Indigenous education: addressing the gap - Education Matters Magazine
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Indigenous education: addressing the gap

A team of academics have completed a review into the impact of racism on the education of Aboriginal students, as part of the Aboriginal Voices Project.

The review involved a team of 13 academics, working across 10 institutions, to complete an analysis of recent Australian research.

On 19 June, they reported their findings to policy and program managers in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, AITSIL, ACARA and other agencies working on developing Commonwealth policy in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

The issues covered included literacy, numeracy, racism, school leadership, remote education and school-community partnerships.

Three academics completed a review on the impact of racism on Aboriginal students’ education. According to their summary, “The research demonstrates that both students and parents have high expectations for achievement, but exposure to persistent and repeated negative representations of indigeneity or Indigenous academic ability from teachers and the media leads to disengagement, de-identification and reduced wellness.

“Empirical evidence demonstrates that racism negatively impacts the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from primary school, through high school, and to later life, when those students become parents, employees and Elders.

“The impacts on students are harmful, wide-reaching and life-long, and influence academic achievement, attitudes to language, emotional wellbeing, physical health, self-concept, school attendance, and post-school pathways, and eventually school choice and engagement when those students become parents.”

Dr Kevin Lowe of Macquarie University completed a review on factors affecting the development of school and Aboriginal community partnerships. Seven major themes emerged from the research, including the historic effects of colonisation, institutional practices that damaged engagement, and the importance of leadership in establishing successful collaborations.

His findings suggested that parents “looked for authentic opportunities for collaborations that had the purpose of transforming their children’s educational opportunities.”

He says that factors shown to feed student success included an agreed purpose of schooling, a holistic approach to learning, quality teaching practices, and access to language and cultural programs.

“Communities prefer purposeful engagement that is directly linked to a specific cohort’s education outcomes,” said Dr Lowe. “It is important for schools to develop meaningful, two-way relationships with families and the community built on trust and respect between the parties.

“For teachers to be able to effectively communicate with parents and relate with them, they need specific knowledge about the community they’re teaching in,” he added.

“Teachers’ beliefs determined their success in the classroom. Teachers’ often had strong preconceptions about Aboriginal kids and communities even if they had little or no experience in these communities. Many thought that the kids can’t be engaged, or can’t be given challenging activities, meaning they’d dumb down materials. This highlights the need for ongoing professional development that helps teachers to challenge their understanding of what Aboriginal communities can and can’t do.”

According to Dr Lowe, further steps for future success include establishing effective processes for schools and teachers to engage with families, and building a culturally inclusive curriculum that takes into account local context and Indigenous knowledge.

Dr Cathie Burgess of the University of Sydney reviewed research on educational methods and interventions that “claim to support, engage and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes.”

“In the larger, empirical-based studies, Aboriginal students are generally a subset of a larger group, included because of disadvantage and low achievement levels and so any evidence claiming the success of a pedagogic intervention is not specifically for Aboriginal students,” Dr Burgess said.

She also highlighted the shortage of studies seeking Aboriginal opinions about these issues, and commented that failure to remedy this “will continue the trend of short-term, minimal impact projects limited by context and pressure to meet quantifiable outcomes, rather than what Aboriginal students and their families believe will best meet their needs, and are willing to address.”

A statement issued by the team said, “The failure of school systems across Australia to make sustainable inroads into closing the deep achievement gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students is symptomatic of the depth and complexity of issues shown to affect the development and implementation of policies and schooling practice.

“The long-term resolution of these students’ educational underachievement can only occur when educators and Indigenous communities have an informed understanding of how these issues affect students’ capacity and willingness to engage in their schooling.”

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