New research from the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) and Monash University has identified a potential solution that could dramatically improve learning for those students who are significantly behind their peers.

Nationally, up to 1 in 5 students starts secondary school 3 or more years behind their peers, having scored at or below minimum standards for reading. A similar share isn’t meeting this standard in mathematics. 

Without support, these students will struggle to engage in their schooling and are at greater risk of not completing Year 12 and having their lifelong opportunities limited.  

Many schools have been searching for and trialling different approaches to see what delivers the best results for helping these students. 

New research from the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) and Monash University has identified a potential solution that could dramatically improve learning for those students who are significantly behind their peers.

Teachers and schools are doing what they can to help students  

Most young people learn foundational literacy and numeracy skills in primary school and arrive at secondary school ready and able to fully participate in the curriculum.  

However, a significant number of students start secondary school without these basic skills. Those from equity groups and male students are at higher risk of needing additional supports beyond primary school.   

A new survey of secondary school staff by AERO and Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has found that around half of secondary schools are providing support for students who struggle with literacy and numeracy beyond tailored teaching in the general classroom. But 2 in 5 teachers and leaders say they aren’t confident that the support being offered at their school is effective. National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data suggests their concerns are well founded, as between Years 7 and 9, the percentage of students who are at or below the national minimum standards for reading grows from 1 in 5 to 1 in 4. 

Proportion of students at or below national minimum standards in 2021

Secondary school teachers are not trained to develop students’ foundational skills, and until now, there hasn’t been a clear understanding of what supports are most effective.  

New review points towards the most effective way to help students 

The new research review has found it is not too late to help these students catch up. It identified a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework as the most effective approach for schools to use to help students that have significant gaps in their skills. 

The core of MTSS is using teaching methods that have been shown by evidence to be the most effective way to teach, such as explicit instruction. Using these methods to teach all students, is the single biggest influencer on the number of students that will need additional support.  

The framework requires that students are tested when starting secondary school to identify those that need further support, and the specific skills they need to develop. The most effective interventions are those that provide for small group or even one-to-one tuition, with time found within the school day. The final component of MTSS is ongoing assessment to ensure students are developing their skills and that the interventions are working. 

Some schools are already implementing a package of tiered supports – and it is working 

Most research about MTSS comes from the United States and from a primary school context, however, there are secondary schools in Australia that are already implementing a MTSS- style of intervention and reaping the benefits. One such public school is Como Secondary College in Western Australia.  

Como began its intensive learning program more than a decade ago. It includes testing students on entry and offering additional small group classes – which are part of the school timetable – in Years 7, 8 and 9. Specialist teachers deliver the classes and are supported by teaching assistants who can help provide additional one-on-one support where needed. Up to a third of students enter the program each year. After 2 years, up to 75% are fully engaging in secondary school curriculum. 

What is needed for MTSS programs to become more widespread? 

Strong school leadership has driven the implementation and success of Como Secondary College’s intensive learning program. This is key to any school successfully adopting a tiered intervention framework. Education systems can also play an important role in helping to identify and overcome barriers faced by their schools (such as  the availability of professional learning in evidence-based teaching practice). 

Further research is required to inform guidance on how Australian secondary schools can best implement an MTSS framework. Right now, more clarity is needed on key questions such as when in the school day is the best time for additional supported learning, or what impact different levels of staff training have on student learning. 

For now, this research and the school guidance developed from this, can help secondary schools begin planning a more considered approach to supporting students who struggle with literacy and numeracy.  

This article was first published in The Mandarin.

About the authors

Dr Zid Mancenido, Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation, Australian Education Research Organisation, Dan Carr, Program Director, Australian Education Research Organisation, and Dr Kate de Bruin, Faculty of Education at Monash University.