Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope for Education and Equality in Australia

In the latest issue of Quarterly Essay, Indigenous lawyer and activist, Noel Pearson, examines the long-term failure of educational policy in Australia, especially in the indigenous sector. He argues for an approach that delivers a rigorous schooling to Aboriginal students while preserving their culture.

Des Griffin reviews Pearson’s essay. Des is Gerard Krefft Fellow, an honorary position at the Australian Museum in Sydney of which he was Director from 1976 through 1998.

‘Radical Hope’ traverses very important issues in respect of the education ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, maintaining cultural identity on the margin, the nature of learning and indigenous rights including responsibilities of governments on the one hand and individuals on the other.

As Mr Pearson shows there are extremely significant findings from educational research relevant to the education of Indigenous students. Education in the western tradition of the dominant society in Australia does not by any means require suppression of Indigenous identity: in fact quite the contrary. Maintenance and strengthening of identity is fundamental to survival for almost everyone, a fact suppressed by advocates of assimilation. Diversity of identity strengthens society!

The provision of educational opportunity and building of capacity is not something solely for the individual student or parent anymore than it is solely the responsibility of the government. It is not properly any less a matter for Indigenous peoples than it is for the rest of society.

All the research on educational outcomes reveals three major factors: the importance of early childhood intervention, the importance of the home environment and the importance of the excellent teacher in the way he or she interacts with the student.

Investment in early childhood recognises just how creative and capable very young people are. This is revealed by research such as that by Alison Gopnick and others cited in the essay and by behaviourists, brain physiologists a well as economists such as Nobel economics prize-winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago. The extraordinarily flexibility of brain architecture and function in early life are major discoveries of recent research. Investment in early childhood brings outcomes far exceeding the cost in terms of educational achievement, employment and avoidance of crime. When we realise that the contribution made in the home by the time the child reaches school age accounts for about 50 per cent of subsequent educational attainment, we have to give the greatest consideration to this issue.

This does not mean every child must attend pre-school. But it does mean attention to the environment of the very young child, especially the development of relationships and the involvement of well trained instructors if the child is in pre-school: it is not child-minding. Harvard University researchers note the extent to which this is ignored in the workforce as paid parental leave remains unavailable. As Ross Gittins once lamented one could not, however, expect so important an idea as funding early childhood to be taken up by those who govern us!

Work by University of Chicago researchers over many years in the south side of Chicago reveals just what a difference can be made by excellent teachers working together, especially when those teachers are respected within the community. The excellent teacher emphasises acquisition of skills to improve knowledge and accountable conversation – the exploration and challenging of ideas in gaining understanding.

Addressing the vitally important issue of education (and identity) of young people is not to be solved by political rhetoric of any colour, not by assertions about the failure of teachers or the advocacy of funding private schools at the expense of public schools. Improvement will not be advanced by media commentators unable to grasp the most fundamental aspects of statistics who are so quick to comment on rankings of districts, States and countries without bothering to consider whether there really are differences. Nor simply by publishing league tables justified by the democratic right to know.

Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings (University of Wisconsin at Madison), in a wonderful address a couple of years ago, made the very valid point that when the educational attainment of African Americans is considered it would be more appropriate to talk of the education debt than the education gap. Decades, indeed centuries, of deprivation of educational opportunities for African Americans as they were enslaved and then marginalised in the lowest paid jobs in urban ghettoes has left them far behind others. Huge numbers were left without any reasonable access to educational opportunities, their children without exposure at home to educational opportunities or to reasonable parenting models either. Great discrimination in education continues in the US more than 50 years after the Supreme Court in Brown vs the Board of Education required equality of resources be provided to schools everywhere. Aren’t there parallels here with Australia’s history?

It is appropriate that parents ensure that their children attend school but that is not sufficient. If there seem to be no greater employment opportunities for young school leavers then it is hard to believe that school attendance will be embraced! Kids might attend school but that is not effective schooling. Professor Marcia Langton observed recently in “The Professor” on the ABC’s “Message Stick” that some parents also ask why their children should go to school: they didn’t! Further problems arise from arguments over the teaching of language and its impact on identity: ‘Radical Hope’ quite properly focuses on this and gives examples of successful teaching of English and Indigenous language. Why do some people persist in blaming educational failure of Indigenous students on the teaching of language?

The essay argues strongly for high standards to be set in teaching. It is far too infrequently noted in the education debate that many educators also argue for high standards. Amongst them is Professor Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh who emphasises just how important it is not to accept poor performance and how appropriate it is to assess performance against each student’s own history and agreed standards rather than against the performance of other students or schools.

Many who know the education system assert strongly that most teachers strive for high standards though sometimes they are constrained by Government bureaucracies. In the best schools however, standards are tested often but the results are used to improve instruction. That is not the same as tests at the end of the year which are then used mainly as a basis for grading schools in the vain hope of providing greater transparency, allegedly so parents can make better choices.

Much space is devoted in the essay to the instructional methods of Siegfried Engelmann. The most extensive study of the impact of various factors on educational attainment by Professor John Hattie (Auckland University) makes it clear that ‘direct instruction’ is very significant in its impact. He has this to say, in his book Visible Learning (p. 204 et seq): “Direct Instruction has a bad name for the wrong reasons, especially when it is confused with didactic teaching, as the underlying principles of Direct Instruction place it among the most successful outcomes”. In his meta-analysis, Hattie finds an effect size of 0.59 for this approach which is high indeed. Of course there is resistance to Engelmann’s methods in some quarters. There is resistance to learning through play and a whole lot of other approaches despite the overwhelming evidence to support their efficacy.

It is a very great pity that far too little notice is taken by those most vocal in the education debate of the research taking place in the US and far too much notice of the actual policy and practice in that country. The latest reform, “No Child Left Behind” introduced by the George W. Bush administration and funded with billions of dollars, has been an abject failure. The program has narrowed the curriculum and constrained teachers every hour of their teaching life!

Private schools, including in the US charter schools, are proclaimed to be a way of overcoming the failing public school system. But when the OECD reviewed the results from many countries in the PISA 2006 exercise it was found that when socio-economic factors were controlled for, students of public (ie government) schools did better than those from private schools! However there are important and exciting exceptions. They seem to be ignored. Just as is the contribution of schools like Eton and Harrow to maintenance of class barriers in England.

Students from some Scandinavian and other European countries and a number of Asian countries have demonstrated just how important attention to early childhood, excellent teachers and respect for them in the community are. And we know why children on the margin perform less well and what would make a difference. As in so many matters in the Australian nation there is a lack of political will to do it. It’s easier to attend to views loudly proclaimed, no matter their validity.

Little will happen so long as the inequity in funding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities which persists is not addressed. So long as schools for Indigenous students are resourced to a lesser extent with equipment and facilities and staffed by less excellent teachers Indigenous students will lag behind their white brothers and sisters. The essay refers to the different performance of student from communities, mostly urban, where opportunities are much better, as identified by Maria Lane. Indeed Indigenous people in all walks of life enrich the community as never before. A recent essay drawing attention to the greatly increased graduation rates of Indigenous students drew comments to the effect that lots of people were claiming Indigenous identity so as to get special privileges. Is Australia a nation, let alone a civilised nation?

In the essay opportunities to draw attention to the failings of the left of politics are not missed though less so than in the opening address that Mr Pearson gave to the Brisbane Writers Festival. I will comment on only two points.

Messrs Johns and Brunton of the Institute for Public Affairs (quoted at p. 69 of the essay) claim that reconciliation requires acceptance by Aboriginal people “of the social and political consequences of the historical facts that have led to a single Australian nation”. I would have thought most Aboriginal people everywhere every day are only too aware of Australia’s history and its consequences. And to so strongly claim a nationhood for Australia is to ignore how confounded (if not confected) that concept is every time a national perspective is sought on anything, including education, including a national curriculum, including national standards for teacher proficiency, not to mention our response to the history of Indigenous peoples from the frontier to today, to dispossession of land, to return of wages withheld, to incarceration, to compensation for removal of children from their families. Is Australia a nation? Are those of us who are non-Indigenous aware of the political and social consequences of our history?

I am not clear as to the contribution made to the arguments by the assertions that Barrack Obama’s “black middle class background” renders rather hollow his urging African Americans not to forget what it is, “to know what it is like to be on the outside” (p. 94). Does one have to be personally oppressed to feel outraged at oppression? Obama did not live the life of a poverty stricken black but he most certainly encountered and grappled with the issues confronting African Americans. Obama’s many distinctions include his speaking of the importance of education and his championing of educators on many occasions in ways that I doubt we have heard much of in this country, certainly by few politicians!

Des Griffin

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