Is our children learning and are you’re politician’s listening?

Opposition leader Tony Abbott... another day, another tour of the Cape York to hear precisely what he wants from the people most likely to tell him.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott… all’s well in Aboriginal education in the Cape… except for the spelling… and math… and the grammar.

ONE of the great ironies of the latest round of hand-wringing over the results in the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (or NAPLAN) tests is that while we flog our black kids for not learning fast enough — and the schools for not lifting their results — as a nation we continue to fail to learn the lessons of our own past.

A report in The Australian this week lays it all bare. It notes that in a few areas, including the reading standard of year 3 students, indigenous students are closing the gap. However, on average, indigenous students and non-indigenous students are improving at exactly the same rate, meaning the gap remains the same. This means the federal government’s aim to halve the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students in literacy and numeracy skills by 2018 is even more difficult — and unlikely.

But then, I don’t know too many people who thought the government would ever meet its targets. Not in education. Not anywhere else. Year after year, the government hands down a report card which shows it’s failing to meet most of its targets. And year after year, the report barely rates a mention in media, before we get on with the business of doing exactly what we were doing before the report.

And of course, we get meaningless politic-speak from our nation’s leaders, like we did this week with NAPLAN. As Education Minister Peter Garrett said in a doorstop interview this week:

“It’s unacceptable for us as a nation to have these gaps, whether it’s between indigenous Australians or not, finishing high school as much as three or four years behind their counterparts in suburban or city schools. It’s absolutely unacceptable for us to have such a big gap between kids from low socio-economic backgrounds and those from better-off backgrounds in terms of their educational attainment.”

Well thanks, Pete. Now tell us something we don’t know. And while you’re at it, why not tell us how you plan to fix it?

“There should not be a single education minister in a state, nor a single senior state education bureaucrat, who can take any comfort from these NAPLANs at all. We need to react urgently, in a focused way, with a national plan for school improvement agreed by all.”

Which reads to me suspiciously like: “we need to f-ck this up together as a nation, rather than as individual states”.

The Liberals don’t really have any answers either. Christopher Pyne, opposition spokesman on education, weighed in via AAP (although this quote first appeared on Pyne’s own blog, back in September):

“Despite the Gillard government’s boast five years ago of an ‘education revolution’ and additional spending on school halls and computers, it has had little impact on student outcomes.”

Pyne clearly hasn’t been to many remote Aboriginal communities lately, the overwhelming majority of which got nine parts of bugger-all out of the stimulus spending. His plan is to “improve teacher quality, develop a robust curriculum and give principals more autonomy”, all of which would “boost performance without costing more”.

Sure thing. So why, then, have the Liberals (and Labor) been backing the mother of all expensive education misadventures — a trial in Cape York led by the darling of the federal Liberals, Noel Pearson, which has cost more than $7 million and delivered a big stinky mess of crap NAPLAN results?

“Direct instruction” — a form of teaching which removes teacher discretion from the classroom and instead emphasises rote teaching and learning — is being trialled at the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy in Aurukun. This year, it has failed to lift any students above the national minimum standard in four categories — years 5 and 7 writing, and year 5 grammar and punctuation and numeracy.

As reported The Courier-Mail as far back as September: “Overall, the campus dropped in 13 out of 15 national averages between 2011 and 2012”.

And the failures aren’t just limited to Aurukun. In Pearson’s hometown of Hopevale, the news was even grimmer. The school went backwards in all but five of the categories, sometimes spectacularly so. In 2011, 69% of year 3 students were at or above the national average in writing. This year, the figure is 25%.

Queue the politics again: Queensland Liberal Minister for Education John-Paul Langbroek says his government would face the results without “gilding the lily”. And then he helpfully added he received a personal call from Tony Abbott recently “congratulating CYAAA Aurukun staff for performing much better than years ago when he visited”.

So the results are a train wreck, but on the upside Tony Abbott thinks everything is hunky-dory? In his defence, Abbott probably hasn’t had time to read the NAPLAN results, what with all the work he’s doing to help Australia in great Britain< and all that reading he still has to do in the Ashby judgement.

What’s so frustrating is that we know what works in Aboriginal schools — respected Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra has a remarkable record of turning around black schools and students with his “Stronger Smarter” program, and he’s done it for a fraction of the cost of the Pearson trials.

And what is one of Sarra’s main mantras? One size does not fit all. Different schools have different challenges. Sarra’s approach is to build pride and self-esteem not just in learning, but in learning as a blackfella. Everything else follows.

He warned the Herald Sun in October not just about wastage in education spending, but also about teaching methods like direct instruction. And most importantly, he provided a way forward:

“It doesn’t matter how much smoke and mirrors you put around that remedial program there is no escaping the fact that there is many millions spent for outcomes that are nowhere near good enough. For that amount of money you could have one teacher to one kid just about, or one to two.

“The only reason we have had these remedial programs shoved down our throats is we’ve never had the power and authority to question what was going on in schools.”

And therein lies the solution. While there are a host of factors that affect Aboriginal learning — poverty, poor housing, home life — the core principle remains: Aboriginal communities must determine Aboriginal educational priorities. Sounds a little too simple to be true? Google Sarra’s results and have a look for yourself.

Or we can do what we always do — wring our hands, play politics and throw money wildly at programs that are doomed to fail. And of course, call together all the state and territory education ministers from around the country, so they can talk about things.

When they do, let’s hope they come to the inescapable conclusion that, collectively, they’re actually the problem. Let’s also hope they come to understand that when they start asking Aboriginal people what they want from an education system, and when they start giving Aboriginal people the resources to implement their plans, we’ll finally see real gains in education.

*Chris Graham is a former managing editor of Tracker magazine and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney. This story first appeared in the mighty Crikey.

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