Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Addressing Disadvantage in Australian Indigenous Education

Those who know me realise that I have a strong passion for fairness and equity in Australian Indigenous education, particularly in remote communities. Recently, Noel Pearson the Director of the Cape York Institute wrote an article he titled "Radical Hope" which was published in the "Quarterly Essay" Journal. In his article Pearson describes the inherent disadvantage faced by Aboriginal school aged children as a result of their location and the quality of education available to them.

Today, I came across an eSchool News article that reports on the education focus of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft) new Website. The article reports on Gates's observations of what works in education for disadvantaged kids, and in particular, he discusses what is occurring in some of the US charter schools. Gates discusses the high "academic" success rates for disadvantage students in charter schools subscribing to the “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) approach to learning and teaching.
Gates writes:
“One example of KIPP’s success: While only 20 percent of low-income students in the U.S. attend college, the rate for former KIPP students is 80 percent.”
(the gates notes, 2009)

It is worthwhile looking at some of the key features of KIPP schools to understand what may contribute to this level of success.

KIPP schools:
  • have very long school days, typically from 7.30 AM to 5.00PM. The rationale given is that many of their students are well behind (2--3 grade/year levels) by the time they get to a KIPP middle school and require additional time to catch up to where they should be in their academic studies.
  • only employ outstanding teachers who have a proven track record in guiding students to high levels of success. Highly effective teachers have a strong range of skills and strategies that allow all students to achieve at the required levels.
  • have the philosophy that all students can learn what is required, and WILL learn to, or above the required level.
  • have a strict set of rules based on hard work and respect that are not negotiable.
The following YouTube videos provide a small glimpse of KIPP featured in a PBS special by Hedrick Smith that aired on 10/5/05.

You will notice that the videos avoid some critical questions like:
  1. How much more do they pay the teachers for the long hours and after hours consultation?
  2. What are the key pedagogical strategies that underpin the learning success? Surely it is not just more of the same?
  3. What happens to the students who refuse to adhere to the rules and schedule of the school? Is part of the 80% college success rate partly due to removal of students who will not accept the rules?
One thing that does seem relatively clear is the diminished amount of student behavioural problems due, it would seem, to students seeing their own success in learning.

So what can we learn from this and how might we apply this to schools with high proportions of indigenous students, particularly in remote communities?
This brings me back to Pearson's article and what he has proposed and is now implementing in remote Cape York schools. Noel has suggested that school should indeed have substantially longer hours that allows the students to catch up to where they need to be in terms of year levels. Further, he suggests that "Direct Instruction" is an approach that should be used as there are clear standardised test data that show the success of this approach for disadvantaged students. A key part of Direct Instruction is pre-prepared externally produced teacher lessons with a script from which the teachers are required to read. Pearson suggests that this will ameliorate the low levels of experience and expertise some teachers in these schools currently posses. Teaching in remote communities is not attractive for many teachers and often it is single, first year out graduates who are willing to spend a year or two in a remote community to secure a more desirable position, often in a capital city. This of course is a generalisation and not applicable to all teachers, some of whom are pasionate about indigenous education and increasing opportunities for indigenous people.

When comparing Direct Instruction with KIPP there are a few similarities, but some critical differences. Fundamentally, KIPP is highly dependent on recruiting and retaining high quality teachers who adopt very effective pedagogical approaches. The direct instruction is based on the notion that externally developed, highly structured and scripted curriculum is more important than quality teachers.
I believe indigenous kids deserve high quality teachers with the recognition and reward that will attract and retain these teachers in remote communities. As a teacher educator I get to work with many undergraduate and post-graduate pre-service teachers and can say that most of our graduates would not be interested in spending some years in a remote community teaching. Many of our graduates have children in school and do not want to disrupt their child's learning by moving away from the lifestyle they currently enjoy. Others have partners who work locally and are not able, or willing to move to a remote community. We do have a few (mostly male) graduates who would be prepared to spend some time in a remote community, but they mostly fit the description Pearson outlined in his article.
In my view the kinds of teachers that should be targeted should be older teachers with children who are now independent and have proven quality teaching track records. Often this cohort are at a stage of their life where they are seeking new challenges that their new found mobility allows, and have a sense of wanting to give back to the community. Equally, the rewards for teaching in remote communities should be significantly more than is currently paid. To attract and retain these teachers the pay should be very attractive with substantial bonuses for each year completed in a remote community. In the Business Council of Australia's paper (2008) "Teaching Talent: The Best Teachers For Australia’s Classrooms" outlines a five point plan for improving the quality of Australian school teaching. A key recommendation of this paper is that high quality teachers should be paid up to $130,000 per year to attract and retain the best. I suggest that this could be a good starting point for high quality teachers in remote communities.
As I write this I can hear the immediate retort from government "where is the money going to come from?" and "we can afford that!"
My answer to this is very clear, we cannot afford to squander the education and lives of another generation of indigenous kids and perpetuate what Pearson describes as the continued pauperisation of people in remote indigenous communities. Find the dollars and start recruiting the best teachers for our indigenous students.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indigenous Education for all Australians

Next week Australians will be celebrating Australia Day on the 25th January. Australia Day represents a national holiday where all Australians can come together to celebrate what it is and means to be an Australian. Unfortunately, Australia Day also represents the aniversary the English settlement/invasion of Indigenous Australia, a continent and islands that contains a deep cultural significance for the oldest continuous race of peoples that have ever existed on Earth.

Successive Australian governments and the media give the appearance of acknowledging indigenous culture, but what impact has this had on existing indigenous Australians? The poorest performance in education (NAPLAN, 2008) and the lowest life expectancy (ABS 2007 cat. no. 3302.0) of any group of Australians.

Yesterday, I went looking for a large Aboriginal flag to fly on Australia Day. My wife had bought an Australian flag earlier for the same purpose. I was unsuccessful and every shop (and cultural centre) told me that they did not stock them as there was no demand. During my search I was struck by the absence of indigenous publications in the bookshops and indigenous symbology in all but our local cultural centre.

Recently I attended an international conference in Auckland, New Zealand and there was a great deal of Maori symbology evident across the city. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland (a white fella) gave much of his opening address in the Māori language (te reo Māori) in which he was obviously fluent.

I know that successive Australian Federal and State governments have allocated a great deal of funding in areas designed to improve outcomes for indigenous Australians, but what has actually been achieved?

Black (2007) and Vinson (1999) assert that Education is the key to overcoming social disadvantage which is characterised in Australia by poor educational, health outcomes and high levels of incarceration. Pearson (2009) in his Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia makes the same assertion. Pearson suggests that without a comparable level of education indigenous people are subjected to a life of pauperisation.

There are of course some big challenges in indigenous education, particularly in remote indigenous communities. Teachers need to understand the cultural influences and indigenous perspectives and be able to adapt their teaching to suit these large differences. Ironically, when they do this, no students are disadvantaged. Indeed many non-indigenous students who see school as an alien and unfriendly environment respond very well to teachers who make their learning meaningful and respect indigenous culture and perspectives.

Other challenges include attracting and retaining good quality teachers. Some remote communities are alien to many white fellas and most often it is young male teaching graduates who elect to travel to remote communities, mostly for the extra remuneration and to secure a teaching position at a "good" school in a capital city. Many of these teachers are inexperienced and have little interest in developing strong and respectful relationships with the community. This is of course a generalisation and there are exceptions. One of my pre-service teacher students has elected to do all of his teaching practical in remote Northern Territory communities.

While there are challenges they are not insurmountable. Attracting older more experienced teachers can occur with by offering appropriate remuneration (much more than is currently offered) and targeting teachers who are closer to retiring age who have no dependent children. Older people often have a desire to experience new places and to begin to give back to the community. This is evidenced by the number of "Grey Nomads" that adorn our roads in Northern Australia during the winter.

But back to the issue of ignorance and indifference of many non-indigenous Australians and how we might bring about change in this area. This kind of change will clearly need to be generational as it's difficult to change the perceptions gained through a long lifetime. These perceptions can be innocent in the case of those who view issues only through their own cultural lens, or they can be openly destructive in terms of overt racism. For me, school education is again the key to changing perceptions. It is only when all Australians learn about indigenous culture, land, language and indigenous perspectives will we begin to show indigenous Australians the respect they deserve. The showing of respect and the honoring of indigenous culture, language and land brings with it a pride for indigenous Australians and it that pride and wider acknowledgment that will lift indigenous people out of the poverty and the socially destructive mire where many of them now find themselves.

There are challenges here also as each tribe and clan of indigenous people have their culture, land and language. Australia is not like New Zealand where the Māori language and culture is fairly homogeneous. Indigenous Australians have some common cultural practices and beliefs like: responsible custodianship of the land; extended sense of family connection; hierarchy of eye contact and connectedness to the land, but there are many differences that include language and life cycles related to the land.

While this is a challenge, it is not too difficult to overcome if all school curricula have integrated indigenous perspectives and the appropriate training for teachers on how to teach these perspectives. Uncle Ernie Grant is an Dijirabal/Djirrabal Elder and statewide cultural Research
Officer for Education Queensland is the developer of "My Land My Tracks: A framework for the holistic approach to indigenous studies". I have had the great honour of meeting with Uncle Ernie and with the support of the Indigenous Schooling Support Units in Rockhampton and Cairns, Uncle conducted a workshop last year for our pre-service teaching students and local school teachers.

The issue of variance between indigenous peoples land language and culture is not insurmountable and can be achieved relatively easily by having students develop Web-based resources for their area, and having all of these publicly available for teachers and students to use in their learning and teaching. Just imagine the difference it would make if all Australians understood and respected indigenous land language and culture. A publicly available Website, organised by regions and populated by school students from all over Australia would allow all Australians to develop their understanding and best of all, it provides students with authentic learning opportunities that engage them and make their learning worthwhile.

On Australia Day I will say a small prayer for my indigenous brothers and sisters and ask that the Federal Government see the wisdom of these relatively inexpensive ideas.

I'm also in the process of making my own Aboriginal flag (from material I bought yesterday) so that I can proudly fly it to honour the Darumbal people of my region and the Woppaburra clan who are the traditional custodians of the land on which our house is built.

What will you do for Australia Day?