Newsletter 128 - Schools That Work 11

“The Mail & Guardian has seen the executive summary of the study, Schools that Work II – Lessons from the Ground. The full report, which looked at what makes high-performing schools work and how some schools succeed against all the odds, is being finalised this week, according to the department.”

The study says:

  1. “One of the many advantages of using WhatsApp as a learning tool, which teachers mentioned, is that teaching and learning does not end when the school closes; it continues beyond the classroom’s borders.”
  2. The study found that in the best-performing schools, teaching and learning are prioritised and teaching time is used effectively.
  3. “Pupils must be at the school until the last day. On the last day, we still teach four periods – so there’s nothing like us missing time at the end or playing on the field or watching movies. We teach up to the end,” one of the teachers said.

“The study looked at the 111 best-performing schools and included 18 schools that formed part of a similar study in 2007. But more attention was paid to schools in quintiles one to four. No-fee schools fall under quintiles one to three.”

The study found that the high-performing schools

  1. “do nothing out of the ordinary – they simply do ordinary things extraordinarily”.
  2. “When asked: ‘To what would you attribute your good results in the NSC [national senior certificate] examinations?’, most teachers and the school management team members had to pause and think.
  3. “They struggled to answer this question or to pinpoint any particular thing that defined their success – they simply did what they were supposed to do, in the manner in which they were supposed to do it, and when they were supposed to do it,” the report reads.

“Primarily, the schools recognised that the environment in which teaching and learning takes places is paramount to ensure quality education.”

  1. “The climate has to be right … If it’s not right, then forget it. No best teacher in the world can be effective in an environment where there is no order and discipline. Get that right first and everything will fall into place,” said a deputy principal.
  2. The study also found that in high-performing schools, there is a positive attitude among teachers and pupils. Teachers are confident that pupils can learn and know that they have to help them, despite any difficulties the schools might find themselves in. Teachers accept no excuses, tackle tough challenges and have a “can-do” attitude, the report states.
  3. “We know that this might be our learners’ last opportunity because of the environment that they live in,” said one teacher.
  4. Pupils are also encouraged and motivated by their teachers’ attitude. “For our teachers, teaching is not just a job. They are our second parents. They spend time with us almost 24/7. I know they don’t get more money for doing this. But they do it because they care,” said a pupil.
  5. The study also reveals that strong leadership is key to high-performing schools. In the best schools, principals are consultative rather than controlling, which makes it easier for all members of the school community to achieve agreed-on goals.
  6. The schools said they tried to make subjects interesting and relevant so that pupils could see the relevance of what they are being taught.

“Referring back to various real-life problems as the learners learn different concepts in class helps learners to come to an ‘aha’ moment, when they see all the pieces come together – the point where abstractions and theory in class find expression in real-life applications,” the study reads.

  1. Some teachers interviewed for the study said that when pupils do badly, the teachers look at themselves instead of putting the blame on pupils.
  2. “If learners in another teacher’s class performed well but not in my class, then it’s obvious the problem is with me,” said a teacher.
  3. Although teachers at these schools say they focus on learning rather than improving matric results, they do equip pupils with “test-taking skills” to prepare them for the matric exams and make them less stressful.
  4. “Learners don’t do well in exams because the way we assess them in class is different from the way they are tested in the exam in terms of the cognitive demand, style and format. What better way to address this misalignment than to give learners tests using samples of past exam papers to help learners get familiar with exam style and format? And so there are no surprises when they finally write the exam,” said a teacher.
  5. Teachers who are also matric exam markers are aware of the common errors made by candidates in exams, and are therefore able to advise pupils and other teachers what to pay attention to.
  6. Some of the schools that excel specialise in maths and science, while their neighbouring schools have focused on other subjects.
  7. Another strategy that the high-performing schools have found to work is for teachers to move with their pupils from grades nine to 12. This practice, which is called looping, enhances teaching and learning.
  8. According to teachers and principals, looping addresses the content gaps that pupils might have before reaching grade 12.
  9. “Moving with learners through the different grades addresses complaints you always hear from grade 12 teachers about the quality of learners they receive in grade 12.
  10. “In our school, teachers take the same cohort of learners from grade nine to 12. So, I say to teachers: ‘You’ve been with these learners for the last four years; what is your excuse?’” said a principal.
  11. Another benefit is that teachers can start teaching on the first day of the second or third year of a looping cycle because they can pick up from where they left off the previous year.

“Some of the criteria used to determine the best-performing schools for the study included a matric pass rate of about 95% for four consecutive years from 2012 to 2015, schools that had 100 or more candidates in last year’s matric exams, and those that performed well in maths and physical science and obtained a high number of bachelor’s passes and distinctions.”

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