It’s a sensitive issue, but disadvantaged students are definitely worse off.
A new analysis of NAPLAN results shows a clear link between disadvantage and lower student achievement.
This is a national issue which affects us all.
Dr Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute spoke to me about it on the Learning Capacity podcast. Listen to him explain how we can use NAPLAN data to help identify where help is needed most.
Listen to the podcast.
- The effects of disadvantage on education
- Parents' level of education
- Cycles of educational disadvantage
- Targeted teaching
- Teachers' accountibility & responsibiity
- Project-based Teaching
People & organisations mentioned
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 57 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
NAPLAN shows disadvantaged students worse off says Grattan Institute’s Dr Peter Goss
Colin Klupiec: So let's look at the effects of disadvantage. There are three mentioned in your report. The first one is parents' level of education, and that's a socio-economic factor. Then there's the school disadvantage. And then there's the geographic location. Is any of these a standout?
Dr Peter Goss: Disadvantage and educational disadvantages are a very complex thing. There are other things that we didn't look at so much. We didn't have data on student disability, for example. We didn't look at indigeneity. Of the ones we looked at, the parents' level of education seems to be the most foundational, not the least, because education is different across the country and that explains some of the geographic variation.
And parental education level is also strongly linked to the occupations that the parents had, which is linked to their incomes, which then is linked to what types of schools people tend to go to. Not just public or private but also where they live.
Cycles of educational disadvantage
Colin: Okay, so there's a massive cyclical nature in that, isn't there?
Peter: So all of these things are intertwined. So we started with the level of parents' education. And we started with that because in part that's what causes cycles of educational disadvantage. And what we've seen, plus research from others, is that on average if you're born into a family where someone didn't finish high school or only just finished high school, or maybe had a TAFE certificate but didn't have a diploma, didn't have a degree, then on average, you're going to start school behind.
Between...by year three, you're going to fall a little further behind. This is previous research. In our research, you're going to fall another one to two years further behind compared to if your parent had a degree between years three and nine. Other research then shows that on average, you are less likely to finish school.
Even if you do finish school early, you're less likely to gain further education. And so for a child who is going through this, this is not the child's fault in a sense what their parental education is. And I'm not saying that the parents didn't want the very best. I'm just observing what the data says.
Peter: They are likely, by the time they become a young adult, to have lower marks and not to have spent as many years in education. When they become a parent, that cycle continues. There are schools that are breaking this across the country, but in order to break it I think we need to be honest, and recognise it.
Colin: I think that's probably why your report is suggesting this is not really news. We've kind of always known that this is the case. Is that what you're suggesting, but now the data is pointing to a direct link.
Peter: It's a more direct link, it's not a causal link. It's very hard to do causal links, say, from this type of data. But we have, this more clearly takes our national data set and uses it to show what many people live and experience. And that I think is helpful. And one of the reasons that it's new is we can actually start to put some numbers on this, in terms of how many years.
Data shows disadvantaged students are not catching up
A second reason is, I'm going back earlier in the conversation if you just take a face value look at things at the national data, it looks as though disadvantaged students are catching up. And unfortunately, that's not the case. But I don't want politicians to take that simplistic view and say, "Oh, but they're all catching up. We're all fine." No, we have a problem and we need to face it, and we need to do something about it.
Colin: Is that why your report uses words like alarming? Because I've noticed that word comes up quite a bit, and I thought well some people might just look at this and go, "Well, it's a problem, but it's also somebody else's problem. It's not happening for my child, it's not happening in our school, it's not happening in our area."
But alarming is an alarming word, I can put it that way, for want of a better word. Why should the average person listening to this conversation be alarmed? Is this a size of the gap issue again?
Peter: I could use words like alarming, I could use words like horrifying, I could use words like disgraceful because I think they all apply. Two parts. One, how big these gaps are, and how much they open up, and then we'll talk about what that means. But one of the analysis we did is we said, all right. Different backgrounds, different trajectories. What happens if we look at students who started in year three at the same point?
So it's not about how bright the student is. They did equally well in year three, but may have come from different backgrounds. Their parents may have been more educated, or they were in a low advantage school. What we've found...let's, particularly let's say for bright kids, bright kids who did well in year three, if you're in a low advantage school in the bottom quarter of schools in Victoria, you end up two and a half years behind a kid who did no better than you but happens to go to a high advantage school.
It's hard to argue that this is something intrinsic to the kid. I don't believe that it's something that is a lower vision or aspiration. Parents want the best for their kids.
Two and a half years is life changing and that is on the back of the student background from the same starting point. That for me is alarming.
How do I compare what this means? Other countries have a much lower gap when they do similar types of analysis. So somewhere like Canada, another big English speaking country, the different States and territories and provinces, would have a gap about half of that size. Secondly, each extra year that a student stays in school, their lifetime earnings tends to increase by about $200,000. So, a 2 ½ year gap in how much you know you can do, is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But if nothing else for these two bright kids, if you are the one in the advantaged school, by year nine you are already pretty much got the skill level that I will get to by year 12.
Now, you're going to be the one that goes off to the university. You're going to...or even if I get into university, you're going to be the one that gets into whatever degree that you want to and I'm going to be the one who has done well despite the odds but I have much more limited set of choices.
So there's a...the opportunity that I get is much less, but also, this reinforces some social segregation in Australia that I don't think any Australians think of when we talk about the fair go.
Colin: Yes. So the context matters.
Peter: Context really matters.
Colin: Something that I found particularly disturbing to read about is that we find also that students who are doing well, who come from disadvantaged family, actually end up doing worse than kids whose started from a lower base.
Peter: Relatively worse.
Colin: Yes, okay, relatively. But still, on the whole, what we're seeing is students who could do a whole lot better because of their context are doing not as well as they could do relative to their peers.
Colin: Again, that comes down to social factors which is very, well, sensitive, it's difficult, and it's complex.
Colin: I mean, your report doesn't go into the causal factors but could we extrapolate something as simple as...well, is it possible that a student, a child, therefore, has to start taking on responsibilities in the household that perhaps parents, or due to other circumstances, can't take on that perhaps distracts them from their school work? Is that a factor?
Beyond the school gate
Peter: It's a range of complex factors. There's a range of factors of what happens at home. So their lives may be more disruptive, their disadvantage is associated with other problems in life. Parents who don't necessarily have consistent work or may have to work very long and unsocial hours or travel a long way. It's associated with other forms of disruption in life.
It's also associated with parents who aren't necessarily as able to help with homework as they didn't often have a good educational experience themselves. So there are things that are beyond the school gate that need responses beyond the school gate. And there are groups like the Smith Family who are working with students beyond the school gate and their parents and families to set high expectations and to support the students along the way that are really able to address some of those.
Schools in disadvantaged areas
Within the school, a lot of schools are, in disadvantaged areas, are very rightly focused on how do we lift every student up to an acceptable minimum. Because people do need to have a minimum level of literacy and numeracy to function well in the world. And sometimes I suspect that those schools look at the students who are getting an A and say, "They're doing fine, they'll be all right.
I'm going to worry about the student who is doing getting an E." But if that student who is getting an A is not actually making any learning progress, one, that's not fair to them. Two, they're going to be bored and disruptive and that causes other problems. Three, actually sitting there not being challenged, you don't learn the skills of learning how to learn, you don't learn resilience. Learning is actually partly being challenged by things at the right level.
So by focusing on kids who, in a sense seem to be more needy, I think that some schools are not finding the time to stretch those bright kids. We need to maximize the potential of every bright kid. We equally need to ensure that every kid who's struggling gets the support they need so they can survive and thrive in life.
Colin: Well certainly Malcolm Turnbull wants us all to be innovative.
Peter: I think that the focus on how do we encourage excellence across the board is something that I would imagine the right side of politics might pick up strongly.
Geographic issues - city vs country
Colin: Well perhaps we should get them on the podcast. That could be interesting. Now look, Australia is a very large country. So it seems only fair and appropriate to talk about geographic issues, because we've got a lot of bush.
So in the city versus bush, or the city versus the country argument, I think that's fairly valid because some students live a long, long way from resources. Now without getting into too much of the detail about the differences between city and country, despite the fact that the report says that students in the city do generally better, you're suggesting that this is a really good way to target policy to say, "Look, we know that that doesn't work so well out in the country. We know it works better in the city. Let's learn from that." So, what are you suggesting?
Peter: Well, that's part of it. I think just to recognise that there are differences, to make sure that the teachers everywhere are equipped to deal with the difference, different levels of learning. But then when we talk about needs-based funding. In a limited budget, we need to be putting every dollar where it's going to make the most difference.
And if students in the bush on average are not making as much progress from the same starting points, then I suggest that we mean we need to tilt the budget in favor of them and then make sure that money is spent on things that work.
Colin: I'm sure plenty of people want the budget to tilt in favor of them. It's just a matter of trying to find someone who can do the right tilting. Now, blaming teachers, blaming schools for results or for the lack of results, it's the easy thing to do.
You do make a little bit of a reference to that. You know, you don't make the claim that that's invalid. But people might be thinking about it. They might say, "Oh well, we need to fix the teachers." And I know that other researchers, including John Hattie, have made mention of that kind of thing. What's your response to that?
Some disadvantaged schools doing amazing things
Peter: There are schools who are doing amazing things. So when we talked about the bright kids from disadvantaged background, for example, there's a school in Melbourne, St. Albans, that is in the bottom quarter of schools in terms of its level of advantage. But in year nine, in year seven their students do about what do you'd expect. They just come into school at that level. In year nine in Mathematics, they have more students in the top two bands than the Victorian average and they have done for several years.
So they are able to do it against the odds and there are others out there as well. It's pointless to blame schools or blame teachers without saying we have helped you to identify what are the things that St. Albans or a Rooty Hill in New South Wales or these other schools are doing, and giving you the support in practical terms to be able to do that.
From the last report on targeted teaching then we need to give teachers the time, the tools, the training. They need to be working in teams and they need to be trusted to say we take...the teachers are taking on the responsibility of identifying each student progress and maximising it.
Support for teachers is not just more money
When we do that as a system and enable teachers to really take on that responsibility then that's the best way that we're going to lift the system in that environment. There maybe some teachers unwilling or unable to do that.That is a problem. But first up, we've got to make sure that they are given the capabilities.
I think that we know enough as educators to say there are some things that are really absolutely worth doing. How does the system make sure that every school is doing them? And as professional educators, I think the teachers ought to welcome that. And I'm sure that most of them will welcome that when done with the appropriate levels of support. And support is not just more money.
More money may be needed in some places but it's helping to understand what does good look like. What is Sunshine North doing? What is St. Albans doing? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? How do we help all schools to make that transition? And when it's done, the teachers that I talked to in those schools are saying, "Well, we now can see whether all of our students are making progress. My job's better because that's what I'm here for. I'm here to help kids learn."
Colin: Yeah. So what I'm hearing as well is, just listening to you talk, is a release of pressure rather than an increase of pressure. It depends on which way you flip the coin as to what you want to see and what you want to hear. But if we look at this as a national problem then I can say, "Wow, other schools are making progress and I can learn from them. They can help me and we can start a discussion." I mean, that's where it's going, isn't it?
Peter: A little bit. It's also a flip of pressure. We've get very much into this idea of accountability but accountability, a lot of teachers quite reasonably say, "Oh, someone's getting the thumb screws for me." What I want to talk about is responsibility and doing that with rigor.
Teachers' accountability & responsibility - a mindset
Peter: So I have worked for a large part of my life in business. And I would get people who were newly out of university and they were very bright. And I would give them a problem and they would come back and say, "Here's your answer. What do I do next?" Lovely. Maybe the next step? Maybe figure out if your answer makes sense? But that's a mindset shift. There are capabilities needed.
But the day or the week that they took on the responsibility of saying, "My job is not to solve this particular problem, this task, my job is to help move this project forward," when they took on what we used to called ownership of the task, but when they took on that responsibility they were instantly more valuable.
In the schools that are using the information and data so that the teachers have that understanding of where the students are at, when the teachers take on that responsibility and say, "It is my responsibility to understand where every student is at and are they learning.And if I struggle to do that, it's my responsibility to talk to someone and find out, well, who else can help me because no one can be perfect at everything."
Then you get into a mindset, where the teachers are taking that accountability onto themselves and are proud to do so as professionals and are doing it with rigor. And at that point top-down accountability mechanisms are still there but the teachers in a sense are going to be judging themselves harder than anyone else can and really owning that process.
Other countries have done that. Some schools in Australia have done that. That's how we get the real rigor into the system, not trying to impose it from the outside.
Colin: I like this idea of mind shift or mindset change. I mean, effectively, what we're looking at then is we could turn progress into a project. When I talk to students about...we like to talk about project-based learning. What if we flipped that idea on ourselves and say, well, rather than just turning up and doing my job, teaching my classes and then at the end of the day go home, you can turn up to work and go "well what are we up to in this project"?
So a teacher could come to school and go, "All right, we're all members of a team, working on a project to move our student body forward." I mean, I'm drawing a long bow here. I'm just trying to get some positivity in talking about some solutions.
Peter: I think the schools that are doing targeted teaching have very much done that. And the first step is to say pick an area, quite often Mathematics or Reading or sometimes Writing, and to say, "As a group of teachers, let's really understand what we want to our students to learn and let's focus on that so the curriculum becomes less crowded and let's good at distinguishing the different stages.
What does a good writing task look like in grade one, grade two, grade three? What are the differences there? Because as we know from early on, the fact that a student's in grade three, that doesn't mean they're going to deliver a typical grade three piece of writing.
It could be anything from prep to year six. So they do take on that project. They say, "How do we understand these learning continuums? How do we assess them?" Let's take some student work and actually look at each others work. Let's look at what each other is doing in the classroom.
And there's a lot of schools that are doing it. But those that are doing it with real rigor around will watch the evidence of what each student knows and that informs what you teach them next. It's typically a two to three-year journey. But at the end of that journey, they've got a common language, they've typically got a common series of assessments, they often got a lot of really useful materials which means that you don't have to write material new for each class, you're just reusing it a lot of time.
That has freed up time to actually figure out how do we maximise the progress of each student. And you can use that time efficiently because you've got this common language. The nature of the job has changed. It's a tough project to go through but the results shows that it's worth it. But also, the attitudes of the teachers, say, "This is the...often, this is the job I signed up for."
Colin: So, a couple of things emerging here which I really like. Let's take project learning. Good idea, park that, nothing wrong with that. Let's go with that for awhile. But Project-based Teaching. That's coming out of this conversation...I can hear that coming out. So, let's pick one of those areas and make it into a project. So effectively as I was saying before, you come to work as a team member working on a larger project.
So that's one idea. The other thing I like is that, well, you talk about a couple of years in terms of being able to see data come out of this as you look back at the data that you're collecting, I suspect a scientific model of learning coming out of this.
Peter: I think very much so. Amongst other things, it's the teacher saying, "Well what skills do we need to have to have all of this humming and then how do we build those skills systematically?" And certainly the results in terms of the data will typically not show up for about three years. But early on teachers will start to say actually, "My practice feels better."
Less behavioural disruption in the classroom
Peter: And the other thing that schools often notice is there is less behavioral disruption in the classroom because the kids who are bright, you've identified that they're bright and doing well in that subject and they're getting more challenging material and they're a bit more engaged. And the kids who are struggling, you know where you need to pitch the material at.
And suddenly, on a day-to-day basis, they're coming into a class and working on a task that they can succeed on and that's how they're going to learn, rather than the task they can't succeed on, in which case they likely to play it up. So there are also some early warning indicators, sorry, some positive early signs, not early warning indicators that can help people go through what is a challenging journey. Because it's quite a different way of working, quite a different mindset.
Policy makers: visit schools that are succeeding, and define stages of learning
Colin: So policy makers have a responsibility here as well. And certainly we could talk forever on this subject but let's finish with this. If you could leave a thought in the mind of a listener who is listening to this conversation and someone's going to say, again, "Guys, that's great but I really want our politicians to do that," or, "I really want them to respond to this," could you tell us at least one significant thing that our policy makers can do in result of, in light of this information?
Peter: I'm going to give you two.
Peter: And they're quite different.
Colin: Two is okay.
Peter: One is the policy makers can go and see and visit some of the schools that have really got this working and help to reinforce and tell the stories, including about the trust that has been given to the teachers and the degree of responsibility that they had taken on and start to paint this picture of what this world looks like and implicitly start to say, "This is what we are trying to help the teacher profession get to," and it's I think exactly what the teacher profession is trying to get to. So alignment on what that vision of a different way of working looks like.
Peter: The second is highly practical, that in order to understand student progress, in writing, in mathematics, in other areas, it's incredibly helpful to have a well-defined series of steps of what the stages of learning look like that can be applied in the classroom. There are a number of those around. New South Wales has developed probably the best of them.
But policy makers can invest in these very practical tools so that teachers don't, across Australia, have to reinvent them from scratch each time. But they can take them off the shelf and say, "Great, that's really good starting point. I still need to understand it, I need to know how to use it. But I don't have to go, I can do the last mile of the marathon and not the whole marathon.
Colin: Yes. Peter, it's been so insightful talking with you. Thanks so much for your time.