ERO found that schools could be divided into four distinct groups based on the extent each school had undertaken deliberate actions that led to an increase in the number of students achieving at or above the national standards.

Effective schools that responded innovatively to underachievement

Twenty-nine percent of schools in the sample were strategic and successful in their deliberate actions to accelerate progress.

Twenty percent of schools had strategically trialled a new approachand successfully accelerated progress for the students involved.

Twenty-nine percent of schools in the sample were strategic and successful in their deliberate actions to accelerate progress.

Twenty percent of schools had strategically trialled a new approach and successfully accelerated progress for the students involved.

These two groups were effective as the schools responded innovatively to underachievement

Thirty-two percent of schools were aware of the need to accelerate progress and increase the number of students achieving at or above national standards but were not systematic in the practices used to respond to underachievement.

Nineteen percent of schools had little sense of urgency to accelerate progress and had a minimal increase in the number of students achieving at or above national standards.

These two groups were less effective as the schools responded with more-of-the-same to underachievement

The evaluation findings are structured under the following headings:

  • Characteristics of each group of schools
  • Capabilities that made a difference in school’s effectiveness to respond to underachievement
  • How innovative schools improved equity of outcomes
  • What were the triggers for schools that were innovative in their responses?
  • What were the challenges for schools with a less effective response to underachievement?

Characteristics of each group of schools

Strategic and successful schools had both a long-term commitment to acceleration and a planned approach to improvement that provided wrap-around support for students and teachers. Teachers, leaders and boards of trustees demonstrated a relentless commitment and a team approach to all students’ success. Students’ progress was tracked within and over years. These schools knew what worked, when and why.

The focus on supporting students to accelerate progress and on maintaining achievement gains was evident at all year levels in these schools. Overall, the strategic and successful schools reported the highest percentage of all students and Māori and Pacific students achieving at or above national standards in 2012. [15]

Leaders in schools that had strategically trialled a new approach were now extending the practices that accelerated learning by involving more students and teachers. The schools had involved 10 to 30 students in the initial trials. These innovations:

  • were led by teachers who understood curriculum, progress and acceleration
  • were doing something different with the students
  • were often out of the classroom but linked closely to classroom practices
  • involved students in planning and monitoring their learning
  • often involved parents.

All of these factors contributed to improved achievement for the students involved in the trial. Overall, the schools that had strategically trialled a new approach reported the second highest percentage of all students and Māori and Pacific students achieving at or above national standards in 2012.

These two groups were effective as they responded innovatively to underachievement with deliberate actions. They knew what improved outcomes for students and what did not. The key difference was strategic and successful schools had school-wide systems whereas the schools that had trialled a new approach were spreading the innovation but did not know the wider impact yet.

The next two groups of schools were less effective as they responded withmore‑of‑the‑same to underachievement. The key difference between the two groups was that the schools aware of the need to do something had improved outcomes for some students. However, they were unable to explain what had led to the improvements, how to maintain any gains or how to repeat them for other students. The schools that had little sense of urgency were not improving outcomes for students.

Schools that were aware of the need to do something different did not have a strong commitment or the capability to either change their practice or sustain practices that worked. Many were just starting to think about acceleration. Even though, as a group, these schools reported the biggest shift in the percentage of students achieving at or above the national standards from their 2011 to 2012 achievement data, the leaders did not have evidence about what practices worked, when they worked and why they worked. Priorities for students and teachers were often not clear because of insufficient data analysis, interpretation or moderation. This meant:

  • there were no well-developed long-term plans
  • responses to student needs were not connected to the classroom and were often ad hoc
  • professional learning and development (PLD) responses to teacher needs were too general
  • any real shifts were unlikely to be sustained
  • achievement improvements reported by these schools were unlikely to be reliable.

Many of these schools were not effectively dealing with major issues, such as responding to newly arrived English language learners or transient students.

Schools with little sense of urgency or ownership to improve outcomes for all students had not linked teacher action to student outcome. They did not have systems, such as self-review processes, to help teachers evaluate practice and make this link. There appeared to be an acceptance of failure for some students. These schools were relying on single teachers, single actions, or a one-size-fits-all response to student needs with little focus on building teacher capability to raise achievement for the hardest to reach students. Achievement data was either not reliable or available in many of these schools. The group reported the lowest percentage of students achieving at or above national standards in 2012.

Many schools in this group had numerous changes of principals and teachers. In each case, transition time for the new principal or teacher to know the students and how to support them to accelerate progress appeared to be too long. Other schools had very long-serving principals and teachers who were unaware of the impact of their practices on students underachieving.

Capabilities that made a difference in school’s effectiveness

ERO found the following capabilities made a difference in a school’s effectiveness to respond to underachievement:

  • The leadership capability to design and implement a coherent whole-school plan focused on targeted support for students and teachers for equitable outcomes
  • The teaching capability to find and trial responses to individual student strengths and needs that engaged and supported students to accelerate their progress in reading, writing and mathematics
  • The assessment and evaluative capability of leaders and teachers to understand and use data, and know what works, when and why for different students
  • The capability to develop relationships with students, parents, whānau, trustees, school leaders and other teaching professionals to support acceleration of progress
  • The capability to design and implement a school curriculum that engaged students.

Teachers’ and leaders’ capability to integrate practice, knowledge, skills and beliefs influenced how each school responded to their students’ strengths and needs. The following section describes the capabilities and characteristics of the four groups. The next steps were derived from what made one group different to the next group as illustrated below.

Capabilities of strategic and successful schools in accelerating progress

Leadership capability

Leaders demonstrated high capability to design, implement and evaluate a long-term plan focused on building both teacher and student capabilities. These leaders:

  • worked as a team
  • knew what was needed to build teacher capability and provided specific professional learning and development (PLD)
  • devised systems that supported knowledge building, improvement and inquiry. For example, appraisal and planning templates asked teachers to think about the affect of what they were doing and what they will do differently for particular groups of students
  • allocated experienced teachers to work with at‑risk students.

Teaching capability

Evidence-based effective practices were consistently used across the school.

Teachers had a strong understanding of acceleration, The New Zealand Curriculum(NZC), literacy and mathematical progressions, and national standards’ expectations.

School targets were translated by teachers as individual student strengths and needs and used to design a teaching and learning programme to accelerate progress.

All teachers were committed to trying new things when student progress was unsatisfactory.

Assessment and evaluative capability

Cohesive planning and reporting was evident at three levels:school wide, syndicate and classroom. This ensured tactical resourcing and ongoing monitoring progress and affect of actions.

Teachers were confident in their Overall Teacher Judgements (OTJs).

OTJs and achievement data were used at school and classroom levels.

At school level, the data was aggregated to identify groups of students that the school needed to target support for accelerating progress. For example, support for particular year groups, gender, and ethnicity or support in particular learning areas.

School targets focused on students achieving below and well below national standards.

School targets were discussed by teachers, leaders and board members.

At classroom level, the data was disaggregated for each individual student and combined with teacher observations, other achievement data, and discussions with students. Teachers had rich descriptions of individual student’s learning needs.

Teachers understood and implemented Teaching as Inquiry to design learning programmes and evaluate the affect of teaching decisions. They knew what worked for which students and had a Plan B for students whose progress was not accelerated.

Students who had underachieved were closely monitored over a number of years.

Quality of relationships

Students knew:

  • why they needed to catch-up
  • that the teachers believed they could succeed
  • what their goals were
  • what worked for them
  • how they were going.

Teachers worked with other professionals to develop a programme to accelerate progress. For example, other teachers, the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), Resource Teacher Literacy (RTLit), and teacher aides.

Parents were supported to develop ways to help their children learn at home.

Board trustees recognised leaders’ and teachers’ professional capability and expected achievement-based impact reports about the resourcing they had provided.


Depth of both classroom and supplementary curricula reflected literacy and mathematics use in the context of the school curriculum. The school curriculum reflected community aspirations and students’ interests.

Next steps

Leaders needed to sustain improvements by continuously supporting innovation and rigorously evaluating the impact on all students’ progress and achievement.

Capabilities of schools that had strategically trialled a new approach to accelerate progress

Leadership capability

The innovation was supported by appointing a teacher who had the capability to succeed and was resourced for success.

Leaders were often involved in PLD to support the innovation.

Teaching capability

The individual teacher involved:

  • understood acceleration
  • understood progression and expectations – curriculum and national standards
  • knew and built on individual student strengths
  • used evidence-based practices.

Assessment and evaluative capability

Clear systems were used to identify students achieving below and well below national standards and to decide which students the school would prioritise resources for.

Ongoing monitoring of progress of all students in the innovation.

Teachers involved in the innovation understood and implemented Teaching as Inquiry to design learning programmes and evaluate the affect of teaching decisions. They knew what worked for which students and had a Plan B for those whose progress was not accelerated.

Quality of relationships

Students involved in the innovation knew:

  • why they needed to catch-up
  • that the teachers believed they could succeed
  • what their goals were
  • what worked for them
  • how they were going.

Teachers involved in the innovation worked with other professionals to develop a programme to accelerate progress. For example, other teachers, the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), Resource Teacher Literacy (RTLit), and teacher aides.

Parents were aware of the innovation and were supported to develop ways to help their children learn at home.


Close links were evident between supplementary and classroom literacy and mathematics.

Next steps

Leaders needed to develop a plan that included capability building of other teachers so they too can implement aspects of success from the innovation. The plan needed to ensure all teachers across the school:

  • owned the responsibility to accelerate learning
  • rigorously used Teaching as Inquiry to monitor the impact of their practice
  • monitored and tracked student progress and achievement over more than one year.

Capabilities of schools aware of the need to accelerate progress

Leadership capability

Changes in culture, knowledge and practices were initiated across the school.

PLD was available for leaders, teachers and teacher aides.

Some teachers had in-school coaching.

Teaching capability

Inconsistent teaching practice was evident across the school.

Teachers used a range of assessment information but often limited formative use of data. Little interpretation of data meant teachers were unable to identify next steps for students.

Small groups of students were given extra time for reading, writing or mathematics.

An over reliance of particular programmes was found without a parallel focus on improving teacher practice. The affect of these programmes on student outcomes was often not reviewed.

If there was particular supplementary instruction, it was often not deliberately linked to students’ classroom experiences.

Assessment and evaluative capability

Often targets were not strategic and were described as something to aim at rather than something to shift. For example, aimed for 85 percent of students achieving at or above national standards rather than shift 15 percent of students from achieving below and well below to at or above the standards.

Leaders used achievement data to identify a broad group of students achieving below or well below the standards but did not necessarily know or take into account the targeted students’ specific interests, strengths and needs.

Quality of relationships

Boards were aware of targets but did not have in‑depth knowledge of their role in contributing to improving outcomes for these students (school leaders were not reporting).

Partnerships with students or parents were not apparent.

A range of expertise was available but often an over-reliance on specialist teachers was found (no professional partnership to accelerate achievement).


Classroom curriculum was often based on student interests, but was not linked to the supplementary programme the students were withdrawn from class for.

Next steps

Leaders needed to:

  • be aware of groups of students underachieving and champion teacher urgency and responsibility to support students to accelerate progress
  • develop a school-wide cohesive approach to accelerating progress that included ways to link supplementary instruction with classroom practices
  • develop a professional team approach and partnerships with students, parents and board
  • provide focused PLD to build capability to accelerate progress
  • develop a shared understanding and ownership of the rationale for the urgency to improve outcomes for particular groups of students
  • promote the comprehensive and cohesive use of data at classroom and school‑wide level to evaluate the affect of teaching on student achievement (e.g. in both Teaching as Inquiry and planning and reporting processes) so teachers know which students need to accelerate progress and know what works, when and why
  • ensure there was ongoing monitoring of at-risk students’ progress and achievement.

Teachers and leaders needed to:

  • understand acceleration, curriculum, expectations and effective teaching practices
  • use all assessment information to know individual student’s strengths and needs and to respond appropriately
  • review the curriculum to ensure it is based on what works and what is worth learning.

Schools with little sense of urgency to accelerate progress


Long-term improvement plans were not in place.

PLD was focused on what teachers think they need rather than supporting teaching practices to accelerate progress for students not achieving well.


Many practices in response to the achievement data were business-as-usual, too general, or too disconnected from the classroom.

Teachers were not confidently interpreting assessment data or responding to individual student’s strengths and needs. They had little understanding of:

  • acceleration
  • expectations as described in The New Zealand Curriculum and national standards.

Assessment and evaluation

There was either no data or the data was not valid.

Data was not well used by teachers and leaders. For example there was often:

  • no data used to inform teaching
  • no monitoring of progress
  • no evaluation of actions
  • no identification of acceleration.

Quality of relationships

Genuine learning partnerships with parents and board were not apparent.


Literacy and numeracy learning was not well connected to other aspects of the school’s curriculum.

Next steps

Leaders needed to:

  • develop a culture where there was shared ownership and urgency for improving student achievement
  • develop a long-term plan that focused on improvement
  • understand and develop professional networks within the school
  • develop educational partnerships with students, parents and board

Teachers and leaders needed to develop knowledge and practice in:

  • data analysis and evaluation
  • national standards expectations (and moderation processes for shared understanding of characteristics and judgements)
  • what works and leads to acceleration of progress
  • assessment for learning.

Systems were needed for:

  • evaluating the affect of classroom practices and school innovations
  • planning and reporting the link between annual targets and class targets
  • reviewing the school’s curriculum to ensure it linked to student interests, identities and cultures, and was based on the key competencies and principles of The New Zealand Curriculum and on the learning areas.

How innovative schools improved equity of outcomes

Innovative schools had focused on inequity within their student population and had improved outcomes for individual Māori and Pacific students. Teachers and leaders in these schools used effective teaching and leadership strategies, provided a rich curriculum and built high quality relationships in their response to underachievement. This section includes examples of two schools’ responses. The following section includes more detailed examples of what schools did to accelerate progress for individual Māori and Pacific students.

Māori enjoying educational success as Māori

ERO investigated deliberate actions by exploring the acceleration and achievement of a group of students each school chose. Eighty-four percent of strategic and successful schools and 79 percent of schools that had strategically trialled a new approach had Māori students in their chosen group. The groups ranged from 10 to 40 students, with Māori being at least one-quarter of the group. Overall, Māori student achievement for these two groups of schools was six to eleven percent higher than the national picture.

Leader and teacher actions led to success for these Māori students. These actions align with the Māori education strategy, Ka Hikitia-Accelerating Success 2013-2017, and the factors identified as improving primary and secondary Māori students’ literacy, numeracy and language skills. [16]


Improvements in achievement results when schools and kura:

  • integrate elements of students’ identity language and culture into the curriculum teaching and learning
  • use their student achievement data to target resources for optimal effect
  • provide early intensive support for those students at risk of falling behind
  • create productive partnerships with parents, whānau, hapu, iwi, communities and business that are focused on educational success
  • retain high expectations of students to succeed in education as Māori.

The following example illustrates the Ka Hikitia actions.


Achievement data used to target resources for optimal effect.

Senior leaders and the board used the student achievement information as the basis for all resourcing decisions. The information was broken down to year groups, ethnicity, gender, English language learners, and students at risk of underachieving.

The senior leaders collated data in year groups and tracked ethnicity and target students. This information was shared with teachers in each syndicate to discuss overall progress.

At the end of each term, student achievement data from each class was shared in syndicate meetings and the progress of each student was discussed along with the effectiveness of particular teaching actions.

A mid-year and end-of-year report went to the board that discussed the targeted students’ progress and the affect of the board allocated resources.

Intensive support provided early for those students at risk of falling behind.

At a senior syndicate meeting on Teachers Only Day 2012, all teachers got together and looked at their class data for the year. The class teacher (ERO focused on) identified that there were 7 students in her class who needed to progress more than the others in writing. They became the writing target students. Five students were Māori. The teacher looked at the previous year’s writing samples and developed a learning intention for each student in the class to start the year.

The teacher provided the target students with supplementary writing support within the classroom. This was possible by having a teacher aide work with other students. The teacher planned very specific programmes for the teacher aide based on the needs of the group of students they were working with that day. The teacher aide was involved in the modelling of writing sessions to ensure that they were giving similar prompts to those given by the teacher.

Students’ identity, language and culture integrated into the curriculum teaching and learning.

Through discussions with students, their parents and whānau, the teacher had a deep knowledge of student interests and family events. This knowledge was used to engage students in the writing process. Students based their writing topics on personal experiences and selected their own topics at least once a week. They were supported to express their voice in their writing. The teacher was enthusiastic about writing and shared this with the students. This had a positive effect on students’ writing.

Productive partnerships created with parents and whānau that are focused on educational success.

The teacher ensured there were regular informal conversations with the parents of all target students before and after school as well as the more formal regular three‑way conversations to discuss goals, progress and literacy activities at home.

The students often had their writing published in the school newsletter and on the class webpage to share with parents and whānau.

High expectations of students to succeed in education as Māori.

Students talked to ERO confidently about their learning – they knew their achievement level, what progress they had made and what their next learning steps were. They knew their teacher expected them to write in ways that expressed their ideas well and engaged readers.

(A low decile, large urban contributing school with 48 percent Māori students)

Effective schools focused on building relationships with students, their parents and whānau. A small number of schools extended this partnership to hapu and iwi.

The principal had appointed an external specialist funded by the local wanangato help teachers strengthen their te reo and understanding of local tikanga

Māori, so they could use these confidently in the classroom. The board and teachers have strengthened the network with local hapu and iwi. The school’s English literacy programme was supported by a sequential resource in te reo Māori and a focus on students’ understanding of Te Ao Māori.

(A medium decile, mid-sized rural contributing primary school with 19 percent Māori students)

Pacific students enjoying education success as Pacific

Teacher and leader actions also led to more Pacific students achieving at or above the national standards. Forty-two percent of strategic and successful schools and forty‑seven percent of those schools that had strategically trialled a new approachhad groups with Pacific students. The groups ranged from 10 to 40 students. Half the schools’ groups had less than five Pacific students. Three schools with very high numbers of Pacific students had an innovation to improve all Pacific students’ learning at a particular year group (not just those underachieving). Overall, Pacific student achievement for these two groups of schools was five to eight percent higher than the national picture.

The Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017(PEP) [17] describes the expectations for schools to personalise learning and create successful pathways for Pacific students. For schools with Years 1-8 students the focus is on increasing and accelerating reading, writing and mathematics achievement. The innovative schools’ actions aligned with the PEP’s actions for schools. They include:

  • implementing focused programmes and activities
  • providing alternative learning opportunities and pathways
  • strengthening accountability processes, including goals and targets for Pacific students and reviewing schools’ performance
  • engaging with parents, families and communities.

The example below illustrates the PEP actions (A low decile, large urban full primary school with 52 percent Pacific students).

Strong accountability processes including goals and targets for Pacific students.

The school analysed the 2012 national standards data by year, gender and ethnicity and found that the group most at risk of underachieving were Pacific girls in Years 6 to 8 in mathematics. Overall, 24 percent of all students and 28 percent of Pacific students were underachieving. In Year 6, 15 percent of Pacific girls were at risk of underachievement whereas by Year 8, 82 percent were at risk. Hence the urgent focus was on Years 7 to 8 Pacific girls. The long term focus was on improving the teaching at Years 4 to 5. In 2013, the board funded the release of a teacher to act as a full-time mathematics specialist.

Families engaged.

Initially this teacher used school data and discussion with students, parents and classroom teachers to identify individual student’s interests, strengths and needs.

Alternative learning pathways provided.

Six groups of 4 to 5 students, identified as achieving two or more stages below expectations for addition and subtraction strategies, were established.

Focused programmes implemented.

The specialist mathematics teacher took each group for a half hour intensive teaching and learning session every day for 6 weeks. At the same time she spent time in their classrooms, observing, monitoring and modelling teaching strategies and team teaching with the classroom teachers.

Strong accountability processes including a review of school performance.

At the end of the six weeks, the specialist teacher retested the students and shared the results with the students, their families and their classroom teachers. Since the intervention finished, monitoring of student progress has continued. All students had accelerated progress, and have maintained the acceleration, with half the group working at the expected standards of their peers and the other half now achieving only just below.

After evaluating the affect of the programme the school has now set up other groups from other years and developed a PLD programme for teachers in the use of the mathematics assessment tools.

What were the triggers for schools that had innovative responses?

Most schools were using Overall Teacher Judgements (OTJs) to identify students’ performance in relation to national standards for their year group. What happened next varied across the four groups. Some schools responded to underachievement with more‑of‑the‑same.

The sections below describe the triggers for the effective schools that had deliberately taken actions, and were successful in improving outcomes for underachieving students. The actions that teachers and leaders took in these schools improved outcomes for Maori and Pacific students. The triggers to know what to do, or notice what had been done, to raise achievement occurred at all stages of the framework used for the investigation. The examples used show the deliberate responses that led to accelerated progress and sustained achievement for a particular group of targeted students.

What triggered the need to do something different?

Schools with leaders and teachers who clearly explained a reason for the urgencyto get better results for groups achieving below or well below the national standards were tactical in their resourcing to support these students. The reasons for urgency varied.

For example some schools focused on:

  • students for who other supplementary supports had not worked
  • students in their last year at the school, as they had only the year to catch up
  • students in Years 1 to 3, as they did not want these students to develop a sense of underachievement
  • boys, English language learners, Māori or Pacific students as the group was under‑represented in year groups at or above standard expectations
  • a particular curriculum area as more students were underachieving in that area.

It did not seem to matter what the targeted group or particular reason for urgency was. What mattered was that all teachers understood and owned the rationale, and all resourcing decisions backed it.


The less effective schools had targets but because there was no rationale for each target there were competing demands for resources and decisions often appeared ad hoc.

Many schools that were strategic and successful in their actions had focused on accelerating progress over a number of years. These schools had a culture of improvement, where both short-term tactical responses to underachievement and long-term strategic responses to capability building had undergone many evaluative cycles. These practices were integrated in their way of working. Other schools were at the earlier stages of focusing on acceleration but had a strong inquiry and improvement culture.

The acceleration focus was triggered by one or more of the following:

  • involvement in the Ministry funded Accelerating Learning in Maths (ALiM) and Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL). This involvement helped schools use their expertise to undertake a short-term inquiry focused on accelerating progress of a group of students’ underachieving and developing a long-term school curriculum and achievement plan [18]g
  • involvement in Ministry or school funded in-depth literacy, mathematics or leadership and assessment PLD
  • appointment of a new person with leadership expertise. For example a new principal, senior leader, literacy or mathematics leader or SENCO.

This early focus on acceleration, even though urgent, takes time and care. As shown in the example below, during this early stage leaders:

  • noticed that outcomes were not equitable
  • reviewed school practices
  • collaboratively designed an improvement plan with teachers and students.

Leaders early focus on acceleration


In 2010, the SENCO noticed that many students who had been withdrawn from regular classes for supplementary support were unable to maintain their achievement when they returned to the class programme.


The SENCO then reviewed the way teachers perceived withdrawal classes. She was concerned to find a culture of teachers identifying students for withdrawal interventions rather than considering how they could support these students in class.


The senior leaders wanted to promote teacher ownership of target students’ progress. In 2011, the leaders, with teachers, designed a three‑tiered approach to the school’s underachievement. The first tier was the classroom with teachers accountable for target student progress. Templates were developed to use Teaching as Inquiry as the accountability process for appraisal and coaching forums. The second tier was supplementary support in the classroom and the third tier was supplementary support outside of the classroom.

(A high decile, large urban contributing primary school)

What triggered knowing what to do differently?

Teachers and leaders with a deep understanding of progression, acceleration and curriculum used this teaching knowledge to design learning plans with and for individual students. Teachers had high expectations of themselves, as they knew how to support each student to accelerate progress.

To ensure a shared understanding of progression and acceleration, teachers at some schools had devised tools, such as rubrics, to:

  • exemplify expected progression through the school curriculum
  • make explicit the reading, writing and mathematics demands within the school curriculum
  • describe actions for teachers to support students to accelerate progress where necessary.

Teachers were fully aware of the complexity of learning. For example, a response to a student’s mathematical underachievement often included building student’s confidence as a mathematician and in using English language.

One group of 11 students in Years 5 to 6 had been stuck on mathematics Stage 4 for two to three years. These students needed to develop specific strategies for adding and subtracting numbers of different place values. Because of their lack of previous success in mathematics the students lacked confidence in their ability and therefore were unwilling to problem solve in mathematics. The Pacific students were also English language learners. The students were involved in an intensive supplementary programme designed by the mathematics leader and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher. By the end of 2012 all but one student shifted from one standard level to the next. The other student continued working with the ESOL teacher in 2013.

(A medium decile, mid-sized urban contributing primary school)

Less effective schools did not have a shared understanding of progress and acceleration. These schools could not design a curriculum response that would support students to accelerate progress and successfully engage with the curriculum demands expected of their peers.

Schools with holistic improvement plans had short-term tactical responses to student underachievement along with longer-term strategic responses to build teacher and leadership capability that linked to school goals and targets. The short-term responses were remedial whereas the long-term responses were future-proofing by focusing on preventing underachievement. Long-term responses included building teaching capability; evaluative capability, in particular use of data with a Teaching as Inquiry approach; and high quality relationships with the community. These schools could link the learning from the short-term supplementary practices, such as withdrawal of small groups, to the classroom in ways that benefitted both students and teachers. The example below shows how a school made this link.

A school leader with expertise in mathematics observed the way teachers and students worked in the classroom before providing supplementary instruction for a small group of students. The teachers and leader designed the supplementary class foci to link to the classroom mathematics programme. The leader then trialled a range of teaching strategies in the supplementary class and coached the teachers in the strategies that worked so they could use them with the same students in the classroom.

(A high decile, mid-sized rural, full primary school)

Schools that responded with more-of-the-same relied too much on supplementary practices but had no rationale about how these practices were expected to improve the long-term outcomes for students and teachers.

Schools where the students were active partners in designing the plan to accelerate progress were more likely to improve student outcomes to a great extent. In the example below the students understood why acceleration of progress in reading, writing and mathematics was important to their overall learning.

The teacher built on students’ ownership of their writing progress and achievement by being clear about the learning intention and helping them understand the purpose of the standards. For example, that reaching the standards each year will give them more choices at secondary school. The teacher gave every student in the class a chart that showed the standards as the foundation for Level 5 and 6 of the curriculum.

Students were committed to the success of the plan they had helped design. Plans included learning contexts based on student interests, collaborative group tasks, a lot of oral work, self and peer assessment, and student feedback to teachers about what worked and what did not.

Teachers understood the importance of knowing each student’s interests, confidence in learning and preferences for learning. The following three examples show what this looked like.

The results of a small survey with students who were underachieving showed teachers that many students thought writing was something teachers did to them. Teachers told them what to write about, how to write it, what to fix and how to fix it. This triggered the need to develop writing programmes that were student initiated and inquiry based within the wider school curriculum.

(A high decile, large urban, full primary school)

Most of the students underachieving had already had significant extra help with their reading and this had not made a difference. The teachers realised they did not know the students’ strengths, interests and gaps well enough. They talked with each student and their parents about their views on reading, for example, what they liked and what they found hard. They also discussed the reasons behind particular responses students made to assessment questions. This provided teachers with new understanding about why these students struggled with their reading and gave them rich information for selecting engaging texts. It helped the students realise that the teachers were there to support their progress and work with them.

(A medium decile, mid-sized urban, full primary school)

The teacher gave students clear, specific feedback and expected them to act on it. For example, ‘This idea needs more detail’ and the teacher expected the student to rework the story adding more detail. The teacher had a system where the student signed the feedback after reading it, and then signed again when it was completed. She was helping them to use self assessment and own their progress and learning.

(A low decile, large urban, contributing primary school)

Many schools had developed student-centred literacy and mathematics progressions that enabled students to monitor their own progress while describing what they had learnt, what they needed to learn and how they learnt. Students then used these progressions with examples of their work to explain their progress and achievement to parents and teachers.

Students had their sample writing glued into the front of their writing book to remind them about where they were at the start of the year and provide a basis for comparison. The sample was accompanied by the starting learning intention (next steps). Each teacher discussed this and following learning intentions with students throughout the year. Learning intentions changed according to need and these were published in students’ books. Learning intentions had success criteria underneath and a space for student self assessment and teacher’s feedback.

(A low decile, large urban, contributing primary school)

These schools were very clear about the importance of developing a learning-focused environment in which students felt safe exploring new ideas, practising in front of others, and asking for help.

Parents and whānau were well informed about their child’s need to accelerate progress in reading, writing or mathematics. This need was explained in ways that made it clear that the school teachers and leaders knew they were responsible for student achievement, but needed help from the parents and whānau to do so. Teachers invited parents and whānau to discuss their child’s interests to find contexts that would motivate and engage them. The example below describes the ongoing discussions teachers and leaders had with Pacific students and their parents.

In 2011, a fono was held with parents of students in special learning support programmes. This led to more deliberate interactions and closer relationships with Pacific families. An outcome was the initiation of a Reading Together programme [19] which involved parents learning with their children. Also in 2011 senior leaders surveyed a small group of Pacific students, and used the information to plan reading.

In 2012, parents of 22 Year 6 Pacific students, who had not achieved national standards in mathematics at the end of Year 5, were invited to workshops to explore strategies and resources to help their children at home. By the end of 2012, 19 students’ achievement had shifted up one national standard level (from well below to below or from below to at).

During the year, all Pacific students were surveyed about their learning of mathematics and the impact particular teaching had on this learning. The parent fono also focused on learning and building positive relationships. Senior leaders and teachers used the feedback from students and parents to inform PLD and teaching decisions. Many teachers had improved communication with families. At the same time a Samoan community worker has worked with school leaders and teachers to develop more specific strategies for Pacific students’ success.

(A medium decile, large urban, contributing primary school)

Parents and whānau were often invited to work in partnership and support their child’s school learning with home activities and were provided with the appropriate resources. Student progress reports were regularly and frequently sent home to parents and whānau, who commented on what they saw their child doing at home. In some schools, as shown in the example, the focus was on creating productive partnerships with Māori students and their whānau.

Whānau were invited to workshops where they were provided with mathematic packs to use with their children at home. The maths packs reinforced classroom learning. The complexity increased as the students’ knowledge progressed. Workshops were for all whānau, not only those whose children were part of the initiative. Eighty‑nine parents attended. Students discussed with their parents how the packs helped with their learning, and how they could use them at home. A survey showed whānau appreciated the maths packs and were more involved in helping their children with maths. Maths packs are now sent home daily with reading books in the junior school.

(A low decile, mid-sized rural, full primary school)

These schools developed powerful, high trust relationships with students, their parents and whānau that focused on education success.

Less effective schools knew it was important to develop such relationships, and often had it as a school goal, but were not willing to be specific in their request for parent and whānau support. This meant many of the actions to develop a relationship appeared superficial.

How did the school know what worked, when, why and for who?

Leaders and teachers who actively and relentlessly used student achievement information for their decisions knew what was happening for students, when and why. They paid attention to the reasons why individual students were not succeeding. A range of information on student identity, language and culture, use of key competencies, and engagement with school curriculum was used to interpret the achievement data. Teachers identified the issues, discussed possible reasons for any problems and created solutions. They were continuously evaluating the affect of their actions and were nimble in their response (including abandoning things that did not work). Their practices were adaptive to context but the goals did not change.

A key feature was the team approach. Information was interpreted at all levels to inform long-term, short-term and day-by-day decisions. All purpose of all decisions was to improve outcomes for more students. Examples of student achievement information use included:

  • at the end of a school year, school leaders and teachers used a range of student achievement information to reflect on system decisions to decide who should teach what class, the make-up of syndicates, leadership responsibilities, and PLD requirements
  • at the beginning of each year syndicates used this information to discuss individual students and how effective the previous year’s teaching was before beginning to develop new curricula
  • classroom teachers used observations about evidence of learning to review moment-by-moment teaching decisions to decide what to do next
  • students discussed and described what worked for them and applied this to new learning situations.

These schools, as the example shows, focused on what support was needed and not just on who needed the support.

The students underachieving were identified from end‑of‑year analysed achievement data. Draft school targets were discussed at a teacher only day at the beginning of the year. This-year and last-year teachers discussed the strengths, interests and next steps of each student and developed individual plans for making a greater difference for the students underachieving. They discussed their use of assessment for learning practices and looked at current best practice research. The draft targets were fine‑tuned to reflect two areas of concern; the students achieving below national expectations after one year at school and at the end of Year 5.

(A high decile, large urban, contributing primary school)

The less effective schools used student achievement information passively to watch student progress (or not). For example, while student progress and achievement was monitored, there was no formal evaluation of the effectiveness of teaching strategies or the affect of the supplementary support as a whole. Teachers regularly discussed what happened to these students (often good evidence in syndicate minutes) but there was little evidence of them trialling or discussing new strategies.

These schools did not appear to understand the value or process of formative evaluation.

How are schools ensuring they have learnt from this focus on acceleration so there are improved outcomes for more students?

Teachers and leaders in schools that had successfully supported students to accelerate progress were energised and motivated by the experience. They had high expectations for all students to succeed. These schools were embedding comprehensive systems with tools and resources to sustain the gains and ensure more students and teachers benefitted. All resource decisions linked to school targets, all actions were coherent, and all evaluation included the impact on individual students.

The initial response was to provide lead teachers with the resources to support the building of other teachers’ capability. This included time for workshops, classroom observations and syndicate meetings. External targeted PLD was often sought.

Other successful systems included using a register to monitor progress of all students who were underachieving or had underachieved. These registers included information from particular assessment tools. Progress and the effectiveness of interventions were discussed at regular staff meetings to ensure all teachers could learn from successful strategies. The person responsible for monitoring the register, the SENCO or senior leader in charge of literacy or mathematics, organised and monitored the effect of any supplementary support for particular students. All teachers were responsible for maintaining and monitoring achievement of these students in the classroom.

Teachers were also supported to improve their evaluative capability. Schools expected all teachers to have class targets and to monitor progress and the affect of teaching closely through a Teaching as Inquiry process. Planning and appraisal templates reminded teachers to monitor the impact of their actions in a range of ways. For example, recording achievement data, observation of student learning behaviour, and discussions with students.

A strong ethic of care underpinned the responsibility and accountability of teachers and leaders in these schools. Teachers were careful not to label students when talking about their achievement and progress. Many were developing evaluative probes to ensure none of their decisions had any unintended consequences.

The leaders were concerned that removing the best teacher from the classroom to provide supplementary support for a group of students from a number of classes had a negative effect on students in the teacher’s classroom. When the teacher was working with the withdrawal group the deputy principal observed the classroom interactions and talked with the students. Students said they would rather work in groups than complete individual tasks. The teacher adapted tasks in such a way that the students were able to work in groups and seek help from each other.

(A medium decile, mid-sized urban, contributing primary school)

The principal was concerned about the effect on students’ self efficacy when withdrawn from classrooms. The principal interviewed the students, all boys, and their parents and found this was the case. The boys’ response had been it was ‘not cool to study’ and didn’t engage in the supplementary learning provided, but rather to ‘just coast along’. The boys were no longer to be removed from class. Instead the principal, parents and boys developed a plan for in-class and home support that was then agreed to by the teachers.

(A high decile, large urban, middle school)

Students’ moment-by-moment experiences were carefully considered. For example, students’ views were sought as part of the curriculum review in many schools. Greater emphasis was placed on effective teaching across the curriculum and developing learning experiences within real life contexts. The science, health or social science topics’ literacy demands were identified in many schools and teachers designed literacy tasks within the topics. For example, one school had used building the school garden as the context to design the classroom mathematics and literacy learning activities. In another school teachers had focused on the students’ interest in team sports to engage them in mathematical concepts that were explored in both the classroom and supplementary mathematics programmes.

The person in charge of supporting students to accelerate progress kept boards of trustees up to date with student progress and teacher actions.

The less effective schools had not had this success. They were expecting actions by particular teachers to make the difference. If shifts were not made students were often blamed.

What were the challenges for schools with a less effective response to underachievement?

The key challenges for schools with an ineffective response to underachievement were to quickly build capability and improve the quality of relationships so leaders and teachers knew how to respond innovatively.

The leaders and teachers in these schools needed to develop a deep understanding of curriculum, progression and acceleration. With this knowledge, they could interpret achievement information in a more meaningful way beyond labelling and grouping students, and would know how to respond to specific issues of underachievement and what to do to engage students in accelerating progress.

Leaders in these schools needed to develop a deep understanding of organisational change that improves outcomes for students and teacher capability. With this knowledge they would know how to work with teachers and the school community to:

  • develop a rationale for acceleration of progress for particular groups of students so there is a clear sense of direction for all resource decisions
  • plan for both short-term and long-term improvements that focus on building capability and relationships with other professionals, students, their parents and whānau
  • evaluate whether resourcing decisions were making a difference to student outcomes and teacher capability
  • evaluate whether supplementary practices and classroom learning were working to support each other
  • scale up, extend and spread aspects that worked to include more teachers and more students.

The level of internal expertise to successfully work with experienced PLD providers to build this knowledge and capability was evident in schools aware of the need to do something different.

The 19 percent of schools with little sense of urgency or ownership needed something quite different. Although the teachers and leaders wanted to make a difference for all students, they did not have the capability or systems in place to shift from business‑as-usual to an innovative response to underachievement. These schools needed the long-term support of an experienced turnaround agent to design and implement a holistic improvement plan for teachers and students.

Because of the transient nature of principals and leaders and the regular turnover of trustees in some of these schools, the turnaround agent would need to be the student advocate. They would need to be responsible for interpreting student achievement information and provide continuity of the urgent and short-term remedial focus on improving particular students’ outcomes as a principal leaves and a new one is employed. This would enable the board, with the turnaround agent’s support, to develop a long-term improvement plan with the new principal.