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.

1 comment:

Cary said...

There is a group called AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), who provide workshops for Indigenous high school students, and also match University students to mentor high school students 1-1. They are based at the University of Sydney, with branches in other NSW Unis. Jack Manning Bancroft is the man to talk to!