Bright students and disadvantaged schools

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

The article NAPLAN: Bright kids fall behind at disadvantaged schools (SMH 21/3/2016) outlines an analysis of NAPLAN results that indicate that bright students at disadvantaged schools lag at least two years behind their peers from wealthier schools and struggling students from poor backgrounds continue to fall behind with each year of schooling. The report highlights the problem for bright students at disadvantaged schools indicating that they make two and half years less progress by Year 9 than students in more advantaged schools. Even more alarming is that poor students in disadvantaged schools do not catch up and the gap by Year 9 can be as high as seven and a half years. The report recommends lifting the minimum standards benchmark as a solution.

The report also confirms other data about Australian school students that there is a very good top but the distribution shows a long tail that we seem unable to change. Many other countries have a much more compressed distribution without a long tail. In NSW, the HSC results have often been talked about in terms of postcode being the most accurate predictor of success. However, in all these cases some students continue to defy the odds and succeed. Averages can hide as many good results as they expose.

A similar study in the USA comparing school districts Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares by Rich, Cox and Bloch (New York Times 29/04/2016) indicates that sixth graders in the richest school districts are four grade levels ahead of children in the poorest districts. It also indicates that the racial gap (White ahead of Hispanic and Black) in affluent areas is high raising issues of race as well as disadvantage.

Christian teachers are concerned to bring the best education possible to students irrespective of their socio-economic, cultural or racial background. How Christian teachers address this issue is fundamental to their calling. Christians want to be excellent teachers, which is their first witness. They also want to be good examples for other teachers. Teaching well means increasing the learning of students and addressing the learning needs of every student. The question is how? This debate continues, and some things, like a different curriculum are known to have failed, so what might help? Here are five suggestions from my reading and experience:

1. Expectations

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not less intelligent than other students but they do present particular challenges because of that background. The education literature is awash with research about the relationship between teacher expectation and student performance. If you don’t expect much from students then that is what you get. Underlying this lack of expectation can be the belief that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t learn – at least not like those from privileged backgrounds. This belief leads to setting low standards, watering down the curriculum and endless repetition.

Teachers in disadvantaged schools have the option to accept this view, verified by the lack of learning when these students first attend school, or they can raise their expectations and carry students forward. If they chose the latter, they will also need to shape, through regular communication and meetings, the expectations of parents about their children’s learning so that the school and home can work together.

Without high expectations students from disadvantaged backgrounds are already in trouble. There are many individual teachers who work with high expectations, but these must be sustained across the whole of schooling for success. Without awhole school approach, the child gets each year another teacher who may or may not share these expectations. How important is it that principals and executive staff lead the way and ensure a whole school approach to teacher and parent expectations.

Teacher and parent beliefs that result in low expectations need to be addressed.

2. Blame the victom

One of the lessons learnt in working with extremely disadvantaged students in Indian schools who were from slums and remote poor rural villages is, that you can not change their backgrounds therefore you can’t use them as an excuse for not learning. If a student lives in a two room house with eight others without electricity and is required to do either home duties or agricultural work after school, then you must build the learning around this and provide homework and remedial time at school by extending the school day and by ensuring that students get maximum encouragement. As soon as you say “Poor little boy, he’s one of eight, parents never attended school, doesn’t have any help at home, has to work in the fields after school and can’t keep his school things together” then there is no expectation of learning, inappropriate lessons follow, encouragement disappears and the child fails repeatedly.

Disadvantage is not an excuse. We can not blame the victim for a lack of learning. It is the school and its teachers who must develop the learning environment to overcome the disadvantage and provide meaningful learning experiences that allow all students to achieve their best. This applies also to Australian schools – we can not blame the victim for a lack of learning.

3. The resources issue

Changing the pattern of results for students in disadvantaged schools will require additional resources. Everyone knows that and the Gonski Report provided a blueprint to redress some of these issues. It has been corrupted not only by a lack of commitment to full funding by the Coalition Government but by both parties not being prepared to bite the bullet on redirecting funding thus ensuring that no school (private schools) will be worse off. Hence the budget demands have become too great and neither side is willing to take the electoral risk of ensuring that disadvantage schools get the resources they need sometimes at the expense of private schools.

Schools have already had benefits from Gonski funding and the key question is what are they doing with these resources. Some activities and spending could be nothing more than changing deckchairs on the Titanic – you are still going down with the ship. A few key areas for spending areas could include:

  1. Additional teacher training, especially in the early years, and particularly in relation to learning problems and programs to address them. There are too many students with learning difficulties slipping past teachers who don’t understand the problems and simply don’t know what to do. Identification needs to be supported by special help and programs.
  2. Additional teachers to supplement the teaching of English to ensure higher standards of reading and comprehension by all students. In the English medium schools in India, English was the key to learning. Those who were good at English did well while others fell further behind. It is not different in Australian schools.
  3. Pay tutors for students who need the additional work in reading, comprehension and basic mathematics.
  4. Set up courses for parents to help them help their children.

4. Pedagogy

Whose fault is it if a student doesn’t learn? Yes, the teacher. No, not the student, their background, culture, race or poverty. Providing a safe environment at school is essential, but schools should not overdose on wellbeing (welfare). It is not their primary role to solve personal, family and community problems – their core function is learning - to teach and ensure learning.

More than ever, teachers need to share ideas and be open to new ways of teaching so that every student learns – we already know that they can learn. The good teacher says, how can I explain this differently or, what are different examples or activities I could use to help my students understand, and not, I will repeat that again, and again ........

5. Enrichment

Bright students in disadvantage schools need enrichment not more of the same and not being given work from ever higher grades. Once ensuring high achievement at their level, these students have a lot of energy to put into other school activities – sport, the arts, debating, inter school exchanges, competitions. They need the school to enrich their lives with opportunities to learn outside the basic curriculum.

Teaching in one sense is easy, but getting students to learn is hard. The Christian teacher, who wants students to learn and achieve to their potential, will have high expectations and communicate them to both the parents and students, will not blame the students or their backgrounds for a lack of learning, will use whatever resources are available to focus on the students’ learning to raise their achievement, especially in reading and comprehension, will seek alternative pedagogy to ensure learning has occurred for all students and provide enrichment for brighter students.

In these ways the achievement gap between students in disadvantaged and more advantaged schools might be closed and brighter students in disadvantaged schools reach their potential.

John Gore