Australia’s appalling record of equity in education has once again been confirmed in the latest Closing the Gap report. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the report’s dismal findings present an opportunity to “recommit to achieving equality of opportunity for all Australians”.
But first we must agree on what we mean by “equality”. Is equality in education achieved by giving everybody the same thing? Or is it achieved by giving everybody what they need in order to achieve the same outcome?
The latter is the premise of the now-defunct Gonski model of education funding – where each student is given what they need in order to achieve, and that means some students would be given more because they need more.
However, the current government is instead pursuing a model of educational equality where everyone is given the same. What could be fairer than that, right?
This commonsense logic falls apart in the application.
If someone in a room is having a heart attack, we don’t administer CPR to everyone just to be fair; we give the specialist intervention to the person who needs it. So it is difficult to understand why this model of “give everyone the same” is so vigorously pursued in education, particularly when it appears to have been spectacularly unsuccessful over the years.
A long history of inequity
Our results in international tests, and in our own homegrown testing, reveal the most unsavoury of educational gaps. We are a country defined as “high quality, but low equity” in education. That means we produce high achievers, but the gap between those who achieve at school and those who don’t is one of the highest among OECD countries.
This is not a new phenomena; it has been a key feature of our PISA test results since we joined that particular international testing club in 2000. In fact, the equity gap is increasing. 14.2% of students were at level one or below in 2010, compared with about 13% in 2000. One proficiency level is about the equivalent of three years schooling – so we are talking about some very large gaps.
And while our slide down the international PISA ladder has prompted all sorts of funding initiatives to increase participation in science, maths and technology at school as we attempt to keep up with the international Jones’, we seem much less exercised about our world-leading educational inequity problem.
Why do we have this achievement gap?
There are many reasons posited for the achievement gap, not least the social and economic disadvantage that so often accompanies those who achieve poorly on measures of educational achievement.
Students who do poorly at school often come from disadvantaged homes; performing poorly at school usually means you will stay economically disadvantaged. It’s a chicken-and-egg cycle that education is supposed to be able to break – except that so far in Australia, it hasn’t.
Access to school learning is a crucial part of solution, but it is very difficult to do well in school when you don’t speak the language of school, and when the cultural references that underpin the curriculum are foreign to you.
It is hard to engage with school when it feels alien, when the school libraries, display walls, textbooks and curriculum are full of people and events that are difficult to relate to.
It is a struggle to find motivation to stay in school when it feels like the things that are important to you in your home life count for nothing at school.
It takes enormous resilience to keep turning up at school when you feel dumb because you can’t do the work, and you can’t do the work because it is being delivered in a language you are not fully proficient in – Standard Australian English. Nobody teaches you how this language works, but they do use a red pen a lot to show you how much you don’t know.
The importance of language teaching
Many of the underachieving students in Australian schools share one common attribute: they don’t speak Standard Australian English.
Achievement in Australian schools is dependent upon your access to Standard Australian English and mainstream cultural references. Schools have a responsibility to initiate all their students into both. This is best achieved by acknowledging, nurturing and using the existing cultural references and linguistic skills of the students, not by pretending they don’t exist.
Indigenous students are highly competent language users. Many arrive at school speaking more than one language or dialect, including Aboriginal English – which is a dialect distinct from Standard Australian English. Their linguistic competency should be the starting point for their instruction in Standard Australian English.
However, this kind of teaching requires teachers with skills in language and culturally responsive teaching – skills we do not currently train teachers for. While teachers speak Standard Australian English they have very little expertise in teaching it as an additional language.
Good money after bad?
Some point to the millions of dollars spent on education initiatives, and the subsequent lack of progress over the decades, as evidence that money is not the solution to this problem. This is the line used by both the current and former education minister as a defence for the refusal to commit to extended funding for education.
This argument is at best disingenuous, at worst ignorant. Education does cost money, and to achieve equality in education some of our students will require more resourcing than others.
Money must be targeted directly at interventions for those students who need them. Accountability must be linked to the educational outcomes of those targeted students, and those outcomes must be measured in far more nuanced ways than blunt and narrowly focused instruments like standardised testing.
The starting point should be the professional development of teachers, specifically in language teaching and culturally responsive curriculum planning. This will give them the skills to target those in the ever-growing underachieving tail of Australian students.