Principals map the paths for their schools. And when it comes to disadvantaged schools, they are a key factor that leads to top performances, as revelealed by research conducted by the Centre for Independent Studies.
Our study used NAPLAN results to identify the 18 disadvantaged primary schools in Australia that achieved literacy and numeracy results consistently above the national average for the three-year period 2015 to 2017. None of these schools receives more taxpayer funding than other similarly disadvantaged schools.
After visiting and researching nine of these top-performing schools, we found some common themes: effective and efficient principals who provide leadership for the school to excel, with strong discipline, direct and explicit instruction, data-informed practice, teacher collaboration and professional learning, and comprehensive early reading instruction.
For the nine schools that participated in our study, the average principal tenure is 10 years, more than double the national average. More experienced principals tend to have a greater understanding of what works.
And it often takes several years before reforms translate into better student outcomes.
Clearly, state and territory school systems should consider giving additional incentives and support for experienced principals to stay longer at disadvantaged schools, conditional on the school improving its peformance.
This assumes that principals have sufficient autonomy to implement effective school policies. Disadvantaged students often have complex needs and every school community is different. Therefore, the principals’ autonomy is necessary for schools to respond in an appropriate way to help individual students.
Of course, principal autonomy doesn’t mean having no accountability mechanisms; and it should be noted that more autonomy could theoretically lead to worse results if school leadership is ineffective.
But our study found that 12 of Australia’s 18 high-achieving disadvantaged schools are in Victoria, which has more principal autonomy than other states. This indicates that giving principals more flexibility — for example, to select school staff and decide exactly how school budgets are spent — potentially helps them to respond better to the specific needs of their community.
So what are the most important practices effective school principals can implement to help students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The clearest common factor in the schools we visited was school discipline. As one principal said: “School discipline is a key to our success. To be able to teach, you need to have an orderly and safe classroom and learning environment — and that’s something that we’ve put a lot of work into — as a precursor to the learning so that the learning can take place.”
We found that the approaches focused on high expectations of student behaviour, consistently applying a set of clear classroom rules, and maintaining a centralised school behaviour policy. The discipline at these schools has reached the point where there is a “critical mass” and new students are quickly incorporated into the positive school climate. But a positive school culture such as this has to come from the top; individual teachers with effective classroom management but without principal support can do only so much.
Direct instruction — where the teacher explicitly teaches new content in sequenced and structured lessons — was another common approach across the top-performing schools. This tended to be a school-wide approach encouraged by the principal.
“We haven’t got time to muck around for kids to discover things by themselves. We have to actually teach them,” was how one of the principals put it to me.
Almost all the teachers we interviewed said they used direct instruction in every lesson, especially for new content and at the start of lessons.
This is consistent with the large and growing body of research indicating considerable benefits of direct instruction. A recent meta-analysis of more than 300 studies across 50 years concluded direct instruction has significant positive effects on student achievement across all subjects and non-academic indicators.
But according to OECD data, students in disadvantaged Australian schools are less likely to receive direct instruction than in more advantaged schools.
Practices such as school discipline and direct instruction are often categorised as part of a back-to-basics approach, but this isn’t a fair representation. They require commitment and excellent teacher professionalism, and are supported by the latest educational research. They may not sound as cutting-edge as “21st-century learning” but they are far more effective approaches for principals to take.
No country in the world has succeeded in eliminating education inequity. On average, students from disadvantaged social backgrounds perform worse academically than more advantaged students.
The challenge is to emulate the success stories in our study across the whole school system. This will be difficult, but it doesn’t necessarily require spending more taxpayer money.
We can improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged children, if evidence-based school policies and practices are adopted.
Blaise Joseph is a research fellow in education at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of Overcoming the Odds: A Study of Australia’s Top-Performing Disadvantaged Schools.
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