High SES Students Get Better Teaching

A new analysis shows that students from high socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds in Australia are more likely to be better taught than disadvantaged students. Low SES students have less exposure to teaching practices that are associated with higher results.

The new results suggest that low SES students are being held back by low expectations in class. They are not only disadvantaged in their education by their family background but they are also being disadvantaged by low expectations at school.

The study published last week by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, which has been established within the NSW Education Department, shows that high SES students get the most benefit from four teaching strategies have the biggest effect on student performance in reading. These strategies are:
• Asking students to explain the meaning of a text;
• Giving students a chance to ask questions about reading assignments;
• Asking questions that challenge students to get a better understanding of a text; and,
• Telling students in advance how their work will be judged.

Students who experienced these teaching practices in most or all lessons achieved mean test scores equivalent to more than a whole school year ahead of students who rarely experienced these teaching practices.

The analysis shows that students from the highest SES quarter of Australian families are nearly 20 percentage points more likely to be asked to explain the meaning of a text than are students in the lowest SES quarter. High SES students are also 18 percentage points more likely to be asked questions that challenge them to get a better understanding of the text and 15 points more likely to be told in advance how their work is going to be judged. High SES students are 10 percentage points more likely to be given a chance to ask questions about reading assignments.

Students from poorer backgrounds are also less likely to be posed questions that motivate them to participate actively in classroom discussion, less likely to have a discussion with their teacher after a reading assignment is finished and less likely to have their work marked.

These findings are consistent with a range of studies from many countries. For example, an OECD report on supporting disadvantaged students published earlier this year shows that often there are lower academic expectations for disadvantaged schools and students. Low expectations have negative consequences for the nature of the curriculum experienced by students, the quality of instruction provided by teachers and, last but not least, for the self esteem of students, their aspirations, and their motivation to learn.

The OECD report says that low expectations of disadvantaged schools should and can be overcome. Results from PISA 2009 suggest that schools and countries where students learn in a climate characterised by expectations of high performance, readiness to invest effort and good teacher-student relationships tend to achieve better results. Such a learning environment encourages regular attendance and other positive behaviours. Students, especially disadvantaged students, learn more and have fewer disciplinary problems when they feel that their teachers are dedicated to their success.

The report says that schools need to set high expectations for what every child can achieve, despite their levels of disadvantage and the achievement levels with which they enter the school. In particular, carefully adapted and implemented teaching practices can make a difference for low performing students.

To improve learning in classrooms, policies need to ensure and facilitate that disadvantaged schools promote the use of a balanced combination of student-centred instruction with aligned curricular and assessment practices. Schools and teachers should use diagnostic tools and formative and summative assessments to monitor children’s progress and ensure they are acquiring good understanding and knowledge. Ensuring that schools follow a curriculum promoting a culture of high expectations and success is highly relevant. [p. 147]

But, this is not all. Improved teaching of low SES students is only one factor in improving their education outcomes. It needs to be complemented by adequate resources and support structures and services for these students and their families. Implementing a comprehensive program to improve school outcomes for low SES students is the major ongoing challenge facing Australian governments today.

Trevor Cobbold

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