If we are to create an equitable education system that enables all students to flourish, we need teachers who have high expectations, writes Christine Rubie-Davies 

The underlying tenet of our education system is that an equitable education enables all those who are prepared to work hard to achieve at high levels. Unfortunately, New Zealand does not have an equitable education system. The ability of some students to become successful is often constrained. Our most disadvantaged students, those from poor families and Māori and Pasifika students, are those most negatively affected by this system. Students from our poorer communities, such as Northland or Gisborne, are most vulnerable.

My work is in the field of teacher expectations. I have identified how teachers who have high expectations for all students make an enormous positive difference to achievement and psycho-social outcomes, regardless of the student background. Indeed, many of the high expectation teachers I originally identified were teaching in low decile schools. These teachers have strong beliefs that they can make a difference for their students and they put structures in place to ensure large learning gains are the result. Unfortunately, core elements of their teaching are not found in many New Zealand classrooms.

In a recent experimental study in which 84 teachers were randomly assigned to learn the practices of high expectation teachers, I was able to show that when regular teachers introduced high expectation principles to their classrooms, students made 28 percent additional learning gains in mathematics in just one year compared to their peers in the control group. Gains such as these are equivalent to more than one term’s learning in a year, and all students gained, no matter what school they were in, what year level, what decile, what ethnicity, or what gender. The more their teachers implemented the high expectation principles into their classrooms, the greater the gains.

So, what are high expectation principles? The first of these relates to ability grouping. Not one of the original group of high expectation teachers ability-grouped their students. Instead, they used flexible forms of grouping that meant that students learnt in mixed ability groups. All students were exposed to challenging learning experiences and all had the opportunity to blossom. They made huge learning gains as a result.

New Zealand has an entrenched tradition of ability grouping, both within class and across classes (streaming) but ability grouping is a key factor in creating an inequitable education system. New Zealand has one of the highest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers, and we ability-group at a higher rate than any other OECD country. Finland, whose educational success we often admire, has one of the lowest gaps between its highest and lowest achievers. Ability grouping in any form is not allowed in Finland.

Why is ability grouping a problem? Although teachers claim that students often change groups, the evidence shows that, overall, this is rare. Accounting for achievement, the ability group that students are placed in at 5 years of age predicts the stream that students will end up in at secondary school. And if you come from a poor home background or are Māori or Pasifika, you are much more likely than your peers to end up in a lower group than you should be. Once students are in a particular ability group, they learn different things. For high ability groups, work is fast-paced, challenging and exciting. For those in lower groups, the learning experiences are repetitive, skill-based and low level. Students achieve at different levels because they have had different learning opportunities. Experiments have shown that when supposed low ability students are placed with their high achieving peers, within one year they are achieving at similar levels, sometimes even outstripping them.

A further problem with ability grouping is its psychological and emotional impact on students. Strong self-belief leads to enhanced motivation and better achievement outcomes. 

A further problem with ability grouping is its psychological and emotional impact on students. Strong self-belief leads to enhanced motivation and better achievement outcomes. I have seen Year 1 classrooms with student reading levels on the wall. Imagine what it feels like to come to school day after day and see your name at the bottom level. It is not surprising that, for these students, a gradual erosion of self-belief occurs throughout schooling; they become disaffected with education and leave as soon as possible.

A second core high expectation principle is the fostering of a positive class climate. High expectation teachers create a classroom community in which students know their teacher cares for every one of them and students support each other, often working together on collaborative projects. Teachers create an environment in which all students are accepted as culturally located beings and in which they are expected to care for each other. These are warm, positive classroom environments where behaviour is managed positively. The inclusion of exciting, challenging tasks for all students means they are actively engaged and enjoy learning.

The third high expectation principle is goal setting. High expectation teachers set clear learning goals with their students, monitor learning closely, provide relevant feedback in relation to goals and provide students with autonomy in terms of who they wish to work with, specific learning activities they wish to engage in and how they wish to complete tasks. Students have responsibility for their learning but teachers work alongside them to support and encourage.

Goal setting has implications across schooling. For example, at the NCEA levels, if students are aiming for a particular career, they need to know early on what subjects they need to take and what they will need to do to pass. Unfortunately, since the introduction of NCEA, it has become increasingly common for teachers to direct students into particular subjects that provide a Level 2 or 3 pass but do not enable them to get into university. These teachers believe that students are not capable of passing – but with high expectations and the right support from teachers, all students can achieve at the very highest levels.

So the answer is simple, if we are to create an equitable education system that enables all students to flourish, we need teachers who have high expectations and who provide high level learning opportunities that empower every student to be successful.

Professor Rubie-Davies is presenting High expectation teaching and the creation of equitable outcomes for all students: Implications for Northland schools at The University of Auckland in Whangarei International Speaker Series. This is the second of seven free public lectures in the series. It will take place on Wednesday, May 10, at 6pm.

Professor Christine Rubie-Davies is based in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice in the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education.

Leave a comment