While boys usually lag behind girls in reading by the time they’re in Year 10, going to a co-ed or single-sex school makes little difference to their achievement levels in this subject, according to a new study.
The findings, part of a joint ongoing research initiative by Flinders University and the Australian Catholic University, are based on the 2018 PISA data – a nationally representative sample of schools from all states and territories and the three school sectors, which includes results from about 14,000, 15-year-old students surveyed over three years, most in Year 10.
Dr David Curtis, Associate Professor at Flinders University’s College of Education and Dr Peter Nielsen said that at the highest levels of literacy achievement, males and females are about equally represented. However, males are over-represented among very low achievers.
“There are very strong peer effects within schools, especially for less advantaged students. Students in low-SES schools do much worse than those in average or high-SES schools. The difference is about two years of learning,” the academics wrote, noting that the story is slightly different for math and science results.
“In mathematics and science, boys on average scored a few points higher than girls, but this effect is small. It is equivalent to, at most, about one term of learning.”
The Educator recently spoke to Dr Nielsen about the findings and what they mean for principals of low-SES schools who are looking for successful strategies to bridge this literacy achievement gap in their classrooms.
“Students are diverse. Some low-SES students are high achievers; 13% of low-SES students are in the highest reading achievement quartile, so do not assume that low-SES determines student potential. Some educators make this appalling and damaging assumption,” Dr Nielsen told The Educator.
“SES is a composite measure including parental education, occupation and wealth. Parental education is a much better predictor of achievement than is wealth, so schools might consider this aspect of students’ backgrounds.”
Dr Nielsen noted that low-SES students lack some of the higher SES advantages, like books at home and models of home literacy practices.
“For example, low-SES students typically have much less exposure to and participation in oral language exchanges at home,” he said.
“This leads to lower initial school achievement than their higher SES peers and that gap widens over time. Early identification and intervention are vital to prevent the persistence of disadvantage.”
A shift in focus is needed
Dr Nielsen said while teachers know that peer influences can be strong, less is known about how they operate.
“Some people clearly believe that teachers are entirely responsible for student achievement. Many of AITSL’s recent initiatives have focused very strongly on teacher performance,” he said.
“The research evidence is very clear: 80% of the variation in student achievement is related to students’ home backgrounds and students’ own dispositions; 20% of achievement variation is related to the school and its characteristics, including peer influences.”
Dr Nielsen said a much stronger focus on the 80% related to students’ backgrounds is needed, as well as stronger focus on the influences of peers within classrooms.
“Teachers and leaders have vital roles, but they should not be held accountable for factors over which they have no control,” he said.
“We do know that, to some extent, the behavioural climate of classrooms is a product of students’ collective actions, moderated by teacher influences.”
However, Dr Nielsen said student norms drive other dimensions of school life.
“For example, high aspirations, which are often driven by expectations at home, can become the norm, at least among some groups of students,” he said.
“Equally, low aspirations can become accepted. Rewarding high aspiration and effort, by drawing attention to and praising them, is one possible strategy.”
Targeted interventions can make a difference
To address the disparity in literacy achievement between boys and girls by Year 10, Dr Nielsen suggests some targeted interventions teachers and leaders can consider.
“There are five clusters of interventions that evidence indicates make a difference,” he explained.
“The first is ensuring students have secured age-appropriate mastery of each element of the reading and writing processes [the ‘Big Six’]. The next is oracy: prioritising the language of reasoning and language-based skills for productive group work.”
Dr Nielsen explained this drives the third – nurturing usable knowledge networks with ‘desirably difficult’ text sets that include multiple perspectives, genres, modes, and disciplines.
“These are supported by the last two: developing executive functions for managing reading and writing processes, regulating emotions and, a teacher toolkit for engaging and motivating learning [e.g., process- and growth-oriented feedback; high expectations, low threat programs].”
A student-centered approach
When asked how principals of coeducational and single-sex schools can tailor their literacy programs to meet the needs of their diverse student populations effectively, Dr Nielsen said variation within a systematic theme is the key.
“A starting point is appreciating what students bring. Another is ensuring teachers have the resources to design programs that seek and support excellence,” Dr Nielsen said.
“This requires principals to ‘hold the line’ on programs being responsive to students [learning], on professional learning being a collaborative process that delivers solutions to challenges of practice, and on valid evidence being the cornerstone of decisions.”
Dr Neilsen said the following inputs can also help.
“Teachers should understand the root causes of literacy excellence and difficulties, and ensure all staff contribute to students’ literacy development through shared principles and practices,” he said.
“Also important is driving programs that cause independent reading at home, privileging knowledge-rich interventions, and nurturing peer diversity.”