Good schools make a difference

A new article, published online in Urban Education, looks at the impact of family, school, and neighbourhood contextual characteristics on the outcomes of children growing up in poverty. Using data on 424 children from seven schools in deprived areas of Chicago, the authors examined four school performance outcomes including children’s maths and reading levels, grades repeated, and behavioural problems. They conclude that the study validates the impact of poverty and other adversities on a child’s school achievement and behaviours.

They found negative associations at the family level; for example, household size and household adversity were significantly associated with the increased probability of repeating a grade, and children not living with their fathers were more likely to repeat a grade or have behavioural problems. There were also negative associations at a community level; for example, low neighbourhood education levels were negatively associated with children’s maths and reading scores.

However, children enrolled in high-performing schools had higher reading scores and higher maths scores compared with those from mid/low-performing schools. The authors suggest that interventions aiming to improve the quality of schools may mediate the negative effects of individual and neighbourhood disadvantages on children’s school performance.

Source: School and Behavioral Outcomes Among Inner City Children: Five-Year Follow-Up (2013), Urban Education.

Academies under-performing on GCSEs

NFER have released a new report analysing the progress between Key Stage 2 and GCSE of pupils attending academy schools and non-academy schools. The authors found that in 2011 and 2012 pupils at academy schools achieved, on average, higher attainment outcomes and made more progress between KS2 and KS4 than those at non-academy schools when taking into account both GCSEs and non-GCSE qualifications (eg, NVQs).

However, analysis of the 2012 data excluding non-GCSE qualifications show that academy schools (that had held that status for more than two years) had average GCSE scores that were significantly lower than non-academy schools. The authors say that this may indicate alternative entry policies into GCSE and non-GCSE qualifications, or that pupils in academies perform particularly well in non-GCSE subjects.

Longitudinal analysis of GCSE outcomes from 2007 to 2012 showed no significant improvement in the rate of improvement of GCSE results for academy schools over and above the rate of improvement in all schools.

The research took into account other school level factors that may have been associated with a variation in progress, including the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals and with special educational needs, as well as geographical location.

Source: Analysis of Academy School Performance in the 2011 and 2012 GCSEs (2013), NFER.

Mixed success of moving the best teachers to challenging schools

Encouraging good teachers to work in low-achieving schools makes a positive difference at primary school level, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in the US.

It presents findings from a randomised experiment that tested whether transfer incentives can improve student test scores and other outcomes in low-achieving schools. The intervention, known to participants as the Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI), was implemented in ten school districts in seven states. The highest-performing teachers in each district – those who ranked in roughly the top 20 per cent within their subject and grade span in terms of raising student achievement year after year – were identified. These teachers were offered $20,000, paid in instalments over a two-year period, if they transferred into and remained in designated schools that had low average test scores. The main findings of the study were as follows:

  • The transfer incentive successfully attracted high-performing teachers to lower-performing schools and retained them in these schools during the two years.
  • Transfer incentives had a positive impact on maths and reading achievement at elementary school level (age 6–11). These impacts were equivalent to raising achievement by between 4 and 10 percentile points relative to all students in their home state.
  • There was no impact on student achievement at the middle school level (age 11–14) in either maths or reading.

Source: Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment (2013), Institute of Education Sciences.

The impact of alternative teacher training programmes on pupil achievement

New research by Mathematica Policy Research has assessed the mathematics achievement of pupils taught by teachers from two highly selective recruitment and training schemes that run in the US – Teach for America (TFA) and Teaching Fellows. TFA works with graduates from some of the best universities and places them for two years. Teaching Fellows recruits both graduates and professionals looking to change careers, and expects participants to make a long-term commitment to teaching. Both schemes place their teachers in hard-to-staff schools in deprived areas.

The study took place in 2009/10 and 2010/11 in schools identified as having two or more classes that would be teaching the same maths course. At the beginning of the year, pupils in each school (n=8,689) were randomly allocated either to a class taught by a TFA or Teaching Fellow teacher, or to a class taught by a comparison teacher (who entered teaching through traditional or other, less selective programmes). Exams taken at the end of the year showed that TFA teachers produced gains significantly greater than teachers who came through traditional teaching programmes or other alternative but less selective certification schemes, but the effect size (ES=+0.07) was very small. Still, this was estimated to be the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of school for the average pupil nationwide. In contrast, there were no differences in maths outcomes between Teaching Fellows and their controls.

In the UK, Rebecca Allen from the Institute of Education (IOE) presented findings of new research into Teach First at the BERA Conference. Like TFA, Teach First places graduates with good degrees in challenging classrooms. The IOE study found that the introduction of Teach First teachers produced no school-wide gain in the first year, but in years two and three there were gains equivalent to a boost of one grade in one of a pupil’s eight best subjects.

Source: The Effectiveness of Secondary Math Teachers from Teach For America and the Teaching Fellows Programs (2013), Institute of Education Sciences.

Examining the connection between music and reading

This study published in Journal of Research in Reading examines the correlation between musical skills and reading skills, and investigates whether musical training has a positive effect on reading ability. A total of 159 primary school children from eight classes in Germany participated in the study. Children in the experimental group received special musical training twice a week for eight months, while children in the comparison group had additional training in visual arts to the same extent as the musical training. A second comparison group did not receive any special training for the period of the study. Assignment to the different groups was randomised.

Pre-tests (a standardised test, a questionnaire that explored socio-economic background, and music and reading measurements) were conducted before the training began, and then reading skills and musical ability were tested again immediately after the training had been administered. Key findings were as follows:

  • Rhythmical abilities (the ability to differentiate between rhythmic patterns and tone lengths) were correlated significantly positively with decoding skills (both reading accuracy and reading prosody – the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech).
  • Tonal skills (discrimination of pitch and melodic/tonal patterns) were not correlated with reading skills.
  • The special musical training had a significant effect on reading accuracy in word reading.

Source: The Effects of Musical Training on the Decoding Skills of German-speaking Primary School Children (2013), Journal of Research in Reading.

Past experience matters most to schools, but research evidence is catching up

The Sutton Trust submitted two questions to NFER’s latest Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey, and the responses have been analysed and published in a new report. One question asked respondents to identify how their school decided which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupil learning. The most popular response was that their school used past experience to make these decisions, with 61% of primary teachers and 49% of secondary teachers choosing this option.

However, schools are increasingly using evidence to inform decision-making – 43% of primary teachers and 40% of secondary teachers said that their school made decisions by considering research evidence on the impact of different approaches. This figure was up from 36% in the same survey last year.

The respondents were also asked how the Pupil Premium was spent in their schools. Early intervention schemes ranked most highly as the spending priority in all schools (23%). This was followed by additional teaching assistants and more one-to-one tuition at primary level, and more one-to-one tuition at secondary level. However, 30% of respondents did not know what the main priority was in their school.

Source: NFER Teacher Voice Omnibus March 2013 Survey: Spending Priorities for the Pupil Premium (2013), NFER.