While a certain amount of stagnation following the summer holidays is perhaps to be expected, Rata Street School, Lower Hutt, Wellington, has made positive changes that have negated much of that drop-off, meaning teachers can immediately build on the progress made the previous year, rather than battling a ‘two steps forward, one back’ situation.
Dave Appleyard, principal and Glenda Stewart, deputy principal of Rata Street School in Naenae - and their colleagues - have had significant success combatting a problem that many teachers can relate to the so-called ‘summer effect’.
It’s vital that teachers devise strategies to get student core skills that have been neglected over the sunny months back to where they were before the break.
They first noticed that there was an issue back in 2009, when they realised that they had been analysing a data set that had portrayed a more positive outcome concerning students’ writing than was the reality.
“For the first time in 2009 we had matched data from the previous year. When we analysed the data from November 2008 to November 2009, it was a very different story. Many kids hadn’t actually made any progress.
“We realised what was actually happening was that the kids’ writing would drop back [over the break], then it would improve, then drop back again [over the next summer school holidays]. So actually, over the course of several years, their progress was minimal.
“In some cases, it would take them the whole year to regain what they’d lost, so they would end the year in a similar place to where they were the previous year.”
Glenda says the situation Rata Street School found itself in, oblivious to the data reality, demonstrates how important it is to share information throughout a school, and to analyse data over time, not just the calendar year.
The discovery was a big wake-up call for the team. Because teachers were concentrating on their own class and trying to make progress February to November, a student’s level of writing exhibited at the beginning of the year was accepted as a base-line from which to build. Teachers were succeeding in accelerating students’ writing skills quickly, but without realising it, only to the level at which they had ended the previous year.
“We knew that we couldn’t really impact what was going to happen over the summer break at home. We were also aware that some research had already been done around the summer effect - in the USA they have summer school, for example, and in some South Auckland schools they are sending home reading books over the summer, but we decided to concentrate on what was happening here at school.”
Glenda and her team knew from the outset that information sharing and collaboration was the key. The entire staff discussed this newly discovered issue among themselves, and several strategies were considered for trial. Teacher only days were set aside to work on the issue. Teachers brought along samples of student writing from the end of the previous year. It was decided that these samples were to be passed to the teacher of the class that a particular student would be migrating to. In the past this had been relayed forward in the form of a test score and the actual writing sample sat in the kids’ portfolios. It was felt that by having the actual writing given to the new teacher the teachers could get a more visceral idea of what a student was capable of. A copy of this sample is then pasted into the front of the student’s writing work book. But is this for the student, or the teacher? It’s both, says Glenda.
“It’s for the teacher because if they’ve got the piece of writing instead of just a score, they can use the writing to begin teaching to specific student needs from day 1; we expect writing to start on the first day of the year. It’s for the kids, so they can remember all the good things they were doing in their writing when they left school for the summer break last year.
“It also creates a conversation between the teacher and the student, and a collective responsibility for continued progress. It’s about looking at their strengths from last year rather than ‘you’re not doing it right anymore’. For example, it’s more about saying ‘Can you add some more detail here [to your writing], because I can see that you could do this really well last year.”
The Rata Street team have also spent much time among themselves – and with students - addressing the ‘why’: demonstrating for students why it’s important that their writing continues to progress as they move through primary school. Students were shown graphs of where they need to be when they are ready to head to secondary school, and impressing upon them that incremental improvement year on year can get them there. It was a conversation that found its way into classrooms, staffrooms, and homes, says Glenda.
“That had a huge impact. I don’t think the kids had ever thought about it, and neither had parents. Neither had we if I’m really honest. We had been focused on what we had to do here at our school, but not the big picture through to college. We had been quite insular in our thinking.
“It created a climate of shared responsibility, between teachers, kids, and last year’s teacher. Everyone had a part to play in ensuring progress continues.”
Expectations also play an important role in the Rata Street strategy. There is now, says Glenda, the base-line expectation that a concerted effort by leaders, teachers and students in the first few weeks of the year can minimise any drop off caused by the summer holidays
The outcomes of this new focus and vigilance were encouraging almost immediately, says Glenda.
“In that first year, it was hugely exciting; we went from having the writing of 69 kids drop to 10. But we weren’t sure whether our changed practice had engendered these results, or whether we’d just had a good year.
“However, now we’ve done it for 5 years, we can definitively say that the changes we’ve made make a difference. We’re very clear now about making sure that teachers give the kids regular feedback and feed-forward about their writing. There’s the expectation too that the kids will act on that.
“There’s also a lot of celebration when kids are able to pick up where they left off. This year only four kids’ writing dropped after the holidays. Now we’ve got kids talking about it, they’ll say ‘have you marked that writing yet? I think I’ve stayed about the same, in fact I might even have gone up.’ They’re conscious of what we’re all trying to achieve.
“We have learnt a lot since this issue was first identified in 2009. If we were facing this issue now, we would do things a little differently. We would share the data ‘of concern’ with the kids and their parents, and use their knowledge to investigate WHY this may be happening. We would involve the kids and whānau in the process of deciding on what the intervention would be, and in measuring whether the intervention was successful, and what changes could be made to further minimise the summer effect.”
STRATEGIES TO MINIMISE THE SUMMER EFFECT
* Analyse data from November to November
* Develop a shared responsibility for ensuring that progress continues
* Share the big picture with everyone
* Make effective use of the previous year’s writing sample (teachers and students)
* Give students a writing book on day 1 of the year
* Set up an expectation that the teaching of writing will start on day 1 of the school year, and the standard of writing will NOT drop.
* Give regular feedback and feed-forward to the students, and expect that they will act on this feed-forward to improve their writing