Good to Great Schools Australia CEO: Evidence is clear, we can close the gap

Good to Great Schools Australia Chief Executive Officer Bernardine Denigan, reflects on the past 10 years of education reform in Australia and what needs to be done over the next 10 years to ensure close the equity gap.

What has worked and what hasn’t in our education system over the past 10 years?

What has worked is a focus on effective teaching and explicit instruction and in fact making this the focal point of whole-school reform.

Notwithstanding the story of disadvantage and inequitable education provisioning and outcomes in regional, rural and remote communities – and the enormous, longstanding achievement gap – there is now clear evidence the gap can be closed, and it can be done promptly.

What needs to be done is clear from the evidence of those rural and regional schools that have closed the gap over the past decade since NAPLAN provided the evidentiary tool to determine school progress since 2008. Effective instruction was the means by which these schools have closed the gap, the nature of this effective instruction was explicit instruction.

What has not worked is a focus by researchers and policy makers on finding innovative new ways to think about solving the challenges facing Indigenous schools and other Poor performing schools. There is already a large body of evidence of what teaching models work effectively for all children no matter their circumstance. More innovation is just a distraction. What is needed is the implementation of proven practices.

What are the three most significant barriers in achieving educational equity in Australia?

1. Lack of effective instruction – schools need to increase student mastery of learning material first and foremost.
2. Teaching numbers do not meet student need in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools – remote schools.
3. Chronic poor attendance in the country’s most disadvantaged schools.

In the next 10 years, what do you think it will take to improve student outcomes to even the playing field for students across Australia?

Remote schools can make a drastic performance shift from Poor to Fair to Good within 10 years.

With effective, explicit instruction as the keystone to whole-school reform, remote schools can shift from Poor to Fair (achievable within six months from the institution of effective, school-wide pedagogical reforms) and then embark on the arduous journey from Fair to Good.

These shifts will necessitate the following elements:

•  Long-term mandate and fidelity to the school reform program via a specific governance structure
•  Stable teacher turnover with a minimum of three years, with teachers already experienced and skilled in explicit instruction prior to service in remote schools
•  Stable school leadership turnover, with the leader being an instructional leader first and foremost
•  School attendance rates above 85 per cent
•  At least 2.5 hours literacy instruction per day
•  Pre-Prep explicit instruction of pre-reading skills for 20 minutes per day
•  Resources to attend to special needs of all students
•  Maternal, baby and early childhood health

Regional and Rural schools can shift from Fair to Good to Great within 10 years.

Regional and rural schools are distinct from Remote schools.

Regional and rural schools do not have the same degree of challenge with teacher and school leadership turnover as remote schools, as well as attendance and special needs. They also have less non-English speaking background students compared to Aboriginal communities. Unlike remote schools, regional and rural schools have most of the ingredients to go from Fair to Good to Great: if they adopt effective, implicit pedagogy and maintain an ongoing improvement focus and commitment to school reform.

What more do you think can be done with the strategies that have worked over the past 10 years?

The strategies that work have to be scaled up.

Effective school pedagogy and curriculum such as:

•  Early childhood education which includes explicit instruction in pre-literacy skills for 20 minutes per day
•  Learning to Read via explicit instruction and mastery learning from Prep to Year 2
•  Reading to Learn via explicit instruction and mastery learning from Year 2 to Year 6
•  Ancestral Language and Culture program
•  Instrumental Music program
•  Retention at end of Pre-Prep to ensure school readiness, at end of Learning to Read to ensure reading is mastered, and at end of year 6 to ensure grade level preparation for secondary school
•  Appropriate exemptions from Australian Curriculum for students requiring core foundations of literacy and numeracy
•  Extension program aligned to Australian Curriculum for students at grade level
•  Targeted Instruction Program for students requiring remedial support and re-teaching

Use of evidence-based programs; a teacher recruitment strategy that enables a retention target of 3 years and a stable turnover rate; school leadership development to enable instructional leadership; teacher allocations to meet student needs; investment in local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching assistants with pathway to teaching; family and community engagement plan; student attendance strategy that redoubles efforts to reach and exceed jurisdictional averages; full service support system for student welfare, health and wellbeing.

In closing, how would you sum up your hopes and aspirations for students and education.

That every child in Australia, no matter what their background is, attends a school that develops their academic, cultural, creative, sporting and civic potential so they can live fulfilling lives.