The Signposts report: how Victorian Government schools have improved student performance
This article summarises the report Signposts: Research Points to How Victorian Government Schools Have Improved Student Performance, published by Victoria's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. The report is part of the Department's ongoing coverage of research in school education.
A major program of research has investigated the practices of selected high-performing Victorian schools. The schools, catering to students from a variety of social backgrounds, have shown consistent gains in student achievement over a sustained period. The research was undertaken by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), guided by the Victorian Government's Blueprint for Education and Early Childhood Development, which underlines the importance of providing opportunities for every child to succeed, in every circumstance.
The researchers examined data routinely collected by schools, such as student outcomes, opinion surveys, Student Family Occupation (SFO) and other demographic data and school review reports. This work was supplemented by a schedule of observations in schools and structured onsite interviews with principals and staff. The present article offers an overview of the research, findings and conclusions.
One of the projects focused on eight metropolitan schools with high enrolments of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that were identified as performing above 'like' schools with similar student characteristics. Each school has developed its own strategic responses to specific local circumstances; these responses are described in a number of case studies available in the full report. While each of the schools examined has a distinct context and features, there is enough commonality in the approaches of these schools to draw conclusions that will help improve other schools in disadvantaged areas.
Another project examined schools whose enrolments spanned a wider range of SES backgrounds. The first phase of this project investigated 17 primary and nine secondary schools that had demonstrated sustained improvement in student outcomes from 1996 to 2006. A second phase of research compared schools whose performance was improving, stable or declining and also identified 16 behaviours common to schools that were both high performing and improving. Phase Three examined 17 schools – nine primary and eight secondary – identified as both high-performing in terms of their student populations, and improving.
The following key behaviours and practices were evident in the schools identified through this project as both improving and high-performing.
Practices and behaviours of selected Victorian schools that have improved student performance
Successful schools collect and use a wide range of data in addition to that required by the Department, share it widely with staff, and develop their skills in interpreting different types of evidence. They diagnose strengths and weaknesses in particular subject areas, track individual students and identify school-wide improvements. Most of these schools disaggregate data for detailed analysis of individuals and small groups, rather than year-level cohorts or average values.
Coaching, mentoring and sharing
Teachers are often paired, in some cases with regular meeting time allocated. In some schools, observations by peers or members of the leadership team are followed by feedback discussions. Coaching and modelling of interactions with students also takes place, and some schools mentor and support new teachers beyond Victorian Institute of Teaching requirements.
Raising staff expectations of students
For most schools studied this has been an important factor and a major challenge. Issues included understanding the difficulties faced by some families; really knowing the students; holding a belief that all students can learn; reinforcing teachers' sense of efficacy; and promoting a sense of pride and self respect.
Aligning values, vision and goals
Driving the participating schools is the belief that students and their learning are at the centre, and that constant learning by teachers is fundamental to school improvement. They know that socioeconomic circumstances can be overcome. These schools reported using data to support discussions of values, vision and goals, involving the students in their formulation, and setting aside time to revisit them.
Working in teams
Teamwork is a way of life for improving schools, and works across many areas and at many levels. Organisational structures and scheduling arrangements support working together in the short or long term, and links between teams are also important, such as through leadership roles in relation to the whole school.
Aligning professional learning
Participating schools have coherent plans and programs of professional development that align individual needs with school priorities. They use data to identify areas most in need of improvement in the school, and discuss professional development needs with teachers, sometimes using structured self-assessments. The schools allocate substantial resources and use a mix of in-school and out-of-school activities and on-the-job learning in teams.
Raising students' expectations
In many of the schools there is a strong belief that all students can learn and achieve. They generate opportunities for students to take responsibility, and have high expectations of general behaviour. They aim to meet or exceed state performance benchmarks, not just those for 'like schools'. High attendance is rewarded.
Assigning staff to key priority areas
The needs of the students drive staffing decisions, and as these differ across schools, so do the solutions. Staff members are allocated to areas such as attendance, homework clubs, wellbeing and English as a second language. Many schools expect teachers to move across year levels and responsibilities over time, encouraging professional learning and renewal.
Focusing on literacy and numeracy
Participating schools often make literacy and numeracy a priority for the whole school, not just for designated teachers. They diagnose student performance on entry and establish methods for early intervention, and monitor through a range of tests, including NAPLAN. Most participating primary schools allocate additional staff to literacy support, while some reduce class sizes. Some secondary schools timetable literacy and numeracy classes to identify skill levels and needs for targeted assistance. Regional coaches work with small teams of teachers.
Successful schools have strengthened the partnership between the school and students' homes. Some schools employ community engagement officers, and others work with police, welfare agencies, businesses and philanthropic organisations. Links with employers have been helpful in supporting students' transition to work.
Personalising through individual learning plans
Several schools make a point of getting to know their students and their abilities and experiences deeply, and of helping them to develop personal learning goals that are documented in individual learning plans. These are monitored and supported through specific allocations of staff to address the needs of individual students.
Successful schools use feedback from students to review and modify the curriculum. Some have structures that foster closer teacher–student relationships, such as mini-schools and learning communities.
Articulating clear staff performance expectations
Expectations are communicated regularly and in many ways in the participating schools. They form the basis of teacher performance plans and review processes within the Performance and Development Culture framework. Expectations are supported by role modelling, professional development and, ultimately, exit strategies.
Targeting resources to student needs
Early intervention is supported by targeted resources, particularly for literacy in the primary years. Schools use specialist staff and smaller class sizes to address identified needs at both the lower and higher ends of the achievement spectrum. Welfare support is provided by a range of professionals directly employed by schools and in conjunction with welfare agencies.
Releasing staff for group learning, dialogue and planning
Many schools encourage collaboration and allocate time to teams to work together with a focus on professional learning. This enables staff to share ideas, plan and observe each other in practice.
Recognising staff and student achievement
Schools recognise a wide range of student achievement and improvement in public forums through awards, certificates and scholarships as well as by displaying products created by students in the school and on websites. Staff efforts and achievements are recognised by their peers, leaders and the wider school community.
While these are listed as separate characteristics, it is clear that the practices interact with and support each other. It confirms earlier research that it is not only the direction of activity, but the intensity and linkages between practices that set some schools apart in achieving success for all students. However, tackling all areas at once can be quite daunting. The schools examined here realised that they must make a decision to focus on a small number of behaviours to start and sustain improvement.
Conditions necessary to commence and sustain high performance in selected schools in Victoria
The research identified an interconnected package of strategies that are preconditions for any substantial program of improvement to take hold in a school. Strong, shared leadership provides conditions for high-quality teaching. High expectations are set for students, encouraging teacher efficacy. Staff maintain an orderly learning environment. The schools focus on 'what matters most' and have a clear sense of how to prioritise.
A further set of interrelated strategies sustains improvement beyond the initial successes. The successful schools continue to build teaching and leadership capacity and expertise around core priorities. Teachers have a relatively sophisticated understanding of how students learn. There are mechanisms to ensure that students are well-known and receive the support they need.
Data are used systematically to analyse trends and personalise learning. Strong professional learning teams are created. The schools all strive to ensure that broader Department initiatives are integrated with the overall direction and priorities they have set. Pride in the school is engendered.
Major improvements did not come quickly: in each school, a stable and consistent leadership team worked on a strategic approach to improvement and change for several years.
Many schools wishing to improve may recognise that they are already implementing several of the behaviours and practices described in this report. The opportunities for improvement lie in greater breadth and intensity of implementation of these practices, and through their closer integration.
Subject HeadingsEducational planning