How disadvantaged schools can be top performers

Blaise Joseph

21 March 2019 | The Educator

We can improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged students, if evidence-based school practices are adopted.

Across the world, students from disadvantaged social backgrounds perform worse academically than more advantaged students on average.

But our new research report shows that disadvantage is not destiny. There are key things schools can focus on to improve results for disadvantaged students.

In the study, we identified 18 Australian schools that are achieving above average results despite being in the lowest quartile of disadvantage.

These schools did not receive any more funding than other similarly disadvantaged schools, but achieved NAPLAN literacy and numeracy results consistently above the national average across the three-year period 2015-2017.

We observed lessons and conducted in-depth interviews with principals and teachers at nine of these schools, finding six common themes:

  1. School discipline.
  2. Direct and explicit instruction.
  3. Experienced and autonomous school leadership.
  4. Data-informed practice.
  5. Teacher collaboration and professional learning.
  6. Comprehensive early reading instruction.

These schools illustrate best practice. The challenge is turning this into common practice in the school system.

The average principal tenure at these schools is 10 years, more than twice the national average tenure of less than 5 years. This is unsurprising, as 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.

But what are the most effective approaches school principals can take to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular?

Direct instruction (involving teachers explicitly teaching new content in structured and sequenced lessons) was a clear common practice across the high-achieving schools. Every principal said direct instruction was a central part of their school’s approach to teaching, especially in literacy and numeracy, and one described it as “absolutely imperative to everything we do.”

This is supported by the large body of existing research indicating substantial benefits of direct instruction. A recent meta-analysis of over 50 years of research and more than 300 studies concluded direct instruction has significant positive effects on student achievement across all subjects and non-academic indicators.

School discipline was another common factor across the top-performing schools we visited. Their approaches centred around high expectations of students, consistently applying a set of clear classroom rules, and maintaining a centralised school behaviour policy.

As one principal commented: “Unless you’ve got an orderly environment, you can’t focus on learning. So we worked really hard on that for years. And that works really well now. It gets easier over time.” Individual teachers with effective classroom management, but without principal support, can’t achieve a positive school culture like this; they require support from the school leadership.

A focus on discipline and direct instruction isn’t just a ‘back to basics’ approach. It requires excellent teacher professionalism, hard work across many years, and is supported by the latest education research.

The success stories of the disadvantaged schools in our study show that — given the right set of policies and practices — students from low socio-economic backgrounds can be high achievers.

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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