How one common policy hinders change in schools

  • On 2015-12-17
  • change, curriculum, hinders, pedagogy, policy

 “Change is the point. It’s what we seek to do to the world around us.
Change, actual change, is hard work. And changing our own minds is the most difficult place to start.
It’s also the only place to start”,
Seth Godin

Put up with end up with


I have been working across 10 secondary colleges recently as part of some work we are doing. The position is essentially being a critical friend as teams from each of these schools enact curriculum and pedagogical change projects. The schools cover the span of the metropolitan area and also have students from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds.

It has been a learning journey for me as well as for each of the teams. I feel I could almost write a book on managing change within schools from the lessons I have learnt for being part of this project. However today I want to focus on one small aspect that was uncovered during one critical friend meeting that has a MAJOR impact in schools.

In one school the project team has been working on enacting diagnostic testing and embedding formative assessment techniques into the planning and teaching of Mathematics and English courses at two year levels. As part of their research the team triangulated data to assess the current “level” of their students. The triangulation data involved NAPLAN, PAT scores, Common Assessment Tasks and classroom observation (on-balance judgement). The on-balance judgement had the participating teachers writing down the relative levels for each student using a progression grid the team produced with support from Narelle Wood (one of the Intuyu Consulting team).

What the team found was that in the cohort of students there were 2 students below standard by 1-2 years, 9 students 1-2 years ahead of standard, and the remainder were a mixture of at-standard and just above standard. Yet, the whole cohort of students (except for one student) received at-standard on their end of year reports the previous year. The one student who did not receive at-standard was reported as being 6 months above standard.

When I asked why there was a discrepancy the teachers told me that it was school policy that teachers had to justify giving students grades above or below standard. In other words, if you as a teacher wanted to put a below-standard or above-standard grade on a student report then you had to provide evidence. On the other hand giving a student an “at standard” grade did not require any evidence. I then began inquiring across a wide range of schools that we work with and found this policy or practice was quite common across most (if not all) secondary schools.

I think this is a cane toad of a policy and schools have not explored the impact this common policy / practice has had on hindering effective curriculum and pedagogical change within secondary schools.


Let’s unpack some of the potential consequences that such a policy / practice can have within a school:

Why should a teacher expend any effort to rigorously track the “level” their students achieve if they are not held accountable for it? Since they are held accountable for justifying above or below standard grades why give anyone those grades? It would appear to teachers that it would be time consuming to track each and every student and justify the level the students achieved so why bother?

How could they identify the actual level of the student anyway? They would need to have de-constructed the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for the subject area. That’s a lot of effort for an individual teacher and the school does not have it so why bother?

How would we measure that anyway? Our assessment is not designed to measure student progression against the Australian Curriculum (AusVELS, etc.) and we haven’t structured our teaching and learning based on progressing students from their current level so why bother?

This blanket “at standard” practice also intrinsically leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, skills and understandings because teachers have not expended the effort to identify and come to an agreement of what “at-standard” looks like (let alone below or above standard).

Teachers don’t actually know if their teaching actually makes a difference to the learning progression of each and every student because they don’t have an articulated “what it looks like” for being below, above, or at-standard.

Even worse, why would teachers expend a lot of effort to differentiate for student point of need if they can give a blanket “at standard” at the end? They teach to the middle and hope that it is enough. Teaching equals learning doesn’t it?

Students performing above and below standard will also be impacted. If a student came into the school as an academic high achiever, over time they will stop putting in the effort to do better because the best they can get is “at standard”. Equally for students with gaps in their understanding and knowledge they will still get “at standard”. Is it surprising that an area of challenge for most schools is supporting the progression of academic high achievers?

Finally, why should a teacher change their practices if there are no accurate measures of the impact of their teaching?

I have no doubt that when a school really explores this there will also be a cascade of other impacts they could identify (e.g. perhaps teachers mis-attributing the source of why students are not progressing with their teaching?)

The Way Forward

What would I do to shift this? I would begin by making it policy that in one year’s time teachers have to justify the level they have assigned to each student. Then over the next year I would resource the teachers to:

de-construct the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for each subject area

develop teachers ability to use formative assessment practices to elicit evidence of progression and become data informed

support the teachers in redeveloping both formative and summative assessments

develop the capacity of teachers to backward plan

change the reports

tell parents this is what you are doing and why

Unless this policy / practice is changed, all the great evidence based practice suggested by educational researchers such as John Hattie (What Works Best in Education) won’t stick.



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