Complex problems, no easy solutions 1: addressing the Indigenous education gap

18 Jan

I was chuffed, of course, by this email from Mal W which arrived this morning as I was doing a bit of a trawl for this post.

Hello there,

Just wanted to thank you for a wonderful blog.  Got up grumpy in the middle of the night and decided to see if anyone had ever got around [to] critically analyzing The Australian’s pet education spokesperson – one Kevin Donnelly of course – and came across your blog.  Thank you so much.  I live in hope again!

But I do despair of the blog format as being all that useful in addressing issues of such complexity as literacy generally, and the vital sub-issue of best practice for achieving improvement in Indigenous education in Australia.

The trend under the Howard government, continuing so far as I can see under the Rudd/Gillard government, is to fairly conservative approaches to the question of literacy teaching. The only difference I can see is that other views than those of one persuasion may have a chance to be heard now, compared with the past eleven years.

Noel Pearson and the Cape York mob have announced what looks like an exciting proposition.

ABORIGINAL leader Noel Pearson is embarking on an ambitious plan to recruit experienced teachers and the brightest graduates to work in the most disadvantaged indigenous communities by offering performance-linked incentives of up to $50,000 a year.

Called Teach for Australia, the program developed by Mr Pearson’s Cape York Institute and Sydney’s Macquarie University aims to raise funds largely from the private sector to install 500 high-quality teachers in four years in remote schools. The first appointments will be made in Cape York and the Northern Territory.

Based on successful schemes in the US called Teach for America and Teach First in Britain, the program will provide a model for sending high-quality teachers to disadvantaged schools around the nation.

Teach for Australia will offer experienced teachers fellowships worth $50,000 a year, tax-free, on top of their usual salary, and graduates will receive an additional $20,000 a year as associate teachers. The scheme will target students with tertiary entry scores in the top 10 per cent to work as associate teachers. They will be paired with experienced teachers, who will act as mentors. The stipends are contingent on students meeting established standards. Teachers whose students fail to meet the required standard will not have their fellowship or associate place renewed. Teachers must test students monthly on literacy and numeracy skills.

A paper prepared by the Cape York Institute outlines a scheme starting next year and offering 75 fellowships and 37 associate teacher positions. This would rise to 240 fellowships and 235 associates in 2012, the majority in the Territory.

The cost of the plan over four years is $67 million, with the bulk of the funds covering the stipends. Governments and philanthropic organisations will be approached to help fund the scheme, but businesses are expected to provide most of the money.

Cape York Institute deputy director Alan Tudge yesterday said Teach for Australia focused on literacy and numeracy as the key foundational skills required to progress through school.

“They’re not being acquired in remote areas,” he said. “It’s pointless, unless you have those key foundational skills, trying to learn geography or ancient history.  We think there are a lot of great people out there who actually want to do some good work in remote schools but we have to make it attractive for them to go out there. We think if you get the incentives right, there will be a huge number of people wanting to do this.”

Similar schemes overseas have also raised the status of the profession. Teach for America last year received about 19,500 applications for 2500 places.

The plan comes as the Australian Education Union yesterday called on the federal Government to conduct an urgent assessment of the number of indigenous children without access to any school.

Federal president-elect Angelo Gavrielatos said an analysis of census data suggested up to 7500 children in the Northern Territory had no preschool, primary school or high school to attend.

The Cape York Scheme would obviously not address that last issue. However, it is worth looking in detail at the relevant Cape York documents.


There is an education crisis on Cape York. On every measure, Cape York Indigenous students are performing significantly more poorly than non-Indigenous students and more poorly than the state-wide Indigenous averages. In every year level, Indigenous students are between two and four years behind the non-Indigenous average. In some schools as few as 21% reach the minimum national literacy and numeracy benchmark.

The Cape York Institute believes that reform needs to occur on both the “demand” and the “supply” side of education. On the demand side (ie the demand for education by parents), reform efforts need to occur to ensure that parents send their children to school and that children are properly fed, clothed and rested. There should be no excuses for children not attending school.
On the supply side of education (ie the education providers), reforms need to be made to deliver better services. This includes ensuring that there is a focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy in the school curriculum, that the very best teachers are employed, and that children’s performance is regularly tracked and additional assistance provided where they are falling behind.

As Miranda Devine and others often remind us, the Cape York solution in part endorses a particular approach to literacy teaching, that now associated in our country with Macquarie University. Here are the Cape York position papers, and they are must reads: literacy-discussion-paper-final.pdf and Teach for Australia PDF.

The Australian report continues:

Yalmay Yunupingu, a senior teacher and former principal at the remote Yirrkala school in northeast Arnhem land, said the community had been talking about the need to improve education for indigenous students for the past 25 years. “No one listened for that time. No major changes happened,” she said in Sydney yesterday at the AEU national conference. The Howard government’s emergency intervention in the Northern Territory last year had “not brought one extra teacher toa school in an Aboriginal community”.

Ms Yunupingu said there was merit in some aspects of the intervention, such as tying welfare payments to school attendance. “But if all our children came to school tomorrow, we would not have chairs and tables to accommodate them or staff to teach them,” she said.

Addressing the conference, Chris Sarra, executive director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, called on the Rudd Government to ensure Aboriginal students were included in Labor’s much-vaunted education revolution.

“We must demand indigenous Australian children have access to that which we would consider quality education outcomes for any Australian child … not a watered-down perception of what must be considered quality education,” he said. Dr Sarra said that to justify the federal intervention, the former government had depicted Aboriginal people as hopeless. “We must acknowledge and invest in existing capacity and agency in Aboriginal communities,” he said. “We’ve seen the night patrols in Aboriginal communities; they must be acknowledged and worth investing in. We know Aboriginal people whose houses are the unofficial safe houses in communities; give them extra finances to feed the children who turn to them anyway.”

As part of the Teach for Australia initiative, an academy would be established with Macquarie University to develop training and support packages as well as the monthly literacy and numeracy tests. Associate teachers would undergo a six- to eight-week training course covering effective teaching practices, particularly teaching literacy and numeracy and the Multilit (Making Up Lost Time in Literacy) program developed at Macquare University. The associates’ course would also include a curriculum overview, classroom management techniques and issues associated with remote settings. Experienced teachers would undergo a four-week course.

The academy would emphasise evidence-based teaching practices to counter reported inadequacies in the training provided in many courses. Unions have in the past objected to the idea of fast-tracking teacher training but Mr Tudge said evidence from overseas was that associate teachers produced comparable or slightly better results in reading and maths. “There’s massive teacher shortages and classrooms which don’t have teachers,” he said. “Is having no teacher better than having a first-class honours law graduate teaching?”

Macquarie University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz said universities had traditionally been involved in schools but that had diminished in recent years.

I really do wish the program well, and note that Cape York cites in evidence the Ashfield Uniting Church’s Exodus Foundation project which has been using the Macquarie methods with some success; a branch of that for Redfern is run in one of South Sydney Uniting Church’s facilities.

At the same time, we should note some well-qualified dissent from the USA. For example: report and comments in Education Week 14 January 2008 referring to an analogous program, Reading First. The gist is that the Bush administration, having favoured this approach has now cut funding to it — I guess their money is going elsewhere. On the other hand, well-known ESL educationist Stephen Krashen tartly notes:

“As it stands now, I don’t think Reading First should be funded at all,” Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, wrote in an e-mail. “It imposes … heavy doses of phonemic awareness and intensive phonics, extremist approaches that are not supported by the research. It hasn’t worked, [and] there is evidence of serious corruption/conflict of interest in the awarding of Reading First funds,” he said.

Mr. Krashen argues that the results of state, national, and international tests have not shown significant improvements to justify the investment in Reading First. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, for example, scores for the nation’s 4th graders have increased only slightly since the program was implemented. And their performance on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—which gauges reading skills of children in 39 countries—did not improve from 2001 to 2006.

Further comment by Krashen may be found in a comment thread to that article. You may also read a more systematic presentation of his views: Krashen: Did Reading First Work? (2006) PDF.

Compare an article by someone who has participated in Teach for America, Michael J. Salmonowicz. He makes the following point about a less formal outcome of the scheme:

…Teach For America has two stated goals, in the following order: (1) reduce the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students by providing schools in depressed areas with teachers who are motivated, high-achieving recent college graduates; and (2) create systemic change in all parts of society through the program’s alumni, many of whom will leave teaching after two years to pursue careers in fields such as law, medicine, and public policy.

It has long been my contention that Teach For America’s primary mission is the second goal, but that it would not be politically expedient to promote it as such. The organization hints at this, however. When I was a corps member, for example, recruiters gave away bookmarks that said something like, “Ninety-six percent of our nation’s senators have law degrees. Imagine if 96 percent of them had taught for two years in an underresourced school.” Partnerships with nearly 150 graduate schools in a variety of fields are heavily advertised in campus recruitment sessions. And, at least in the experiences of my colleagues and me in Chicago, there was no push from the organization to stay in the classroom beyond two years.

Perhaps because the oldest Teach For America alums are just now approaching the age of 40, we have not yet seen the effects of their work outside the program. But over the next 20 years, as thousands of these former corps members—people once considered the “best and brightest” in top universities across the country—grow in number and gain traction in their careers, I believe the value of the second half of Teach For America’s mission will become increasingly evident. I also believe that the impact of alumni outside of education will more than counter any criticism of the program and its effects on students and schools…

I often run into people who disagree with my position. “Everyone knows about injustice and inequity,” they say. “We see it every day on TV and in the papers.” I take issue with this argument: There is a difference between being aware of something and knowing about it.

When a student tells you that he saw a friend murdered from 10 feet away, it’s different. You can’t close the newspaper and move on to something else. You see that student every day in class, you remember what he said, and you think about why it happened and how it must have affected his life. How would you have reacted to such a traumatic event?

When you hear a student tell you she is hungry because she didn’t have breakfast (or dinner the previous night), it’s different. You can’t sigh, lament how bad things are, and change the channel. You see that student in your 7th period class, an hour before you go food shopping. As you leave the grocery store, you realize that you bought everything you wanted, without looking at prices or clipping coupons or scouring the receipt for mistakes. What would your student think if she were there with you?

When you confront a student about being behind in reading the Dickens novel you are teaching, only to find that she doesn’t have her own room or even a quiet place to read in her family’s apartment, it’s different. It isn’t a scene in a movie that will be resolved if you just stay tuned for an hour more. You wonder what you would have done without your own room, without a quiet place to study. Could you have coped, much less excelled?

Now imagine if thousands and thousands of people not in education grappled with these thoughts and questions on a daily basis—if those doctors, lawyers, politicians, and businesspeople not only were aware of, but knew about the problems so many in our country face each day. If this were the case, I think we not only might have more of a sense of urgency to address the problems, but might offer more creative and comprehensive solutions as well….

Possibly something in that…

I propose next to look again at the compensation for the Stolen Generation issue…


A reply email from Mal W tells me he is directly involved in Indigenous education in another state.

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3 responses to “Complex problems, no easy solutions 1: addressing the Indigenous education gap

  1. Jim Belshaw

    January 18, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    This was an interesting post, Neil, one that I wll come back too later.

    If you have not done so, do look at the 1977 cabinet records. One cabinet submission deals with Aboriginal issues. A snapshot of the time.

  2. Priscilla

    January 21, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for that interesting post – a great round-up 🙂

  3. ninglun

    January 21, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Thanks, Priscilla. Coming from you that is a real compliment. 🙂

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