Partnership leads Tasmanian schools to higher ground

Professor Tony Townsend of the Griffith Centre for Educational Research

The troubled state of the Tasmania’s education system has been known for some time. What is less known is the role Griffith University is playing in helping the state and its schools turn the situation around.

Professors Tony Townsend and Greer Johnson from the Griffith Institute for Educational Research and Anne Bayetto from Flinders University have partnered with Tasmania’s Department of Education for a large-scale project to deliver professional development to school leaders with Griffith’s Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) program.

PALL is a unique University/industry partnership because its genesis came from industry seeking a solution. The Australian Primary Principals Association originally engaged Griffith researcher, Professor Neil Demspter, to develop a program designed to help principals lead literacy reforms in their schools in 2009.

The PALL solution helps school leaders develop literacy intervention activities, based on their better understanding of the processes involved in learning to read, better use and analyses of data, and the constant evaluation of interventions required to create and maintain high standards.

There are five modules, spread across the school year, that consider leadership, data analysis, planning and evaluating aspects that are needed to develop student learning in the “BIG 6” elements of reading. These are oral language, Phonological awareness, letter/ sound knowledge (phonics), vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

At the core of the program is increasing the capacity of principals and teachers to more effectively use data collected from reading assessments.

“This is not exactly new for teachers, they’ve been collecting and using data forever,” said Professor Tony Townsend who is leading the program.

“What PALL does is demand a more disciplined dialogue about the data to identify what needs doing, and then provide principals with the tools they need to support teachers to respond with appropriate programs. Then they have to make sure there is constant evaluation of the program they’ve developed.

“But that data needs to be more than just NAPLAN, so we look at how does the school identify and document learning, engagement and achievement? Can they pull other data from other places, do they need more? It’s quite school specific.”

Around 130 Tasmanian schools will be completing the program over the three years, with up to three leaders from each school attending. It is hoped the large scale of the project will support a change of culture in Tasmanian schools.

“The program is most effective when leadership is spread beyond the principal, as they’ve got more than enough on their plate already. However, the full support of the principal is still critical to improving reading. The principal can’t just pass off this responsibility to someone else,” Professor Townsend said.

Each school is expected to use their improving data analysis skills and leadership to identify literacy issues and create viable interventions to address them. Each school’s solution is unique. The plan identifies what is to be done and the resources needed to ensure the highest possibility of success.

The intervention plan is then expected to be put in place in the year following the workshops.

In addition, there is a 3-year research component built into the contract to assist schools with implementation and to monitor outcomes. The research collects data on how the program has supported school leaders go about leading reading interventions in their schools and also involves visits to schools to get a deeper understanding of what leaders actually do when leading interventions.

“Research informs the program which feeds back into more research and a better program, so PALL evolves quite quickly and can be very responsive to local needs,” he said.

PALL has expanded from primary school principals in disadvantaged schools to both primary and secondary schools and to special groups such as the middle school associations (a secondary school and its feeder primary schools) and the Learning in Families Together (LIFT) group of schools that are trying to raise the level of family interaction in their schools.

Griffith Enterprise consistently works with the Tasmanian Professional Learning Institute and the Tasmanian department of Education to ensure contracting, budgeting and schedules are appropriate to the project.

The program is in the first year of its contract with the Tasmanian Department of Education and it is expected the first interventions will commence in 2018.