Teachers coached to help disadvantaged pupils


Researchers have suggested measures that can help teachers to provide the highest quality of education to youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds

Only the best is good enough

To improve the study performances of disadvantaged youngsters, researchers are proposing measures to ensure that the best teachers are available for them. The PIEO project will send coaches to these schools, to help staff deal with challenging situations.

Several studies demonstrate that students with an underprivileged socio-economic and non-Dutch-speaking family background have more academic problems. The issue was among problems highlighted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a global study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years, Pisa assesses the performances of 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.

The latest Pisa report showed that the gap between the best- and worst-performing Flemish pupils was directly related to their socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. The researchers also pointed out the gap between schools with mostly disadvantaged students and schools with students who have better social opportunities.

A new study now shows that disadvantaged pupils make major progress in their learning, significantly more than their fellow pupils, if they are taught by teachers who use the right methods and maintain order in class. The research was carried out by the Steunpunt Studie- en Schoolloopbanen (SSL), or the Policy Research Centre for Educational and School Careers.

Help outside school

The researchers examined the learning progress of pupils in maths in the fifth year of primary school. Using data gathered from nearly 5,000 students in close to 300 classes, assembled during a previous SSL study, they analysed the link between pupils’ performances and the answers they gave to surveys about their lessons.

The study shows that the performance gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates is reduced if teachers focus strongly on “active learning”, “metacognitive training” and a “co-operative learning environment”.

Students from strong socio-economic backgrounds can rely on supportive networks outside the classroom

- Bieke De Fraine

“Active learning means that the teacher makes sure that students understand why they have to do something, such as carrying out long division, instead of just obliging them do it,” explains SSL researcher Bieke De Fraine.

Metacognitive training, she continues, “can be translated as ‘teaching children how to learn’ and includes teaching pupils certain strategies to solve problems and advising them on how to reflect before giving an answer and how to evaluate their answers.”

A co-operative learning environment, meanwhile, is a class with a positive atmosphere, where students are encouraged to collaborate.

So why do these aspects have a more positive effect on disadvantaged students than on their fellow pupils? “Our hypothesis is that students from a strong socio-economic and Dutch-speaking background can also rely on a supportive network outside the classroom,” says De Fraine. “This support can compensate for a lack of quality teaching.”

In concrete terms, this support often consists of extra help from educated, Dutch-speaking parents. These families also tend to have the financial means and knowledge to send their children to the library or for them to take part in extracurricular activities, like music courses or additional private lessons. “Disadvantaged parents often don’t have the budget or time for all of that,” explains De Fraine.

Integrating knowledge

To try to get the best teachers into the schools with the highest percentage of disadvantaged pupils, the researchers advise providing extra training and pedagogical assistance to teachers there. “The working situation in these schools should also be made more inviting, both financially and concerning workload,” says De Fraine. “Higher wages could attract the teachers with the best qualifications, just like the prospect of having smaller classes or fewer working hours.”

The situation in these schools should also be made more enticing, both financially and concerning workload

- Bieke De Fraine

One of the practical projects dealing with the improvement of teaching in schools with a lot of disadvantaged pupils is PIEO, short for Project Innovating and Excelling in Education. PIEO was launched by former education minister Pascal Smet and is co-ordinated by the King Boudewijn Foundation. Originally, it was supposed to last five years, but the period has been reduced to three years because of budget cuts. The closing event will take place in June.

As part of PIEO, eight experts are coaching the staff at 12 schools in Brussels and Flanders. “Many teachers there received extra training and have participated in projects before,” explains Jan Blondeel of the King Boudewijn Foundation. “But the knowledge they gained was never integrated into the overall functioning of their school.”

According to Blondeel, the challenge is to turn the schools into “learning communities” where there is a continuous exchange of experiences between teachers and a constant dialogue between school directors and teachers.

“As part of PIEO, teachers follow certain lessons given by their colleagues,” explains Blondeel. “This way, they can pick up practical ways to help children with language deficits, for example, or learn to take a child’s home situation into account when assigning homework.”

The PIEO coaches will also focus on making sure that school directors share the leadership of the school with their staff while at the same time co-ordinating a clear policy. 

Photo: Teachers at a school in Antwerp are coached to help them support students from disadvantaged backgrounds