Hello, you're listening to a podcast from Teacher, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research – I'm Jo Earp. Today, principal Jenny Dowsett shares strategies that are raising numeracy outcomes for students at her primary school.
Jo Earp: Jenny Dowsett, thanks for joining us at Teacher. Can you give listeners an overview of the school first of all?
Jenny Dowsett: Yes, I'm principal at Moe (Elizabeth Street) Primary School. It's a school of approximately 117 students. The enrolment fluctuates up and down – it's a fairly transient area. We currently have seven classroom teachers and two teaching and learning coaches at our school. We have specialist teachers in Arts and PE and we also have numerous ES support staff because we have a lot of intervention programs.
Our school is set in a neighbourhood renewal area. Moe itself is a highly disadvantaged area, and our school is set in probably the most disadvantaged area of Moe. Our school population has around 20 per cent Koori students and 10 per cent Sudanese students, which is not diverse compared to a lot of Melbourne schools, but diverse for our area.
JE: Now, you've had a particular focus there on numeracy. What has that involved?
JD: It's been the major work for our school for our last Strategic Plan, which ran from 2010 to 2013, after the school had a diagnostic review. I joined the school halfway through 2011. ... One of the main key features was the employment of a mathematics coach, and that was funded through the [Victorian] maths specialist program, which was really beneficial for our school.
Our school wasn't large enough to have the two coaches or three coaches like a lot of other schools, so we actually partnered with another Moe school and we shared one coach at our school and two coaches at their school. We also topped up the maths specialist teacher funding with National Partnerships money, so that allowed us to have a full-time coach. So, you can imagine the impact of having a full-time teaching and learning coach with seven classrooms running, just for our size school.
Some of the other work that was done I think to start with was we improved the data literacy of all staff, and that included some elements like agreeing on the assessment schedule and having a cohesive approach, I guess, and mainly focusing on which assessments were actually useful.
So, we often find that teachers spend a lot of time testing and the testing doesn't always get used at the end. Data was collected and analysed by the numeracy coach, [she] collaborated with the classroom teachers to collect that data. Then to tighten that up, this year we've actually purchased a SPA program, and that's so that we can start putting all that tracking data together.
... Another key area that we worked on was building the knowledge of the classroom teachers, particularly around the content knowledge of mathematics. I'd have to say that [I think our] key success in this work is what we call our ‘school data-driven planning days'. So, that looks like all of our teachers collecting data on their students prior to teaching a unit of work. They bring this data to a meeting with their year level teams and also the numeracy coach. They identify each student's next point of learning. Then they look at the curriculum to be taught and they plan the next level of work to be taught for those students, as well as deciding which assessment data they'll bring back to the team to show evidence of progress. We work that on a five week cycle – so, every five weeks our teachers work with the numeracy coach, looking at their students' data, identifying their current point of learning and then planning for their next level of learning.
For us, if you ask any of the teachers which work they wouldn't want to lose from the school it's the data-driven work. It's costly, it probably costs the school close to $10 000 a year, because that requires us to release teachers every five weeks to spend half a day just planning for the next five weeks of work, but it's definitely had an impact on our classrooms.
JE: You've mentioned about the strategies there and how you've assessed that progress, obviously with the ongoing monitoring. What's been the impact of these improvement strategies? I understand that there [have] been some great results?
JD: It's a really good question because I started thinking 'Well, what is our evidence?' because we've been often saying we're doing really good work here. So, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence in that our teachers now are really confident in being able to identify the student's next point of learning, their confidence in the content has improved, [and] the student perceptions around learning maths is more positive.
As far as the school data goes – at the end of each unit of work, particularly around the 5/6s with their data, the coach puts together the pre-test data which shows where their gaps are. So, for example, our teachers recently did a unit of work on angles and our students had very little knowledge. In fact, [for] some of them, across the grid of what they were expected to know at Grade 5 and 6 was empty (looking at a grid we put in a red for what they don't know and a green for what they do know).
[Then]excitement when I visit a classroom a couple of weeks ago: the teacher showed me the grid and all the new learning has been filled in green, and [there are] masses of green across the grid. So, our pre- and post-tests are showing that the students are increasing their knowledge during the unit of work, but we also know that we need our kids to retain that longer term.
Our NAPLAN data shows that each year we're making a gain on the state average - some years it's small, but a gain's a gain. And we've also improved more than the state mean each year as well. ... And then, this year we looked at our NAPLAN data and found that 68 per cent of our Grade 5 students were medium to high level growth - so, our next target will be moving those students showing low growth and pushing everyone up towards high rates of growth.
JE: Obviously there's a lot of work being carried out on the numeracy side of things ... I understand the next target now is literacy outcomes?
JD: Correct, that is our next focus. When we had our review this year it was recognised that we'd been successful with moving the numeracy. We hadn't shown the same success with our literacy - not to the degree that we had with our numeracy. We don't want to lose focus on the progress that we've made with numeracy; we don't want that piston effect where ... we focus on maths and that goes up and now we're going to focus on literacy and that will go up and our maths will move down. So, we're trying to be very aware that we want to still keep our work with our numeracy and keep it going.
... We've also had the data-driven planning days in place for literacy, but what we've learnt from having a reflection is that we haven't had that process as tightly managed and monitored as we have with the numeracy. So, we're a little bit too quick to pull our literacy coach away - she also works in our wellbeing area and so she often gets pulled away from her work to support wellbeing and that means that we've lost some coaching time. So, one of our plans is to develop clarity around what coaching should be and also protecting that time, so that we don't interrupt it ourselves.
We have a matrix in maths that we've developed at the school that shows what should be taught and when, and how the student skills develop. We're now working on doing the same for literacy. Advice from our reviewer is to only focus on one area at a time, so we're going to be starting with writing and then build up the same skills we have in maths in that one area as a focus before we move on ...
JE: Jenny Dowsett, thanks very much for joining us at Teacher.
JD: No problems, it was my pleasure.
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As a principal, how does your school's strategic plan link to professional learning, classroom practice and student outcomes?
As a teacher, are you confident in being able to assess the next point of learning for individual students?