But to move from good to great, schools need to have their own measures of gathering multiple types of data on the performance of their students. Strategies focused on enhancing the skills of teachers in, for example, literacy, numeracy, student behaviour management and data evaluation.
Teachers need to be given responsibility for changing classroom practices.
Teaching has long beeb a highly individualistic craft, done in private behind the classroom door. The tendency to believe that a teacher’s personality and performance are entwined has created a defensiveness in the profession when classroom practice is scrutinised.
Even teachers considered to be good at their job often see any critique of their methods as a personal criticism. There’s a notion that the hand of God touched you, therefore you’re a great teacher, when in fact there’s a set of skills that are learnable.
Personality doesn’t have that much to do with it. There are outstanding teachers who are highly introverted or and outstanding teachers who are highly extroverted.
Getting teachers to observe each other in the classroom and then share information about their methods, and collaborate on lesson planning is a key element to teacher improvement.
To overcome reluctance to the approach, staff were organised into three-person teams, where two would observe the teacher in class, then meet to discuss what worked.
According to Wayne Craig, ” If you want to improve your teaching you have to be open to change, you have to be objective but you have to be observed,” This was the argument Mr Craig put to schools in Melbourne’s Northern Metropolitan Region. “As soon as we put the argument like that, we had lots of schools jump in straight away. We’ve now got thousands of teachers observing each other teach.”
“Teaching without that sort of input is a bit like driving a car for 30 years — you don’t become a better driver because you’re not thinking about what you’re doing and no one’s telling you what you’re doing right or wrong.”
The region’s student results in literacy and numeracy have been steadily improving. Last year it became the second-best performing region in the state, with results in years 3, 5 and 7 at or above the state mean in reading, writing and numeracy. Year 9 was the least impressive, with results slightly below the mean in literacy and well below it in numeracy.
The region’s VCE results are rising and the number of year 12 students going to university has jumped from 36 per cent in 2006 to 40 per cent.
Student morale has climbed to or above the state mean level in most grades, according to the annual survey that all Victorian government school students in years 5 to 12 complete about their perceptions and experiences of schooling.
Teachers are more optimistic about their impact on students. The regional data shows a big improvement since 2006 in teacher opinions about student willingness to learn, according to the annual staff surveys collected by all schools. But the region’s tracking data on schools also reveals that although many are showing evidence of sustained improvement, particularly at primary level, some are not.
Progress has been patchy in secondary schools, partly because of their complexity.
Meredith Peace, deputy president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union, says most teachers have welcomed the changes.
“Getting people to work collaboratively and reflect on what they’re doing in the classroom is a very difficult thing to do,” she says. “But if our members are given support by the department to do that they’ll react positively, and so far that’s what’s generally happened.”
Professor Hopkins, who spent most of last month working with principals in the northern suburbs, is upbeat about the region’s ability to continue improving. He says the transformation of a school system depends on neighbouring schools developing and sharing excellent practices, a habit that takes time to nurture.
“When I first came here principals and teachers were very sceptical, insular and conservative,” says Professor Hopkins, who is also now working with schools in the department’s Loddon Mallee and Grampians regions. “Their overriding attitude was that if kids are disadvantaged there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s changed dramatically. There’s been a massive cultural shift in the attitudes and professional horizons of principals and teachers.”