COVID coaches: tutoring only works when backed by quality teaching directed at the students who really missed out

By Jenny Gore

The injection by NSW and Victorian State Governments of more than half a billion dollars on tutoring programs to help students catch up after Covid-19-related disruptions to normal schooling is welcome.

However, there is a need to ensure the intervention is more than an economic ‘sugar hit’ and that it leads to sustained improvement in outcomes for students, particularly the most disadvantaged.

There is decent evidence that tutoring programs can work, but not all tutoring programs are effective. Research on small group tuition, for example, indicates that the quality of the teaching in small groups may be as important, or more important, than the precise size of the group.

It is vital that approaches to tutoring used by schools to help improve student learning outcomes post Covid-19 have been demonstrated to have positive effects, and they should be rigorously tested in this setting.

Importantly, they must target the most disadvantaged students to support their long-term learning.

Research we conducted last year with Stage 2 (Year 3 and 4) students in NSW schools showed that, contrary to widespread expectations of ‘learning loss’, by Term 4 most students were where they should be, despite the 8-10-week period of learning from home. This is testament to the valiant efforts of teachers, leaders, and families. The narrowed curriculum when schools returned to classroom teaching was no doubt also a factor.

However, the remarkable headline result masks a more complex picture. Year 3 students in the most disadvantaged schools achieved significantly less growth in 2020, equivalent to two months, in mathematics relative to their 2019 peers.

This evidence that remote learning affected disadvantaged students more than others underlines the importance of focusing subsequent interventions on these students.

But I argue that a wider focus on quality teaching across the board is important in the post-pandemic recovery, because when teaching improves, student outcomes improve.

In his address last week, Federal Education Minister Allan Tudge made clear his commitment to raising student learning outcomes, both in disadvantaged settings and among high performing students.

While it’s common to blame teachers for falling education standards on national and international standardised testing, we must not fall into this trap. If there’s real interest in improving student outcomes across the board, there must be investment in improving the quality of teaching. For that to have an impact, we need to understand what constitutes quality teaching and focus on improving teaching, not teachers.

As a profession, we have struggled to come to agreement on what we mean by good teaching. In my experience as a teacher and education researcher, good teaching involves nurturing students’ intellectual depth while ensuring a positive learning environment, and helping students to see the value of their work beyond school. 

This is the basis of the Quality Teaching Model we have developed, which is delivered through the professional development program Quality Teaching Rounds.

Distinct from professional development that asks teachers to focus on improving the teaching of a particular topic or a particular set of skills, our approach focuses on enhancing teaching in general.

Teachers work in professional learning communities in which they observe and analyse lessons in each teacher’s classroom. They are guided by a conceptual framework, the Quality Teaching Model, that focuses on the intellectual demands of the lesson, the quality of the learning environment and the extent to which learning is made meaningful for students.

Teachers are able to judge and refine the quality of their own teaching, and the teaching of their peers, in a positive and supportive environment, using a shared language and simple yet rigorous coding. This leads to significant improvements in teacher confidence and morale, as teachers feel encouraged and recognised for good work.

Last year we were able to demonstrate that the students of teachers who participated in our Quality Teaching Rounds program achieved an additional 25% learning growth in maths (two months in an eight-month period). 

Importantly, in disadvantaged schools the effects were even stronger.

All children can learn and all teachers are capable of delivering great teaching.

At the core of our work is driving improvements in the quality of teaching and student outcomes in all educational contexts, particularly where inequities exist. And doing so in ways that honour the complexity of teaching and demonstrate respect for teachers.

The success of the tutoring programs being used by schools to help students recover post-Covid-19 will depend heavily on the quality of the tutoring they provide. Tutors need to be really clear about what they’re trying to achieve and how best to help. For the current programs to succeed, the quality of the teaching of these tutors will be paramount.

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is currently leading the Teachers and Teaching Research Program, which represents a culmination of more than a decade of research, mostly undertaken in collaboration with key colleagues at the University of Newcastle.

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