'Closing the gap' fails schools' brightest

Patrick Griffin
10 July 2013

SOMETHING is going wrong in Australian schools. When my colleagues and I analysed large-scale student achievement data there were several key findings:
  • Improvement was concentrated among the students at the bottom end in the development of low-order skills;
  • Teaching strategies to develop higher-order skills in either numeracy or reading comprehension were unknown or unavailable for many teachers;
  • More effective support for teachers is needed to help them improve outcomes among high ability students.

So what to do? We reasoned that if teachers identified individual students' ability and targeted instruction at that level, improvements would be pronounced both individually and collectively. By and large this has been true but the success is not uniform.

It's not rocket science - there is no point in teaching things that are too difficult or too easy. The former frustrates the student and the latter leaves them bored. It's more like Goldilocks tasting the porridge: a teacher needs to be able to judge when the teaching intervention is "just right" for each student. It's a clinical approach to teaching.

Not surprisingly, these problems are borne out in international tests of reading, science and mathematics in OECD countries and reading literacy results: Australia has slipped while some other countries improved.

Nations whose educational performance is improving encourage both high-performing and low-performing students, and in higher order skills, whereas we seem to be preoccupied with "closing the gap". Australian schools are emphasising remedial action for low-performing students. These students do need help and teachers have provided powerful evidence that when they target the instruction for the lower ability students they are incredibly successful.

But work is needed to help teachers use data to improve performance of all students. Here we have only been partly successful. After exploration of the data on more than 1000 teachers and almost 40,000 students in grades 3 through 9, it is clear that teachers focus on the lower range of student performance and need lots of help in identifying and implementing strategies for students performing at higher levels. Astonishing gains were made in the lower 25 per cent but not among the upper 25 per cent.

Teachers indicated that they needed greater support for teaching strategies to develop the higher order skills of students at the top end of the range. Numerous strategies were known and used for developing the basic skills of students at the lower ability levels. Our teachers are outstanding in this regard but they need additional help to manage classes that contain students of different backgrounds and abilities.

Teacher education is the first place to look for a solution. Pre-service education almost uniformly eschews an evidence-based approach to teaching and only Melbourne promotes a clinical approach to teaching intervention.

Even then we have not shifted practices of teachers dealing with high-capacity students.

The emphasis on improvement at the lower levels indicates that the rhetoric of "closing the gap" may be denying students at the top end of the scale an opportunity for realising their potential.

The consistency of the findings of the results of NAPLAN, Program of International Reading Literacy Study and the Program for International Student Assessment suggests that at a national or state level overall improvement is constrained by a misinterpretation of "closing the gap" and that higher-capacity students in Australia are not realising their learning potential.

The emphasis on intervention at the level of lower order skills leaves the higher-capacity students to develop unaided.

It points to a need for a shift in rhetoric and a need to assist teachers to support high-capacity students to improve and progress at a rate commensurate with their ability. We need a process to identify, select and document teaching strategies that work with high capacity students and allow these students to be "intellectually stretched" in developing higher-order skills.

The process should provide a relevant learning pathway to monitor student development across the ability spectrum and a way of making the pathway and the relevant strategies available to teachers.

Teachers then need to exercise their considerable skills in adjusting their teaching to allow for differences in student characteristics of gender, race, language and home background.

These are factors that adjust the teaching approach - they do not excuse differences in achievement gain - all students should be given the opportunity and support to develop and the opportunity gap must be closed.