The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that New Zealand Year 5 students, although above the international mean, were ranked significantly lower than the means for 20 other countries for achievement in reading. Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMMS) results show that mathematics results for Year 5 students were lower than the means of 29 countries and the international mean. For both literacy and mathematics Māori and Pacific students mean scores were considerably lower than New Zealand students as a whole. This placed the mean for Māori and Pacific students below the international mean for reading and mathematics.

ERO recognises that New Zealand’s overall results can be improved by schools reviewing and developing the practices and processes they are using to accelerate priority learners’ progress. In this report, priority learners refers to Māori and Pacific students who are not achieving success fully at school; students with special learning needs; and students from low income communities, who are below or well below the literacy and mathematics National Standards.

The Government has a goal to increase the number of students achieving NCEA Level 2 qualifications. In recognising that primary schools have a role in this improvement, the Ministry also set a goal to increase the proportion of learners achieving at or above the literacy and numeracy standards. Students need good literacy and numeracy skills to participate and stay engaged in learning across the whole curriculum. The focus is on improving outcomes for key priority groups by accelerating their progress. Progress is considered to be accelerated when a student moves from well below to below, at, or above the National Standard, or when the student moves from below the National Standard to at or above. This means that these students need to make more than one year’s progress in a year in order to achieve at the expected level of acceleration.

ERO’s report Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a Responsive Curriculum (February 2013) identified that trustees, leaders and teachers need to know more about:

  • the progress and achievement of all learners
  • the identification of learning priorities and priority learners
  • their capability to bridge the gaps through a responsive curriculum and associated teaching strategies
  • and the impact of change for learners.[2]

The findings of the ERO mathematics report reflect the findings of other recent ERO evaluations[3] on the need to extend the range and extent of effective practice in classrooms.

Effective leaders ensure that the school is responsive to groups that have historically not been well-served by the education system, in particular Māori and Pacific learners. Leaders build cohesive teams who support each other to implement strategies to use in classrooms to accelerate the progress of individual students. This collaboration requires strong levels of commitment across the school from boards, leaders and teachers.

Successful teachers create contexts for learning where students see that they can safely bring what they know and who they are into the learning relationship. When a school’s curriculum fails to connect learners with their wider lives it can limit their opportunities to respond to a particular context, or to engage with and understand the material they are expected to learn.[4]

As identified in earlier ERO reports, effective teachers recognise the cultural resource that Māori and Pacific students bring to the school. They understand the importance of valuing and responding to students’ identity, language and culture. Teachers then provide opportunities for these students to share aspects of their culture with others and use this to build the students’ confidence to succeed across the curriculum. This does not mean focusing only on the iconic aspects of culture, but understanding and responding to students’ personal culture and learning experiences.

The Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) has developed a framework to help leaders and teachers use an approach to teaching and learning that is responsive to the diverse abilities and aspirations of their learners. This framework implies that each school’s curriculum is responsive to all students and that some change may be necessary in how the curriculum is designed to ensure that learning tasks, activities and experiences improve outcomes for all of their students.

The BES indicates the following key aspects of high quality practices that were part of ERO’s focus in this report:

  • The school maintains an ‘unrelenting focus on student achievement and learning’
  • Whole school alignment is around evidence-based practices
  • Teaching is responsive to students’ learning processes
  • The relevance of the learning is transparent to students with links made to their daily lives
  • Teaching builds on students’ prior experiences and knowledge
  • Tasks and classroom interactions help students understand each incremental step they need to make progress
  • Students receive specific, frequent and positive feedback
  • Students have a strong sense of involvement in the process of setting specific learning goals
  • Effective school-home partnership practices are focused on student learning
  • Teachers collaboratively reflect on practice to improve teaching.

This ERO evaluation took place during the second year that schools were using the National Standards as part of their annual planning and reporting. In 2011 schools were expected to set charter achievement targets. Outcomes related to their targets were reported as part of the school’s annual report to their communities in 2012. In 2012 schools set new targets in relation to the National Standards. Schools should be using their data to determine students’ progress and the impact of the strategies used in the previous year.

This report on priority learners focuses on:

  • what schools know about priority learners’ achievement
  • the impact of schools’ actions on accelerating the students’ progress
  • the actions that boards, leaders and teachers have taken to accelerate the progress of these students
  • how the schools’ targets and other planning and reporting processes are working for these learners
  • the extent to which boards, leaders and teachers were working collaboratively to accelerate the progress of priority groups.

As part of this evaluation ERO investigated links from the school’s charter targets to teacher and leader appraisal. Findings about the appraisal links are in ERO’s report, Board Employment Responsibilities: Linking Charter Targets to Appraisal in Primary Schools (February 2013).