for which the percentage is 21%), Some effective practices (63%), Ineffective practices (12%) and not using National standards (4%).

Schools with highly effective practices school wide

The schools with the highly effective practices had a cohesive approach involving boards, leaders and teachers. Principals, in particular, had a pivotal role in communicating a clear vision to trustees and staff that all students were able to succeed. These principals shared with trustees and staff their understanding of what constitutes accelerated progress. They had high and explicit expectations for student achievement. They kept the school community well-informed about charter targets and their actions and progress towards meeting them.

The principal was key in creating a team that worked cooperatively for the benefit of priority learners. The leaders and teaching team collaboratively identified students requiring extra support, with the principal respecting and using the classroom teachers’ knowledge of students’ specific needs and related strengths. Leaders, in partnership with teachers and trustees, set relevant targets for all groups of priority learners. They developed action plans to achieve these targets and required teachers to develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students highlighted in the charter targets. They kept the board well-informed of all aspects of this process through timely sharing of well-analysed assessment data.

Teachers collaboratively planned strategies and reviewed progress, using an approach that enabled them to share their knowledge and skills. Parents and whānau were involved in the teaching and learning process. Teachers worked in partnership with students and parents when setting individual student’s learning goals. Teachers discussed strategies for families and whānau to use at home to increase their child’s learning and success.

In the following three examples, actions across the school and community focus on raising achievement for students at risk of not achieving.

There is a reflective culture across the school. School leaders constantly work with teachers to consider how effectively their programmes are meeting the needs of students. Leaders share information about student achievement with parents, including information about the school’s charter targets. Leaders and teachers have discussed the Ka Hikitia strategy as part of increasing their understanding of ways they can support Māori students to reach their potential. Leaders effectively use achievement data to identify groups of students at risk of not achieving the National Standards. Leaders identify the school target group and teachers identify their corresponding class target group. Senior leaders effectively monitor the programmes set for meeting the needs of targeted groups of student, providing collegial support for staff as required.

(A medium decile, mid-size contributing primary school)

The school has excellent school-wide systems in place to track how well learners that are included in the school’s target are progressing. Teachers are guided to focus on student achievement, particularly concentrating on the achievement of any student who is underachieving. Students included in targets have a differentiated programme in each class with clear goals for achievement documented and agreed. Teachers meet in professional learning groups to look at the achievement of students. These learning groups report outcomes to the board. The principal gives teachers regular, pertinent feedback about their actions for these students as part of the appraisal system. The appraisal feedback is well received and followed through. School leaders continually articulate the belief that all their students can and will achieve.

(A low decile, mid-size contributing primary school) 

The principal and senior leaders are focused on developing processes and practices that contribute to accelerating the progress of priority learners. Teachers are fully involved in making decisions about identifying students to include in charter targets along with other students that are at risk of not achieving. Teachers’ action plans contain specific, targeted, teaching strategies they will use with priority learners. There are clear expectations for teachers to regularly reflect on the impact of these strategies on student learning. The principal provides tailored workshops for target students. Parents are regularly informed of their child’s progress and how they can further support the child’s learning. Teachers and leaders discuss the progress and achievement of targeted students at staff meetings. The performance management system includes clear expectations for teachers to ensure priority learners are to the forefront when planning and reviewing class teaching programmes.

(A low decile, mid-size contributing primary school)

Schools with some effective practices

Around two-thirds of schools had some good processes in place to support learners achieving below the National Standards. However, these schools did not have sufficient interventions or teaching strategies to catch up students. Teaching as inquiry practices were not strongly embedded. Although most teachers had some useful information about the achievement and progress of individual students, they were not confident in making judgements about how their students were achieving in relation to the National Standards, or how to specifically teach the concepts they needed to master next.

A more limited range of interventions and teaching strategies were apparent in these schools. Students were less likely to be actively involved in setting goals for their learning. Teacher aide support was not so closely monitored by the teacher, and cross grouping across classes or grouping students by reading age was a frequent strategy used to cater for student individual learning needs. Research highlights that these strategies are not likely to increase students’ self-belief as a learner or ensure they are specifically taught the concept they need to master. Such approaches can limit students’ opportunity to catch up with their peers.

While meeting the needs of students was a focus across these schools, processes were more fragmented. Teachers across the school lacked shared expectations for high student achievement or understanding of what constitutes accelerated progress. Charter targets were broad with an emphasis on increasing the percentage of students achieving at the standard without identifying year, gender, ethnic groups or specific concepts or skills to specifically focus on, Teacher and board involvement in the setting of targets was limited. This approach reduced teachers’ and trustees’ understanding of how to respond to the targets.

These schools lacked robust self review to enable them to check if their strategies, professional development or interventions were having the desired impacts for the students that most needed to progress. Achievement information was often not aggregated, disaggregated and analysed to give teachers, leaders and trustees the bigger picture of progress across the school or for groups of interest. Approximately 60 percent of the schools in this group did not know whether they had been effective in accelerating student progress. For about 25 percent of these schools this was because they did not, as yet, have sufficient, school-wide, baseline data to measure actual progress. The remainder had not considered the impact of their initiatives.

Schools with limited effective practices

Twelve percent of schools (21 schools) had few processes or practices to accelerate learning for students below the National Standards. They were making few efforts to catch up learners who were behind. Leaders and teachers did not analyse the impact of particular teaching strategies on students and did not know whether they were effective in accelerating students.

ERO found issues with the validity, reliability and sufficiency of assessment information in these schools. Assessment tools used were sometimes inappropriate and provided little use for building teachers’ confidence in making and moderating judgement about students’ achievement in relation to the National Standards. In these schools many teachers did not plan effectively to build on the strengths and meet the specific needs of students. Little collegial sharing of ideas occurred as teachers did not regularly engage in structured reflective practices as part of a teaching as inquiry cycle. They lacked confidence in their ability to accelerate students’ progress and had little understanding of strategies they could use to do this.

Teaching and learning for priority groups was more likely to be ‘business as usual’, with teachers believing that more intensive use of strategies that had been unsuccessful to date would make a difference to student progress. They relied on such strategies as whole-class teaching, cross grouping, commercially produced programmes, or having the students work with a teacher aide who was sometimes poorly supervised. Teachers rarely used deliberate acts of teaching to focus on the specific skill or knowledge the individual or group of students needed to learn.

Sometimes a lack of ownership of the responsibility for accelerating the progress for these students was evident in classrooms where teachers relied heavily on the out-of-class ‘expert’, such as the SENCO, learning support teacher or even the teacher aide. Students and parents were not engaged in planning or supporting the students’ next learning steps.

Leaders in these schools provided few expectations about how staff should assist priority learners to catch up. Teacher practice and student progress were not well monitored. A lack of agreed school-wide teaching and learning expectations resulted in considerable inconsistency and variability in teachers’ approaches. These leaders had not drawn together a cohesive team of the principal, board, teachers and parents to support these students.

Trustees in these schools should have required more frequent and higher quality achievement information reports from the principal. They lacked an understanding that they could request this or use data for decision-making. Trustees didn’t ask questions about the data they did receive or fully understand the senior leaders’ recommendations.

Charter targets focused on increasing the number of children meeting the standards and were not specifically related to priority learners. The targets lacked specific details, making it difficult to measure and monitor progress towards meeting them. Trustees and teachers had usually had little involvement in developing school targets. The school’s community was not informed about targets or involved in contributing to solutions or improvements for priority learners.

Schools not using National Standards

Seven schools in this evaluation were not using the National Standards to measure students’ achievement and progress. In these schools ERO investigated the extent to which trustees, leaders and teachers were working together to accelerate the progress of priority learners. ERO evaluated the impact of their approaches as indicated by any achievement data the schools might have and use.

Three of these schools identified and targeted priority learners. Some tracking of these students’ progress over time provided evidence that some students made accelerated progress. While one school appeared to have highly effective processes for accelerating students’ learning, it was not possible to measure these students’ performance in relation to the standards.

The other four schools lacked reliable and valid, school-wide student achievement data so it was not possible to identify whether students were making progress.