Supporting low SES students to catch up

There is nothing more radical than providing equal access to quality education.

A student's hand holds a pen as they work out a problem in an A4 workbook.

There is nothing more radical than providing equal access to quality education. Only when students’ ability, will and perseverance determines how well they perform at school will Australian society be truly inclusive, equitable and just.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Australia’s maths performance on an international level is declining and the gap in educational inequality is growing, with students at the bottom falling faster than those at the top.

As educators, it’s up to us to ensure every student is given the best possible opportunities for success and growth. But to do this, we need to understand what underlying factors are contributing to our students’ learning outcomes.

Does a student’s background really matter?

When it comes to learning, research tells us that the socio-economic status of a student matters. Studies like NAPLAN, PISA and TIMMS all show a clear connection between student background and performance in mathematics, with more disadvantaged students achieving lower results.

According to the 2015 TIMSS national report released by ACER, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, with at least one university qualified parent had a maths score 88 points above the average student. Only 18% of these students did not reach the intermediate benchmark for maths. By comparison, 59% of low socio-economic students whose parents did not complete their secondary education, failed to meet this same intermediate standard.

Recent results from PISA and NAPLAN actually show that the educational gap related to student background is growing in Australia. And It’s not a small gap — students in the lowest socio-economic quartile are a staggering three years behind those in the highest.

What’s even more troubling is that students who start off behind their peers in mathematics due to socio-economic factors often don’t catch up, falling further and further behind each year. This contributes significantly to the growing inequality in maths performance and education at large.

Approximately two thirds of the variation in student achievement comes down to student based factors like socio-economic background, prior knowledge and raw aptitude. While these factors obviously make a difference, they cannot be directly influenced by teachers or schools.

What can be, is the amount of learning that a student gains each year. The progress that they make in the classroom as a learner.

This means that a student’s family background is a driver of achievement, whereas student progress or growth is significantly influenced by the school they attend — quality of teaching access. By shifting our focus to progress as student growth, we can better understand the value a school adds to student learning.

How do schools affect progress?

Student achievement is considered a point in time measure of student level. Student progress, on the other hand, examines how much the same group of students has improved from one point to the next. It’s important to note that this is different to trends in student achievement, which show how the results of a year level of students change over time.

The value a school adds to learning is reflected in student progress because it gives a clearer picture of what learning is taking place in the classroom. There are a number of school related factors that contribute to progress, including, ‘school remoteness, sector and size’; ‘school advantage’ and ‘school-level factors’.

School remoteness, sector and size

It’s a popular misconception that school sector is strongly correlated to school performance. On average, student progress in public versus private schools varies by about one month across two years of primary schooling and a maximum of two months across two years of secondary schooling. Similarly, remoteness and school size have little impact on school results. The slightly higher progress of metropolitan students explained by socio-economic factors.

With little impact across the board, these factors are not considered direct drivers of student progress. Regardless of their background, students can walk into many different types of schools — big or small; remote or metropolitan; catholic, government or independent — and based on these factors alone, they can still progress in their learning.

School advantage

‘School advantage’ is determined by reviewing the factors like school remoteness and parent occupations and education levels. According to the Grattan Institute about 20-30% of school-level variation in progress can be attributed to school advantage. That means that a student who attends a more advantaged school is likely to make more progress than if they attended a disadvantaged school.

When we look at maths specifically, the gap between students in the least and most advantaged schools is significant. Students in disadvantaged secondary schools are making around half the progress in numeracy compared to students in advantaged schools. And in many cases, students in disadvantaged schools are making less than 12-months worth of growth each year.  

Results show the estimated progress of students grouped by their school ICSEA. Low, medium, and high advantage schools are the bottom ICSEA quartile, middle two ICSEA quartiles and top advantage ICSEA respectively. White values are the gap between highest and lowest groups. Coloured values are the years of progress gained from year 3.

Even more telling is the fact that students in disadvantaged primary schools who score high on numeracy in Year 3 make two years and five months less progress by the time they reach Year 9 as similarly capable students in more advantaged schools.

It comes as no surprise that students from low socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to attend disadvantaged schools. Often, this is where the gap grows. But just because a school is disadvantaged, it doesn’t mean its students can’t progress. There are many factors outside of advantage that have a big impact in student learning.

School-level factors

Preliminary research is showing that school-level factors like leadership quality, school culture, consistency of teacher practice and professional development are twice as important to student progress as school advantage. The Grattan Institute says ‘school-level factors could be driving differences in student progress’, but they also point out that more research in this area should be done.

A graph indicates factors related to socio-economic status including: average school-level factors 
(e.g teaching practices, school leadership, student cohort), state, sector, size and remoteness, & students with language background other than English, school advantage levels of achievement and progress in two bar columns.

This suggests that schools that focus on strategic leadership and improving teacher practice supported by ongoing professional development can have a big impact on student progress, regardless of their school socio-eonomic status. This means that students of all backgrounds should be able to progress in any school, as long as the school focuses on these highly impactful controllable factors. Some schools are already doing this, and the equalising effect is significant.

The equalising factor — students in disadvantaged schools are doubling their growth

Australia might not at large be providing a truly equitable education to students just yet, but it’s not all bad news.

Some students in disadvantaged schools are rapidly catching their more advantaged peers. In 2018, the mean improvement rate for students in disadvantaged schools using the Maths Pathway model was 2.61, compared to the still impressive improvement rate of 1.97 for learners in more privileged schools. In other words, Maths Pathway students in disadvantaged schools are rapidly catching up, providing a clear pathway for disadvantaged students to achieve and excel.

A simple bar graph shows the traditional classroom growth rate to much lower than the curriculum expectation 1.0 whilst Maths Pathway shows student growths rates to be significantly higher than the curriculum expectation.

Maths Pathway was created by two teachers who understand what equity means in the classroom. Richard Wilson saw firsthand the impact of a quality education during his childhood in South Africa and Justin Matthys spent the early years of his teaching career working with students who struggled to make progress. Together they created Maths Pathway so that every student, regardless of their background or their academic standing, could experience the joy that comes when you progress in maths.

To achieve this, the model focuses on teacher practice, professional learning and the use of data to personalise learning. This aligns with research that suggests these factors are key to student progress and the answer to stagnation in disadvantaged schools. Combined, these practices enable teachers to increase their impact in the classroom and meet every student at their point of need with the content that they’re ready to learn.

We know that every student and every school is different. And while there is a lot that we can’t control as teachers, there’s also a lot that we can. Supporting each and every one of our students to progress in their learning is the first step towards a truly equitable education system in Australia. We’re here to support you to make it happen in your classroom, because that’s the very reason Maths Pathway exists.

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Maths Pathway combines evidence-based practices in a holistic model that supports teachers to deliver differentiated teaching and achieve greater student growth in the classroom.

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