Perspectives Issue - Term 3, 2016

Planning for better results in 2017?   Try maximising your students’  ‘opportunities to learn’

A key strategy for every school should be maximising students’  ‘opportunities to learn’.  Increasing high-quality academic learning time is a very effective leadership behaviour (Scheerens & Bosker, 1997).  Much of the decision making about what is learnt, when, and how much, is made by school leaders.  Some of these decisions, while motivated by the best interests of learners, are not supported by research as having a positive impact. Examples of this follow.  We hope that these will help you to consider where there is potential for you to make more of an impact on inequitable outcomes, particularly as you start to think about the organisation of your school in 2017.
Recent data from PISA  (Schmidt, Burroughs, Zoido, & Houang, 2015) caused us to reflect on the effectiveness of some of our practices.  New Zealand has one of the strongest correlations between socio-economic status (SES) and achievement in mathematics literacy; most other OECD countries are more effective at reducing the effects of poverty through education.  It appears that some of our schools’ organisational decisions and teaching practices may negatively impact the students who most need to be accelerated (Schmidt et al., 2015; Wilson, Madjar, & McNaughton, 2016).
The first contentious area is fixed ability grouping.  We want to particularly point out the effects in mathematics, where in the majority of New Zealand schools, students are ability grouped at the age of five.   Anabelle Dixon (2002), who was part of the Learning without Limits Project (University of Cambridge, 1999) revealed that 88% of students in the UK who were placed into a specific ability group at age four remained in the same group until they left school. New Zealand’s (along with the UK, USA and Australia’s) mathematical literacy results suggest that teaching mathematics in ability groups has not been as effective as approaches taken by other countries. It is mixed ability grouping that is being strongly promoted in mathematics now (Alton-Lee, Hunter, Sinnema, & Pulegatoa-Diggins, 2003).
Ability grouping can have positive effects (Hattie, 2009), but not always.  Rubie-Davies (2015), in her book “Becoming a High Expectation Teacher”, points out that prior achievement and teacher expectation are strongly related.  While our job as leaders and teachers is to break the cycle of low achievement, we can inadvertently reinforce poor prior achievement by grouping students inflexibly so the ‘zebra’ group (who came in with poor vocabulary or unable to count) work only as the ‘zebra group’ when doing reading or mathematics, while the ’antelope group’ (who came to school already reading or able to count) do likewise. 
The risks with this fixed type of grouping are multiple.  One is that the ‘zebra’ and ‘antelope’ group members rarely change during the year, conveying the impression that ‘intelligence’ or ‘ability to read’ is fixed and that some can, and always will learn quicker. Another is that students lose faith in their ability to improve.  Once a child says to themselves, “I’m dumb’ or ‘I can’t read’, they are likely to give up trying and yet success is associated with effort – of the teacher and the student.  It may also mean that no child in the group proceeds any faster than another because the teacher does not want to create another group.
It is not the grouping per se that has the negative effect, but the teaching that is often used with such grouping.  For example, sometimes teaching is falsely premised on a belief that students have to learn one thing before they can do or learn another.  For example, just because a group of students is at the decoding stage of reading, does not mean they cannot be taught to think about higher order facets of literacy such as why a character might have done something, or what impact that behaviour of a character might have on another character.  Nor does it mean that working on letter-sounds is the only independent activity they can manage. 
We have taught reading by ability grouping in New Zealand for a very long time.   The message is not to stop grouping altogether because working in small groups is often effective, (Hattie, 2009), but we need to be aware of when it is effective, for whom, and what the potential negative effects are.  Ideally, grouping should be flexible (i.e., for different reasons at different times).  It is leaders who must make these risks apparent to teachers and ensure that the practices in their schools are maximising opportunities to learn rather than limiting them. 
Streaming, particularly in secondary schools, is still a widespread practice despite evidence that shows it often perpetuates inequities and disadvantages the students we are supposed to be seeing as ‘priorities’.  In our work in secondary schools we have seen the use of Year 9 entry data being used to place students in different ability-banded classes. One very real risk is that students who come in with relatively lower test scores miss out on the more challenging content of other classes and the stimulation of having more able students in their class. 
Timetabling is another practice that can limit students’ opportunity to learn.  A good example was highlighted by a primary school we worked with recently. When discussing the possible reasons for poor performance in written language, teachers pointed out to senior staff that many students who most needed writing time were not in the room when it was taught.  This was because many children were withdrawn for various reasons such as Reading Recovery or ESOL tuition.  The school gathered the data which confirmed that the teachers’ hunch was correct; attendance in morning sessions was highly variable for some students.   The leaders changed their timetable so that no students were removed from class during the morning sessions when basic subjects were being taught, thereby increasing every students’ opportunity to learn. By having all these withdrawal lessons during the morning sessions they were negatively impacting the students who most needed  the  teacher’s help with literacy.
Another secondary school example of risks with timetabling is where leaders promote longer learning periods in secondary schools (e.g., double periods).  But observations of these sessions have sometimes shown that a lot of time is wasted in the longer periods and that the teachers do not cover twice the material nor do the students do twice the work.  Leaders have to be wary of these risks and ask themselves, “What is the problem I am trying to solve by extending the periods?”  If the answer is the quality of teaching, then that problem needs to be addressed directly rather than jumping to the conclusion that longer periods will somehow alter the teachers’ pedagogy.
What is offered in the curriculum can have large effects on student outcomes and thus curriculum design is a critical leadership decision (Blank, 1987; Brewer, 1993; Heck, 1992; Schmidt et al., 2015; Wilson et al., 2016).  Wilson, Madjar, and McNaughton (2016) have written a compelling article about the quality and rigour of the curriculum being offered to our students.  Like overseas studies, their data illustrate that many students from lower SES communities, a lot of whom are Māori and Pasifika, are offered less demanding courses than peers. In particular, these groups of students are less likely to be enrolled in achievement standards that are externally assessed and which have high reading and writing demands.
Of more concern is that in the schools where fewer students were enrolled in these standards, they had, on average, fewer opportunities to read and they received less literacy instruction despite having the greatest need for such instruction. Those Māori and Pasifika students who are enrolled in more demanding literary standards, however, do perform close to New Zealand average levels, but relatively few are actually enrolled in these standards.  The researchers acknowledge that this may be a perverse effect of leaders or teachers trying to ensure success for these students, but the net result is that the students are denied access to higher levels of literacy learning, which then limits their ability to progress academically.  It is a difficult tension for leaders who are under pressure to get positive results in the ‘league tables’ and to hit national targets, but who also want to ensure that the students are exposed to high quality curriculum.  Students don’t accelerate their learning by accessing a ‘dumbed down’ curriculum.
Use of time in schools is another critical issue for leaders to consider.  A lot of learning time can be wasted in each lesson, during each day and at the end of each term and the end of each year.  Lateness is just as serious as wasted time. The PISA results show a clear correlation between lateness and poorer performance.

One of the biggest risks to learning opportunities, however, is low levels of attendance at school.  Attendance is highly correlated with success at school and the more days a student has off, the more they get behind and lose motivation to learn as they get out of touch with the curriculum that is being taught.  We realise that there is only so much schools can do, but it is worth having timely follow-up strategies for  non-attendance.  If this is a big problem for you, make it a priority for the sake of your most vulnerable students. 

So what is the big message here?  Simply, that leaders can make a visible impact on student outcomes and the overall performance of their school by increasing the amount of high-quality academic learning time for each student.  Call it ‘managing the environment’ if you like, but it is definitely a powerful educational leadership behaviour, as is a leader’s influence on the nature of the curriculum and how it is delivered.  We need uniformly high standards for all students, though pathways may be different, and we need to ensure that opportunities to learn are enhanced.  Currently, students from high socio-economic status (SES) communities tend to receive “more rigorous” opportunities to learn, and “a substantial share of the total relationship of SES to literacy occurs through its association with OTL” (Schmidt et al., 2015, p. 381).
It is now time to think about your improvement plan for 2017.  What are the key problems that are impacting negatively on your most vulnerable students?  Organisationally, can you do something different next year that is going to have a large impact?  What risks do you need to highlight in discussions with teachers?  
If you want help on narrowing your focus in 2017 and being more effective, you may want to join one of our Annual Planning workshops that will help you think through your priority problems, goals, targets and strategies for improvement.

More information about our Annual Planning courses in Hawkes Bay on 11 August and Auckland on 22 August can be found on our website.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ian Munro from the Ministry of Education for the graphs that he created from NZ PISA data, and to Aaron Wilson and Viviane Robinson for reviewing this material.
Alton-Lee, A., Hunter, R., Sinnema, C., & Pulegatoa-Diggins, C. (2003). Developing communities of mathematical inquiry. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
Blank, R. K. (1987). The role of principal as leader: Analysis of variation in leadership of urban high schools. Journal of Educational Research, 81(2), 69-80.
Brewer, D. J. (1993). Principals and student outcomes: Evidence from U.S. high schools. Economics of Education Review, 12(4), 281-292.
Dixon, A. (2002). Editorial. FORUM, 44(1).
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Heck, R. H. (1992). Principals' instructional leadership and school performance: Implications for policy development. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14(1), 21-34.
Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2015). Becoming a high expectation teacher. Oxford: Routledge.
Scheerens, J., & Bosker, R. (1997). The foundations of educational effectiveness.
Schmidt, W. H., Burroughs, N. A., Zoido, P., & Houang, R. T. (2015). The role of schooling in perpetuating educational inequality: An international perspective.
Wilson, A., Madjar, I., & McNaughton, S. (2016). Opportunity to learn about disciplinary literacy in senior secondary English classrooms in New Zealand. The Curriculum Journal.

Dr Linda Bendikson, Director
Kelly Slater-Brown, Facilitator
The University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership
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