Working with an Outlier
Written by Jody Unterrheiner
Last year we had four ‘control’ government schools where we were testing the children’s reading throughout the year (at the end of each term); but not working with the schools or training the teachers. We also had 16 ‘test’ schools which we were closely working with to compare against. For our ‘test’ schools, we had trained the teachers in improved methods of teaching reading and writing, then would try to follow up the schools with observation, feedback and further training when necessary.
Obviously we were hoping to prove (and have evidence to show) that the schools we were working with had better reading levels than the schools that we were not working with. However we encountered one problem – an outlier – Laroo P7 Primary School. This government school had not received our phonics training (although the deputy head teacher had attended a training of mine about 3 years ago). However the results for this school were better than some of the schools we were working with. How could this be?
At the end of third term last year, the average correct words per minute for P3 children (equivalent of roughly third grade) in the ‘test’ government schools we were working with was 31 words. At our control schools, the average was 17 correct words per minute, but Laroo P7 sat at 29 words per minute – what? They were skewing our results!
What was it about this school that was different to the other control schools? Our lowest performing control school sat at 7 correct words per minute for P3 children. How can Laroo P7 be so different?
After some badgering from these control schools, we decided to train them this year and work alongside them; creating new ‘control schools’. I completed the training of Laroo P7 training this week and I can see why they are an outlier:
- When I first entered the office to introduce myself to the head teacher and present a summary of their term 1 reading report, he pulled out a folder that had all our reading reports from last year to compare the results to see if there was any improvement.
- The teachers were enthusiastic during the training and were engaged the whole time!
- The deputy head teacher attended two days of the training and the head teacher sat in for part of the training.
- My colleague and I were offered lunch at school each day (which we refused since we ate beforehand) but then we had to participate in some serious banter about why we were refusing their hospitality and would not eat their food. The conclusion from the head teacher was I wanted to achieve a “college figure”.
- At the end of the first day the deputy handed my colleague and I a brown envelope each with what she described as ‘something small’ to help with our transport to get to and from her school for the training. I really need to elaborate about this point. To some, this might sound like I am accepting money from ‘poor schools’. But here is how I stand on this: apart from training and skills, I do not give away anything for free to schools. I recommend that schools buy a training manual I have produced; and when I hold centralised training in town I ask them to organise their own transport to get to me. I don’t give handouts: I have seen how in the past handouts, food, sodas and certificates become the main drawcard at training events and the content of what is taught is lost (or never even found). Paying for our transport (boda costs) shows that they respect us, they value what they are doing, and they want to show appreciate to us by paying for our transport. It also shows that the school is willing to invest in what we are doing and we will partner together to achieve something great. I was recently approached by a charity to partner with them (with the drawcard of potentially receiving some funding) but they wanted me to give things to schools for free. After much deliberation I am going to turn down this opportunity because I don’t feel it reflects how we work and will destroy the reputation of our organisation.
- Finally, on the last day of training I spoke with the head teacher about our training manuals which would help teachers to teach their new skills, he told me to return on Tuesday and his school would buy 3.
- The head teacher, deputy and all staff urged us to return soon to visit them and observe their teaching and help as much as we can. They also said to invite them to any further training we have and they will make sure their teachers will be there.
- Finally, I explained the school’s reading results and how they are ranked number 6 out of 20 (even without the training). The teachers clapped and cheered; were proud that a “school like ours could achieve such results” (their words) and were adamant to improve their results for the end of term test.
Laroo P7 I am glad you are no longer an outlier but that we are working in partnership to improve education in your school.