The report, released by libertarian think tank The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), identified six common themes present in all nine schools.
The common themes were effective school discipline; the use of direct or explicit instruction; experienced and autonomous school leadership; data-informed practice; teacher collaboration and professional learning; and comprehensive early reading instruction.
Researcher Blaise Joseph said that the report was the first of its kind.
“We've known for a long time that students from disadvantaged social backgrounds tend to perform worse academically than students from more advantaged backgrounds, but there hasn't been much research looking into how we can overcome that gap,” Joseph said.
“And so there are some schools in Australia which perform very well on literacy and numeracy results despite having high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. So that's why it was really important to research those schools and see what they are doing so we can emulate that success across the school system...
“There's been very little research using NAPLAN data to identify high-performing schools specifically with high proportions of disadvantaged students.
“And the other aspect of our study is we looked at school funding, and so when we looked at that we found that the high-performing disadvantaged schools didn't receive more funding than other similarly disadvantaged schools. So that analysis hasn't been done before.”
However, some aspects of the methodology and some of the conclusions drawn have been criticised.
Dr David Zyngier, Associate Professor (Adj) at Southern Cross University is highly critical of the report.
“If money wasn't so important why do private and Catholic schools want so much of it from the public, either through fees or public subsidy?” Zyngier said.
“I have had the pleasure of assessing many Phd projects and Masters projects in education. Some have been brilliant. Others acceptable but needing more work. If this was one of them I would have sent it back for complete revision with a fail mark.”
Among Zyngier’s criticisms is an allegation that some of the questions that principals and teachers were asked were loaded in such a way that respondents were lead to the answers that CIS wanted.
“What Joseph defines as explicit/direct instruction (as seen in his questions to teachers about their pedagogies) is in fact ‘good or productive pedagogy’ and is not what is commonly understood as ‘direct’ instruction,” Zyngier said.
“Explicit and direct instruction are not interchangeable. He states that ‘enquiry-based learning can be seen, depending on the definition, as the opposite of direct instruction, with a focus instead on student-led activities and students learning new content with minimal teacher guidance’. This is a total and possibly intentional misunderstanding or interpretation of enquiry learning.
“[Enquiry learning is] defined by education researchers as ‘a learner-centred approach that emphasises higher order thinking skills. It may take several forms, including analysis, problem solving, discovery and creative activities, both in the classroom and the community.’
“Further, ‘enquiry-based learning ... is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios—rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge. The process is often assisted by a facilitator.’”
Zyngier also took issue with the questions asked about literacy pedagogies.
“Joseph only asks teachers about their literacy pedagogies in relation to phonics. That is they have no options. The teachers are being led to respond to a pre determined agenda— CIS are well known advocates of both direct and phonics Instruction.”
Joseph rejected Zyngier’s statements.
“I'm not sure if he's read the [literacy pedagogies] methodology because we didn't do that. I mean what we did is we asked them about the five keys to reading, phonics is one aspect of the five keys to reading,” he said.
“So we … just actually ask them to comment if and how they teach those five keys to reading, so they're open ended questions and teachers and principals were able to respond in whatever way they wished to.”
Joseph also defended the questions about direct or explicit instruction.
“The way we've defined direct and explicit instruction is based on standard definitions of direct instruction, so there's certainly nothing loaded in the way we phrased it,” he said.
Zyngier was sceptical about how much could be extrapolated based on data collected from only nine schools, eight of which are based in Victoria, a limitation that Joseph acknowledges.
“It's always limited how much you can extrapolate from case study data,” Joseph said.
“But … it's actually very common for education research to look at practice in a few schools. So you can go dig a bit deeper and look into exactly what schools are doing.
“And the other thing is as well, all our findings, so the findings on school discipline, direct and explicit instruction, experienced school leadership, data-informed practice, teacher collaboration and comprehensive early reading instruction, they are all supported by the existing evidence base.”