A RECURRING theme of current educational debate is what should be done about "underperforming" or even "failing" schools. Schemes to pay higher wages to "high-performing" teachers to work in such schools - as well as regular calls by politicians for improved "accountability" - reinforce the view that a number of schools fit this "underperforming" category. The latest State Government blueprint seems to be based on this same assumption.
I have never seen a definition of what constitutes an underperforming school, but those who use the term generally imply that the academic performance of its students, as measured by VCE results or literacy and numeracy testing, is below expected standards, or the standards achieved by schools in different suburbs.
The implication is that teachers at such a school are not doing their jobs well enough - and if they work harder, improve their methods or are replaced by better teachers, the problem will be solved.
The concept of the underperforming or failing school is based on a number of myths. The first is that student performance is entirely dependent on what happens in school, and that it is a consequence solely of the activities of teachers and principals and not of any factors outside the school.
The second myth is that all students come to school equally prepared, with equal ability and with equal levels of motivation, so that all they need is excellent teaching to excel.
At the end of 2006, I retired after 35 years as a teacher and administrator, mostly in schools in the so-called "disadvantaged" northern suburbs. After the school at which I was vice-principal was closed in 1992, I spent the next 11 years attached to the Northern Metropolitan Office of the Education Department, relieving in principal-class vacancies, mostly in the northern suburbs.
In all I worked in almost half the secondary schools in the north, for periods varying from one term to a full year. In that time I did not see one instance of a school I would describe as "underperforming", let alone "failing".
I did see many students who could be described as "underperforming" and as educationally disadvantaged, but this "underperformance" was almost entirely due to factors outside the school. For more than 40 years researchers have identified a variety of socio-economic factors that can influence a child's educational performance. Proponents of the underperforming school fallacy seem to ignore these factors.
Students who start school with the best chances of ultimate success will come from a home where the parents are well educated and where education is highly valued; where the child's imagination and cognitive development have been stimulated and enriched by a wide variety of play and other creative experiences; where English is the first language, and the parents and other adults with whom the child has contact have strong linguistic skills in the English language.
They will come from homes where the child is read to frequently, the parents read and are seen to enjoy reading, and there is a large variety of reading matter; and the child has had at least a year of pre-school experience before starting school.
The absence of any or all of these factors will affect a child's readiness for school. Lower parental levels of education, limited linguistic ability, lack of reading and books in the home, little use of the English language in families of non-English-speaking backgrounds, high levels of family unemployment and non-attendance at kindergarten are all more prevalent in the northern and western suburbs.
It follows that larger numbers of children arrive at school less well prepared than is likely in more affluent areas.
What this means for schools and teachers in the "disadvantaged" parts of Melbourne is that they will encounter a wider range of abilities in their students, and the proportion of students who are starting a long way behind their peers is likely to be much higher.
Many teachers in some of our disadvantaged suburbs first have to teach some children how to hold a book, because they have never seen one in their homes. Teachers attempt to take into account the differences between students when developing their teaching programs, but those starting a long way behind often never really catch up.
Most primary schools employ programs to assist students experiencing literacy difficulties, but such programs have to be attempted within the staffing and resource limitations applied by the department.
The fact that significant numbers of students never really catch up is an indication that insufficient resources have been provided to schools attempting to overcome student disadvantage- not an indication of underperforming teachers and principals. The needs simply exceed the available resources.
Secondary schools also face greater difficulties in the northern and western suburbs. Students who have fallen behind in primary schools will often become negative and disruptive influences as they hit adolescence.
Secondary teachers also design their teaching programs to cater for a wide range of abilities, but even the best teachers will find some students so resistant to any program as to be effectively unteachable in a normal classroom. A small number of alternative settings are provided, but these are too few, with long waiting lists.
Northern-suburban schools have thousands of excellent teachers. They may have smaller numbers of high-achieving students, but those students do as well as students in any other suburb.
The apparent underperformance by many of the students in those schools is a direct result of factors outside the control of the school - the socio-economic, demographic and family factors that children have experienced before they start school, and which they continue to experience in the 17 hours of every school day that they are not at school.
The concept of the underperforming school is simply a tool for politicians to disguise their own unwillingness to provide appropriate resources to the education system to help lessen the impact of social inequality.
Graeme Smithies is a retired teacher and assistant principal who spent about 25 of his 35 years in schools in the northern suburbs.
Monday, May 12, 2008
An insightful piece from Australia on the "underperforming" schools there. From The Age: