It was George W Bush who first described low educational expectations as a form of “soft” bigotry. But it is a mantra that has held a lot of appeal for Australian politicians and educational bureaucrats.
Sometimes the finger is pointed at teachers who are accused of not setting high enough standards for some of their students.
Sometimes the blame is assigned to the low achievers themselves. They don’t expect enough of themselves, or their parents don’t or their communities don’t.
But it seems politicians and bureaucrats are blind to their own bigotry, most particularly the ways in which their educational policies both embody and entrench low expectations of students with disabilities, and those who speak English as an additional language or dialect (EALD).
Who needs a teacher, when caring will do
The federal Department of Education website is unequivocal about the importance of teachers.
The first step to achieving a quality education, which is so critical for the future of young Australians and our nation, is to lift the quality, professionalisation and status of the teaching profession.
Except, that is, for those with special needs or those learning English. They just need some caring companions.
Expectations of students with disabilities and newly arrived English language learners are so low that educational policies do not require they are taught by qualified specialists.
Students with disabilities
South Australian politician Kelly Vincent calls out the culture of low expectations in the area of disability education.
Support for students with special needs in most mainstream classrooms consists of a caring, but unqualified, teaching assistant sitting with a student for an hour or two a day.
UK research has revealed that this model of educational support for disability actually results in poorer educational outcomes for the students. As shocking as that sounds, it isn’t really surprising.
Low expectations of these students means they are very often just kept busy with what they can do, rather than what they could do with the support of a qualified teacher.
Low expectations come with a high price tag. We spend A$3 billion employing unqualified teaching assistants to provide pleasant but apparently ineffectual company to students with special needs.
Students learning English as an additional language
You need English to prosper in Australia.
Migrants, including those who have come as refugees, settle into Australia much more quickly when they gain some mastery of English. Unemployment rates decrease as English language proficiency increases.
But learning a language takes time - around two years to communicate confidently in social situations, and up to seven years to reach the formal written proficiency needed for school and workplace contexts.
The time it takes to learn English is reduced when you are taught by a qualified English Additional Language (EAL) teacher.
EAL specialist teachers know the answers to questions about English that the rest of us don’t, even when English is our mother tongue.
Why is it “the Earth”, but not “the Mars”?
Why do we say a “big, blue bus” and not a “blue, big bus”?
Why do we get “on” a bus but “in” a car?
Why is it I “saw” you yesterday and not I “seen” you, or “seed” you, or “was seeing” you?
The answers to these questions, and thousands of others, are not “just because”.
There are explanations and this is the speciality work of the EALD teacher. Yet there is no requirement that children who are learning English are taught by qualified EALD teachers.
And then we wonder why these students make up such large proportions of our students who perform below benchmarks in our national standardised tests.
Adult English language learners
For decades successive Australian governments have demonstrated their commitment to adult English language learners through the provision of 510 hours of English tuition from qualified teachers via the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).
About 10,000 adults from refugee backgrounds are enrolled in these courses each year.
510 hours isn’t enough to become proficient in English, but it is an excellent foundation upon which to build language skills for employment and education.
But new tender documents for the AMEP indicate the program is about to radically lower its expectations of students.
There will now be a conversation class stream, ostensibly for those who might find “proper” English classes difficult. There will be no requirement for them to be taught by a qualified teacher – any person with good intentions will do.
Michael Michell, president of the Australian Council of TESOL Associations, says:
Without expert teaching, refugees’ and migrants’ once-in-a-lifetime English entitlements will be wasted. The best these classes can produce will be stigmatised speakers of ‘broken’ English on the road to discrimination, unemployment and social isolation.
The bigotry of the state
We claim that professional, qualified and quality teachers are crucial to improving learning outcomes, and the economic health of the nation. But we pursue policies that don’t put these teachers in front of our most marginalised students.
This is tantamount to state sponsored bigotry. Is that soft bigotry, or hard?