The Education Review Office’s (ERO) report Raising achievement in primary schools[1] found that involvement in Accelerating Learning in Mathematics (ALiM) or Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL)[2]triggered some schools to do something different to accelerate progress for students underachieving. The Ministry of Education (Ministry) asked ERO to explore this finding further.

Of the primary schools reviewed in Terms 2 and 3 2013, 93 had been involved in the Ministry‑funded ALiM or ALLbetween 2010 and early 2013. In this report ERO investigates how well these schools were undertaking deliberate actions to increase the number of students ‘at’ or ‘above’ the National Standards for their year group. ERO has not evaluated ALiM or ALL. Instead we have reported school context to inform ALiM and ALL design and implementation.

ERO found that there were four distinct groups of schools:

  1. Strategic and successful schools
  2. Schools that had strategically trialled a new approach
  3. Schools aware of the need to accelerate progress
  4. Schools with little sense of urgency.

Just over half of the 93 schools in the sample had used deliberate actions to support students to accelerate progress and sustain achievement equivalent to their year group.[3] Teachers and leaders in these schools were implementing and closely evaluating the impact of well‑researched strategies to accelerate progress. Some of these effective schools were strategic and successful as they had a school-wide focus on underachievement. Others had strategically trialled a new approach which was now being embedded across the school. This is a similar finding that reported in Raising achievement in primary schools (the ‘main report’) except in this sample a greater proportion of schools had strategically trialled a new approach compared with those in the main report.

In contrast, the other half of schools were less effective as their response to underachievement did not necessarily lead to accelerated progress. Most of these schools (a far greater proportion in this report than the main report) were aware of the need to accelerate progress but did not know the long‑term impact of any initiative. A small group of schools appeared to have little sense of urgency even though most had high underachievement rates.

Schools that made a difference for students

ERO found that ALiM and ALL had influenced the classroom and supplementary support design and implementation by the strategic and successful schools. Close monitoring of learning and a quick and short-term response when progress was ‘flat‑lining’ were strongly emphasised. Students knew what they needed to learn, how they were progressing, and how they would get there. At the same time, teachers were focused on improving their practices by using structured and collaborative teaching as inquiry to plan for acceleration and review rates of progress.

Leaders in schools that had strategically trialled a new approach had systems so the whole school was benefitting from the trial. Some leaders had planned for this from the start, and others planned for school-wide improvement nearer the end of the ALiM and ALL initiative. The ALiM and ALL design features of a school‑based inquiry team, external mentoring and formal inquiry into the intensive instruction positively influenced these outcomes.

The greatest difference in response to underachievement was between the schools that had strategically trialled a new approach and those that were aware of the need to accelerate progress.

The leaders and teachers in the former group of schools had understood that supplementary support complements the curriculum teaching and learning for students. They also understood that the demands of the classroom curriculum determine the supplementary support. They knew that any inquiry into practice required a team approach and a disposition for change. Many teachers talked about the changes they had made in beliefs and practices and the positive impact this had on student outcomes. The practice of leaders and teachers in the latter group of schools did not reflect this understanding.

Schools less effective at sustaining progress for students

The schools that were aware of the need to accelerate progress had not taken full advantage of the ALiM and ALL design features. The mentors had not influenced school culture. The leaders and teachers had seen ALiM and ALL as only an intervention for a small group. Teachers lacked curriculum, progression and acceleration knowledge and leaders had limited organisational change knowledge. Leaders and teachers were unsure about how well they were going or what to do next at both the school and classroom levels. Teacher and leader knowledge could be deliberately built through intensive inquiries into progress and acceleration.

The small group of schools with little sense of urgency did not take advantage of ALiM and ALL and the mentors had not influenced school culture. Many leaders and teachers were overwhelmed by the high proportion of students underachieving at their school. They needed to design curricula that included descriptions of reading, writing and mathematical demands and descriptions of supplementary supports that complement classroom curriculum. Leaders needed to design systems with teachers for shared expectations and understandings about effective practice and student outcomes.

Information to support the Ministry’s decisions about school involvement in ALiM or ALL

The Ministry recognises that these initiatives, ALiM or ALL, may not be the right trigger to support all schools to do something different to accelerate progress for students underachieving. This is especially so for schools with very high rates of underachievement and low capability.

Before beginning an intervention in an individual school the Ministry should explore the information that is available, such as ERO’s Education Review reports, to determine whether there is capacity in the school for the initiative to benefit teachers and raise achievement for students.

Next steps

ERO recommends that the Ministry of Education:

  • design the ALiM and ALL inquiry’s refocus stage to reflect the urgency needed to:

- change the instruction for students whose achievement had not accelerated even though they were part of the focus group

- support another group of students to accelerate progress

- support other teachers to trial successful aspects.

  • support ALiM and ALL providers to ensure that at the outset of the focus on acceleration the school improvement plans include how leaders will transfer what they learn so more students benefit.
  • review a school’s initial response to ALiM or ALL when they apply for a second time to determine whether this initiative is the most appropriate support the Ministry can provide and to differentiate the response.

ERO recommends that AliM and ALL providers:

  • explore how to transfer the learning about accelerating progress to in‑depth and long‑term PLD so schools with very high underachievement and low capability would be better served.

ERO recommends that school leaders:

  • design and implement improvement plans that include both short-term tactical responses and long-term preventative responses to underachievement
  • ensure there is a shared understanding that an intensive inquiry into accelerating progress includes an expectation that all teachers will critique the effectiveness of their practice and make changes where necessary
  • appoint an inquiry team with the mandate to lead the focus on reviewing progress and acceleration, and improving school practices
  • ensure there is a shared understanding among teachers about expected progress and achievement by developing student profiles
  • ensure students, and their parents and whānau are invited to participate in the design and evaluation of all supplementary supports.

ERO recommends that boards of trustees:

  • seek detailed reports about student progress, acceleration and achievement
  • seek frequent and regular information about transfer and sustainability of successful initiatives.