Whole-of-school approach needed to lift levels

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The Australian 4th July, 2014

The Direct Instruction teaching method has merit but it is not the role of the federal government to dictate how teachers teach in classrooms.

In a return to exactly the approach that is holding back improvement for all Australian students, this week the federal government announced $22 million school spending allocated to a specific program.

The funds have been assigned to roll out the Direct Instruction method of teaching in remote indigenous primary schools in an effort to improve literacy levels.

There is a compelling case for directing efforts to where the greatest difference can be made and the achievement gap for indigenous students is clear. The 2013 NAPLAN results show that 94.6 per cent of non-indigenous Year 5 students are at or above ­national minimum standard, compared with 73 per cent of indigenous students at the same age.

Equally, there is nothing wrong with the Direct Instruction model. In fact, many people would recognise this approach as the way they learned. Simply put, the teacher explicitly presents the material to be learned, breaking it down into its component parts. Children work in ability groups, they are frequently assessed and corrected, and material is repeated until it is learned. The advantage of Direct Instruction is that it works and is good at boosting test scores.

The problem is that it reduces learning to a very narrow set of objectives and doesn't reflect all of our aspirations for our children.

That doesn't mean, however, that Direct Instruction doesn't have a place. Skilled teachers routinely adapt their teaching approach to match the situation, the children in their class and the material being presented. Direct Instruction is just one of the many techniques that may be used. And it should be used in every school, not just in schools that cater to indigenous students.

The most successful teachers routinely combine a balance of approaches, recognising that there is no one magic bullet that will work in every situation.

So it is not a question of whether Direct Instruction is a worthwhile approach. Nor is it a question of whether we should be providing extra support to children struggling with literacy. The problem is that if we want to do a better job of ensuring educational success for all students we need to stop thinking of improvement in terms of isolated and unconnected policies and approaches that do little other than make for a good press release.

The problems facing schools and students are more complex than can be fixed with the introduction of a single federal government program. Improvement comes from a whole-of-school approach, conceived and driven from within and supported by the school community.

It is not simple, and requires a very clear and sustained focus on specific goals that are supported by everyone within a school. It is not the sort of change that comes from some extra money that carries with it myriad conditions and is imposed from above.

Parents and school communities are best placed to decide which programs and approaches will work best for them. These decisions, taken at school level, have a much greater chance of long- term success and impact. The education minister's "students first" policy actively recognises that giving schools and school leaders greater autonomy can help improve student results. That is why this latest move is so puzzling.

The allocation of funds into separate programs and initiatives without broader integration and strategic direction misdirects resources away from schools and into costly bureaucratic requirements for accountabilities and program reporting.

There is overwhelming evidence, here and overseas, that shows funding allocated in this way does not lead to long-term improvements in student achievement beyond the schools that directly participate.

Rarely are the advantages gained sustained after the completion of the funding term because the new practices have not been incorporated into existing school practice.

One of the changes in school funding that arose from the renegotiation between state and federal governments was the rolling in of multiple separate funding allocations into block grants, allowing a welcome move for more resourcing decisions to be made closer to where the services are ­delivered. Seeing the end of separately identified program allocations at the national level provided hope for a new direction in education. It allows schools to decide where resources could best be allocated to do the most good.

Under the guise of a targeted investment in schools this new announcement signals a worrying sign that we may again slide back into thinking the federal government is best placed to know what should happen in classrooms.

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