Education needs to be informed by evidence

Innovation is always on the agenda in education but the COVID pandemic in 2020 made it a top priority. Many schools made a swift and more or less successful transition to online teaching. The schools that did this most successfully were largely those that were already high functioning schools, with strong collaborative teaching cultures and robust systems in place. The widespread adoption of technology for teaching was not a ‘disruptive’ force that changed the traditional stratifications in education systems.

This means that while much of the innovation during the COVID crisis was born out of the urgency to do something rather than nothing, over the longer term we need to think about innovation in a more analytical way. Most importantly, we must draw a distinction between innovation and experimentation. Not all seemingly bright ideas are good ideas – open plan classrooms and seating arrangements where students can’t see the teacher come to mind.

Education still needs to be evidence informed. Innovation is not an excuse to disregard everything we know about effective teaching and learning. Otherwise, doing something is not better than doing nothing.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Year 1 Phonics Check

The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check was introduced in all English primary schools in 2012. Since then, there have been substantial improvements in Year 1 and 2 students’ decoding skills as measured by the Check, and promising signs of improvement in standardised reading assessments in later years.

After several years of sometimes vigorous debate and consistent evidence-based advocacy from researchers, educators, and parent groups, the Year 1 Phonics Check is beginning to be adopted around Australia.

  • It has been implemented in South Australian primary schools each year since 2018
  • More than 500 primary schools have joined a voluntary trial in NSW in August 2020
  • An online version has been provided to all schools by the federal government in August 2020

It should go without saying (but apparently still needs to be said) that phonics instruction is one element of an effective reading instruction program, albeit an essential one. Students also need comprehensive instruction in the language and meaning aspects of literacy. It should also be self-evident that, just like any other assessment, the stated benefits of the check derive from the judicious use of the data to inform improvements in teaching practices.

The message about the educational value of the Year 1 Phonics Check is reaching policy makers, schools, and the wider community. Below is a selection of articles and reports that provide accurate information about the Year 1 Phonics Check — what it is and isn’t, why it was developed, and what evidence exists of its benefits for students and teachers.

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Grattan report is on the right track but could be even better

The latest report from Julie Sonneman and Peter Goss at the Grattan Institute was published on Monday. The Grattan report didn’t get a lot of media attention because the more obviously newsworthy part of the report – estimates of learning losses — was gazumped by a CIS report a few weeks ago.

Estimates of learning losses necessarily make a lot of assumptions that make it hard to know how accurate they are but it is fair to say that many children will have made less progress in their literacy learning in the past few months than they usually would have in school, and in some cases will have lost progress they had made since the beginning of the school year. This is not reason to panic, but it is reason to have a comprehensive plan to help these children catch up.

The Grattan report has a characteristically measured set of proposals for schools to regain some of the academic ground lost during the Covid crisis. The fact that Sonneman and Goss understand that children’s literacy learning will recover only by providing high quality literacy instruction is a welcome antidote to some of the other ideas floating around.

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Children lost between the lines long before high school

At the start of last year, 17,000 ­­12- and 13-year-olds walked into high school classrooms all across the country unable to read even at a minimal level. They achieved scores below the minimum standard in the Year 7 National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy reading test. A further 35,000 students achieved only the minimum standard, in which they can barely find basic information in simple written text.

Similar numbers of students achieved at and below the minimum standard in Year 5 in 2017 and in Year 3 in 2015, indicating their literacy difficulties had been identified but never remediated.

For these students the challenge of remote learning without the support of their teachers and peers would have been frustrating and probably futile.

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