The NAPLAN results released this week tell an all-too-familiar story: in most states there has been little or no improvement in literacy and numeracy. Too many children are failing to achieve even a basic level in the fundamentals of educational achievement.
Changing this will require a relentless focus on effective instruction — especially in the early years — and adoption of teaching methods backed by the best evidence.
The statistics suggest that around 5-6% of Australian primary school students were below the National Minimum Standard on average in 2016, and this figure has barely shifted since NAPLAN began in 2008. Another 8-10% are just on the minimum standard. But it would be a mistake to assume that this figure represents the situation in individual schools. The My School website shows there are suburban schools where 50% of students have reading skills at the bare minimum or less.
If that is not bad enough, the NAPLAN minimum standard is well below what would be considered an adequate standard in international tests, meaning that it underestimates the true number of children struggling with basic skills. The Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss has suggested that a new benchmark be added to the NAPLAN reports to account for this discrepancy.
The reason so many students cannot read at a proficient level depends who you ask. Some say that insufficient resourcing of those schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students is to blame. Some say that teaching quality is the main contributing factor, including the trend toward low entry scores in initial teacher education (ITE) courses. Certainly, 256 school leavers entered ITE courses in 2005 with ATARs of less than 60. In 2013, it was 979. This may be a small proportion of the overall ITE cohort, but is still a lot of new teachers whose academic aptitude is relatively low according to their Year 12 performance.
Just as questionable is the quality of the ITE courses they complete. A number of studies have found that Australian ITE students and graduates have poor knowledge of the structure and rules of the English language. According to Professor Pamela Snow from LaTrobe University, there is an ‘intergenerational effect’ whereby new teachers are themselves the product of teaching methods that have failed to provide them with the linguistic knowledge necessary for explicit instruction in reading, spelling, grammar and writing — and their ITE courses have neglected to fill this gap.
Typically, there has been no measure of how well prepared ITE graduates are to teach, but school principals seem to have a low opinion. In the Staff in Australia’s Schools survey, only about one third of principals said they thought recent teacher graduates were well prepared to develop strategy for teaching literacy and numeracy. New ITE accreditation standards have been developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership to try to rectify this problem.
On the same day Australian newspapers and talkback radio waves were full of NAPLAN stories, it was reported in the New York Post that the city’s schools made large gains in the state literacy and numeracy tests, and that charter schools — which enrol mainly low income and black and Hispanic students — were largely responsible. Across New York, 76% of charter schools outperformed their public school districts in maths and 71% in English.
Charter school quality varies, but some achieve remarkable results. High-performing charter schools tend to have some common characteristics, including selectively recruiting the best teachers and investing their instructional efforts heavily in literacy and numeracy. Many, if not most, use traditional teaching methods, including direct instruction. And their strong results can’t be attributed to higher funding — New York state charter schools, for example, are funded at a per-pupil rate 30% lower than district public schools.
Charter schools in the US and high-performing, low SES public schools around Australia show that social background need not be a barrier to literacy, but more funding will not automatically lead to better outcomes.
Only with effective, evidence-based instruction, including systematic, synthetic phonics, will all children learn to read.
Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project. She is a member of the AITSL board.
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