Overcoming the odds in high school

Blaise Joseph

02 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Parents often focus more on the choice of a secondary school, but it turns out primary school is probably more important for a child’s academic success.

Many parents send their child to the local primary school but then invest significantly more time and money in choosing a secondary school.

And Years 11 and 12 are often the time where parents are most hands-on in their child’s education, helping with subject selections, constantly updating ATAR calculations, and appealing assessment results to gain the moral victory of a few extra marks.

But ultimately, student achievement at this late stage depends largely on having mastered literacy and numeracy skills in primary school.

The well-established education phenomenon, the Matthew Effect — the tendency for differences in student achievement in early primary school to grow into more significant differences towards the end of secondary school, unless rectified — means that waiting for improvement in secondary school is often simply waiting to fail.

That’s why effective early literacy and numeracy teaching is so important to ensure students don’t fall behind. And it should be a priority for secondary schools to identify underachieving students when they enrol.

This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged social backgrounds. Our new research has found it is more challenging for secondary schools to help disadvantaged students succeed, compared to primary schools.

Using NAPLAN data and the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, we identified only 3 Australian secondary schools that are both disadvantaged and high-achieving (no, before you ask, these schools do not receive more funding than other similarly disadvantaged schools). In contrast, 21 Australian primary schools are both disadvantaged and high-achieving.

There are evidence-based policies for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students in high school. For example, international education datasets indicate school discipline issues are especially prevalent among disadvantaged secondary schools in Australia. And direct instruction — an evidence-based teaching practice, where new content is explicitly taught in sequenced and structured lessons — is less common at disadvantaged secondary schools.

A policy focus on building positive school cultures and ensuring teachers are well-equipped to use effective direct instruction could significantly improve academic outcomes for disadvantaged students. And this wouldn’t necessarily require more taxpayer funding.

We all want to ensure that no student finishes school without essential knowledge and skills. But the solution isn’t to spend more money.

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