2008 was important for Indigenous education because that was when all Australian states and the Commonwealth signed up to the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) through the COAG Reform process. I worked for NT Department of Education at the time and this development gave me a sense of cautious optimism.

The NIRA committed all states and territories to halving the gap for their Indigenous citizens on a number of key measures by 2020.  For the school sector,the already agreed targets set out in the National Education Agreement (NEA) – improvements to student performance based in NAPLAN tests, and Year 12 retention and completion – were confirmed.

I now see that while the NIRA has given added focus and priority to a very important equity policy issue, it will not drive change for the most disadvantaged Australian citizens  – those living in remote discrete communities in the Northern Territory.

There are many reasons for this but here I want to focus on just two:

  1. The unsuitability of the targets and measures that have been set; and
  2. The decision to drive change  through an outcomes focus – a strategy that is silent on inputs and process measures.

Problem One: The suitability of the NIRA targets and measures for NT remote communities

Example One: NAPLAN Performance

According to Nicholas Biddle (2002) over 67 per cent of NT Indigenous people speak a language other than standard Australian English in their home. For children who grow up in discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT this figure is nearer to 95-100 per cent.  This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and no one else does, so they don’t hear it spoken in the home, in the playground, in the community, at social functions, on the radio, in shops and in church.

They live in a non-English speaking world, until they arrive at school.

When the children go to school, the school has to work out how to teach a whole class of children who do not understand English. In communities like Yirrkala where children speak a living Indigenous language or languages, and there is a tradition of two-way education, children learn in their own language, Yolnu Matha, using texts that have been developed through the school for this purpose. English exposure is largely oral at this stage.

A potted history is required here.  The bilingual education program was once well-funded and well supported with trained linguists actively supporting the school in developing new resources, skilled two-way teachers and Indigenous Education Workers in classrooms with high levels of Indigenous language proficiency . Over the years funding dwindled to a trickle.  Firstly it was abolished only to be reinstated without critical funded positions and for many years it languished as an unsupported program.   Then in 2010, it was briefly NT government policy to teach only in English for most of the school day.

This was introduced in haste by the former Indigenous Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, who later apologised for this ‘mistaken’ decision (Rawlinson, 2012). However, Yirrkala along with a number of schools, refused to comply, and now the NT Education Department appears to passively ‘allow it’ but with no support. Even those schools that did comply, in part or completely, still faced the overwhelming challenge of teaching a whole class of children who do not speak or understand any English. Whatever adaptations made involved major adjustments to the standard approach to literacy education in Australian schools.

By third grade, many remote NT classrooms are just starting to expose students to English language texts and are still using community language reading texts. Their English language focus at this point is still English language oracy as they rightly see this is a pre-condition to being able to read English. However in Year 3, all these learners are forced to sit the NAPLAN tests – tests that are totally unsuited to their stage of English learning development, no matter how they approach the ESL challenges. The vast majority of students either, do not turn up on test days, or, get a zero score – meaning that they are unable to get even one answer right. Indeed we are crazy even expecting them to.

Now let’s compare this treatment and experience to a similarly English language challenged group.

Children who are new arrivals from non- English speaking background countries can access up to one year of an intensive English program and can be exempted from sitting for NAPLAN tests for this period.

These children have come from a foreign land but in many ways remote Indigenous children are still living in a foreign land, yet no parallel Commonwealth funded intensive English program was ever provided for them and the exemption definitions do not allow them to be excused from NAPLAN testing.

The solution to this problem is extremely easy, affordable and accessible. There are culturally sensitive, developmentally appropriate diagnostic assessments developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) with remote Indigenous students in mind and sophisticated processes that would enable the results of these tests to be equated to mainstream NAPLAN results in ways that would make sense. This simple but urgent change would put anend to the negative impact of the tests in remote schools. Having a class that all score zero on their test gives the worst kind of useless feedback to parents, students, teachers and systems.

Example 2: Year 12 retention/completion targets

For this target, the reporting framework relies on two measures. For Year 12 completions the target group is 20 – 24 year olds and the data source the School Education and Workforce (SEW) Survey managed by the ABS. The ABS data is collected through a telephone survey, from which remote communities are excluded.   This means that for our most disadvantaged cohort we have no data and therefore no performance targets.

This should be addressed through the initiation of a remote Indigenous survey as a matter of urgency.

The other measure is Year 12 retention. There are a lot of issues with this measure.  But for remote Indigenous children the key problem with this measure is that it means absolutely nothing.

A friend of mine running a government service in remote Australia went to the local Indigenous school and promised a guaranteed job to everyone who completed Year 12.  Later she was taken aside by a teacher who explained to her that completion to Year 12 just means that a student is still attending school to Year 12 – that is they are still enrolled and that is all. While the school could point to a few Year 12 completers in the community most of them could not read enough to be safe in the workplace.

In my view, it is quite mischievous to use as a measure something that appears to measure something of value that actually means nothing at all. We should stop this practice. Its existence means that the lack of meaningful data in this area is hidden from view and never prioritised.

Problem Two: The limitations of focusing only on outcome measures

There is an assumption that outcome measures are a magic bullet and will bring about the required changes on their own. This is not the case where good governance is lacking.  Marcia Langton (2012) the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne argues that the high levels of funds allocated to the NT from the Commonwealth Grants Commission based on the level of disadvantage of its Indigenous citizens have been diverted for other purposes.

This has happened over a sustained period and no matter which party holds power. Other policy observers – journalists, social justice advocates, and researchers such as Nicolas Rothwell (2011), Rolf Gerritson, and Barry Hansen support this view with data.

According to Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury there were serious questions raised about the level of funding and servicing for remote Indigenous schools in 2006 and, in response to queries, the Department claimed it was developing a new teacher staffing framework that would ensure transparent and consistent needs based funding.  In 2008 when I commenced with the Department the staffing review was said to be in its final stages and about to be ticked off.  In 2011 in response to a query from myself, the department also said that a new transparent needs based staffing formula was nearly complete.  Everyone I worked with knew this would never happen – taking money away from Darwin schools to give to schools in the bush would never happen. No party wants to commit political suicide.

Rothwell argues that there are no votes in solving Indigenous disadvantage and no strategies to make transparent what is happening or to hold the Territory accountable. The mantra that there are no votes in Indigenous issues is an oft-repeated NT Public Service phrase. The vast difference between the world of ‘white Darwin’ and the world of Indigenous Darwin and Indigenous remote communities is shocking.

Mainstream Darwin residents enjoy the laid back lifestyle, visits to markets, world-class conference precinct with a wave pool, state of the art senior colleges and middle schools and the extremely elaborate Parliament House and precinct, all for a Territory of less than 220,000.

Town Camp Darwin is different. Nine-Mile Town Camp, for example, is not marked on the map – it is just a blank space. This is a place where buses don’t visit, where the main power line to Darwin runs through the middle but when I was there in 2009 there were no street lights (this may well still be the case) , where many houses are condemned and several have no ablution facilities, where there are no footpaths and the grass is higher than a primary school child. The children who do manage to go to school have to be at the bus stop with no bus shelter outside the community by around 7.20am because the only bus they can catch picks them up first and then all the other children. They are on the bus for 50 minutes to go to a school less than 15 minutes away.

Remote NT is worse. The average number of people per bedroom is around three, rubbish services are spasmodic, there are no gutters and where I have seen children swimming in open drains. There is no parity of amenity.

In 2007 I attended the opening of a new high school that would never have been built in a Darwin suburb. It was built on the only oval, taking away this amenity from the whole school. It had no footpaths or covered ways, no water faucets, a very poor library, a staff room that was too small for the number of staff, and huge mud puddles between buildings.

But before this date this community of over 2900 had no secondary school whatsoever.

My argument in a nutshell is that outcomes-based accountability measures will not put any real pressure on the NT to do the right thing by their Indigenous citizens, and real accountability is what is urgently needed here. They know that they can keep on failing because this issue is already assigned by many to the too-hard-basket.

At one of the COAG working party negotiations that I attended, where states were arguing over funding shares, one state representative remarked that there was no point giving any funds to the NT because they wouldn’t deliver the goods and that the close-the-gap target could be achieved by focusing on the Indigenous population in the eastern states alone.

Let’s not make this chilling black humour a reality.


Last week Labor announced that if elected it will extend the Teach for Australia program to more graduates and to new states, and provide a further $8.1m for a new grants program to find more ways of bringing Australia’s brightest into teaching.

The LNP has also indicated that it will continue to support this program.

Teach for Australia TFA (AU) is based on Teach for America TFA, which has expanded to more than 20 other countries over the past two decades. The programs recruit high-performing graduates, who undertake a six week long intensive teaching course before being placed in disadvantaged schools as teacher associates where they teach for 4 days a week with the support of mentors.

So it looks like TFA (AU) is here to stay.

I went on-line this week to search for articles about this program and found remarkably little.  There was an evaluation undertaken by ACER that was neither damming nor overly praising but that is about it.

This is in stark contrast to Teach for America (TFA) that seems to be becoming besieged by detractors from within and without, and not without reason.

One of the reasons why TFA (AU) may have managed to steer an easier path in the Australian context is its more careful approach to engaging with Australian education politics.  It has not been used to promote market model based education reforms as it has in the US or to undermine the working conditions of traditional teachers.  And this makes it less on the nose.

However, I still believe there are problems with allowing this program to continue to expand based on the current training model and contract model and the lack of sound evidence that the additional costs of the program are worth it.

Now the strongest argument for the introduction of TFA (AU) is that there is a desperate need to get great teachers into our most disadvantaged schools and this program brings in the brightest and the best, who have a passion for making a difference.  I have spent an evening with one of the TFA groups and I can attest to the fact that these people are impressive – smart, interesting, critically curious, value driven individuals with immense energy and enthusiasm.

But my overriding concern is, ‘how do the children who end up with these TFA-ers as their teacher experience this situation?’   After-all, the children who end up with a TFA teacher will not be your children or my grandchildren. They will be ‘other people’s children’ – children in highly disadvantaged schools.

At the start of the year when a TFA-er commences a stint in a school, they are allocated a class, just like anyone else.  They are called associate teachers, not teachers, but as far as I can make out, the only difference is that they have this class for 4 days out of 5 and have a mentor who also spends time in this class.  At the point of commencement this teacher will have had just 6 weeks of teacher education.

Now in 2011, when the State and Commonwealth Ministers of Education (previously known as MCEECDYA)  met to discuss teacher standards with AITSL, they endorsed the “Accreditation of Initial teacher education programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures” document that made it mandatory that graduate entrants to the teaching profession be through a longer course than the standard one year Diploma of Education course because of the complexity of what they are being asked to learn and develop. Yet here we are putting people in front of children after a six week course.

Now I have no doubt that by the end of this highly exciting intense and possibly life changing experience TFA graduates are likely to be outstanding teachers. Not just teachers, but leaders ready for a high-flying career almost anywhere.  At least this is what the TFA brochure suggests

Over the course of two years you will develop a unique and highly marketable set of skills, as well as emerge with a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching (TFA) – and believe us you will have earned it!

As an alumnus you will join a global movement of leaders working for greater educational opportunity and social equity. You’ll have opportunities to use the skills and leadership practises gained throughout the program to further your career in teaching, social entrepreneurship, government, the business world…or anywhere. The world is your oyster.

And this gets to the heart of the issue for me.  It is clearly a fantastic program for providing unique leadership experiences for our brightest and best students, but its design is built with this end in mind, and I believe that is at the expense of the children for whom it is meant to serve.  It builds in exposing our most needy children to less than fully trained teachers on a regular basis and contributes to high churn.  It is not good enough to view the initial teaching as a learning time because, for these children, it is a year they cant have again.

Imagine if this program keeps on expanding.  You probably won’t notice it in your schools, but what about the children of Tennant Creek?   How long will it take until they have TFA-ers over consecutive years?  And what about the churn then?

The Onion wrote this imagined piece from the point of view of the children who are most likely to experience the wash up of this – other people’s children.

You’ve got to be kidding me. How does this keep happening? I realize that as a fourth-grader I probably don’t have the best handle on the financial situation of my school district, but dealing with a new fresh-faced college graduate who doesn’t know what he or she is doing year after year is growing just a little bit tiresome. Seriously, can we get an actual teacher in here sometime in the next decade, please? That would be terrific.

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twenty-something English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

I’m not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.

How about a person who can actually teach me math for a change? Boy, wouldn’t that be a novel concept!

I fully understand that our nation is currently facing an extreme shortage of teachers and that we all have to make do with what we can get. But does that really mean we have to be stuck with some privileged college grad who completed a five-week training program and now wants to document every single moment of her life-changing year on a Tumblr?

For crying out loud, we’re not adopted puppies you can show off to your friends.

Look, we all get it. Underprivileged children occasionally say some really sad things that open your eyes and make you feel as though you’ve grown as a person, but this is my actual education we’re talking about here. Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States. I can’t afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone’s inspirational narrative.

But hey, how much can I really know, anyway? I haven’t had an actual teacher in three years.

For white teachers teaching white kids: in the shadow of the Zimmerman case

When my oldest child was about 3 we had an African family over for lunch who had a child about the same age.  Now we were a white family and this was a family with black skin.  I naively assumed this was an irrelevance.

Imagine my embarrassment when my usually friendly child flatly refused to let our visiting child into the sandpit.  I thought I would die of shame and embarrassment.  Somehow I had managed to bring up a racist in my midst.

Oh how naïve I was about race, about difference.  It was, of course, a naivety no non-white parent would ever have had.

I read a really useful blog recently by Jennifer Harvey which brought all this back to me.

Dear Parents of White Children, it began:

“I vote that we strike the following from our parental lexicon:

1. “Everybody is equal.”

2. “We’re all the same underneath our skin.”

I realize this is counterintuitive. But I’m completely serious.

These statements, she argues, are “stand-ins for the actual conversations about race, racial difference and racism we need to be having with our kids” – and of course with our students

Harvey, a professor of religion, gets her students to write racial autobiography papers. They are asked to describe the impact of racial identity in their life, including any significant experiences, teachings and thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. They also have to interview 2 family members about their experiences.

Now anyone who has tried anything like this (and I do encourage you to give it an age appropriate go)  will know what comes next – white kids find this almost impossible

Time and again, my white students write that “everybody’s equal” is the “most important” thing their parents taught them about race. Time and again, a not-insignificant number of them then proceed to describe their present trepidation about a.) telling their parents they date interracially; b.) bringing home a Latino/a or black classmate; c.) Thanksgiving break, when everyone will silently tolerate the family member who makes racist comments; or d.) something else that reveals how deeply and clearly these students know this “most important teaching” doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to their actual white experience.

She goes on to say that

I know “everybody’s equal” means “we all deserve to be treated with fairness.” And when we tell kids we’re all the same underneath skin, gender, sexuality, physical abilities and other differences we’re trying to tell them we share human dignity and worth.

Obviously, I believe these things.

But, have you ever actually met a “generic” human? Someone without a race or a gender?

Well, guess what? Neither has your child.

And by the age of 3, our kids are aware of this fact, even though they don’t yet use adult categories to talk about it.

As teachers and parents, rising to the challenge to do better is not going to be easy – its not an easy matter.

If white children grow up in a world where simplistic platitudes pass for conversations about this deeply important and complex matter, is it any wonder white students are so racially baffled and behind and so ill equipped to join their non-white peers as allies in building more racially just futures.

As teachers and parents, rising to the challenge to do better is not going to be easy – its not an easy matter.

But as Harvey notes:

If we want our white children to live in a world with more racial justice than the one we live in now, we need to figure out how to have conversations with them as real, thick, painful, resilient, strategic and authentic as the conversations … parents [in non white families] had to have. So that our kids can help build that world.


Note: I realize that if you are reading this and you have not been deprived of tough conversations about race from an early age, chances are you did not grow up in an all white family.  This will all sound far too obvious to you – insultingly so.  But you need to give the rest of us a chance to catch up.

School Autonomy and the ‘unwanted student enrolment’

A moving article by Travis Smiley PBS talk show host about the film “Education Under Arrest” depicts what happens to poor and minority students under ‘zero tolerance’ regimes being implemented as part of corporate education reforms in many US states.

It made me think about a problem I have predicting will become more relevant to Australia as we foolishly rush to embrace the ‘independent public schools’ model of WA.  The problem, put simply is this:

If schools are going to be made to compete more and more in the schooling market place this will enhance the ‘choice power’ of all students from desirable well educated ‘stable’ middle class families and reduce the ‘choice power’ of families in less stable, middle class circumstances.  Autonomous schools who want to increase their attractiveness in the market place and are in a position to do so will do what is in their power to attract desirable enrolments and keep at bay those considered less desirable.   One possible ‘ solution’ will be embracing notions such as ‘zero tolerance’.  How will this impact on ‘ ‘unwanted students’?

The film is based on interviews with kids who are victims of this policy.  Smiley’s account of the stories are sad and disturbing.

“We had to shut the cameras down for a moment. The testimony of the two New Orleans sisters, Kenyatta, 15, and Kennisha, 17, was too surreal, too emotional and too raw.

Kenyatta was involved in a fight at school that she didn’t start. Because of “zero tolerance” policies adopted at their high school and many others in America, Kenyatta was handcuffed, arrested and expelled. Kennisha, who tried to break up the fight, was also expelled….

One of every three teens arrested is arrested in school. It’s a punitive system based, in large part, on “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the late 1990s after the shocking school shootings in Columbine; a system that’s built a highway into prison, but barely a sidewalk out.

We took our cameras to Washington State, Louisiana, California and Missouri to meet and speak with those involved with educational and juvenile justice reform. Through their expertise and experiences we get a definitive look at how arresting children in school, sending them to court and then locking them away in jail impacts America’s dropout rate.

We shut the cameras down briefly after Kenyatta, with voice cracking and tears flowing, described her ordeal with a school district’s unyielding policy and her encounter with the juvenile justice system:

“It was completely unfair. I felt all of this was so wrong. ..”