No child left behind in the NT? 

l-r: Michelle Kuamoo, Tess Lea and Dr Nancy Zelasko

Having just completed a three month Churchill Fellowship touring North America, visiting leading policy reformers, researchers, practitioners and theorists whose work focuses on improving school education outcomes for the most disadvantaged learners, Associate Professor Tess Lea’s report calls for focused investment in an evidence-based education system.

There are structural reasons why the Territory needs systematic education reform. First there are the large discrepancies in educational outcomes, particularly in literacy and numeracy. For instance, while 97 per cent of participating year 5 non-Indigenous students reached minimum bench mark levels for literacy in 2003, only 27 per cent of participating students classified as remote Indigenous students met this target.

These social imbalances urgently need to be redressed and cannot be viewed as a marginal issue, as the growing Aboriginal population is predicted to become the majority population cohort in north Australian schools over the next decade.

Learning from the similar experiences of educators in the US, Dr Lea is convinced many of the necessary solutions are already known. In her report, she outlines a number of strategies that can be employed by teachers to improve student performance at all levels. She focuses on the teacher-student unit as the place where improvements can be made, arguing teacher quality is the key variable in student achievement, but holds that quality infrastructure, pre-service training and support is crucial to teacher success.

To cite a few examples, Tess argues that quality early childhood and parenting programs can be used to prepare students for school and that in the early years of primary school, teachers must be equipped with the skills to provide students with concentrated early literacy and numeracy development.
At the next level, the focus must be on stimulating and challenging students at increasingly advanced and challenging levels, preventing plateaus in teacher or student knowledge. Accurate diagnosis of specific learning problems and intensive assistance at the student’s own level of competence have to be expertly provided.

For older students who have experienced years of increasing levels of failure and marginalisation, alienation can only be combated if teachers and students have skills to deal with racism, disengagement and self-loathing.

Successful high school leavers rely on high quality teaching that maintains its intensity and constantly pushes students to reach new levels of competency, in and out of school hours. In fact, their average number of hours spent on schooling has to be greater than average, not less, and this requirement needs to be made explicit to the students and their carers. At the senior levels, schooling necessarily takes over student’s life: there is no easy or lesser path to high achievement, a fact every child of every tertiary educated parent knows and commits to, however unpleasant.

Yet none of these solutions can be effectuated if there does not exist a critical mass of highly skilled teachers who are committed to doing the job. For students to catch up academically at an accelerated rate, teachers must have the technical competency to meet every student where they are and help them reach their fullest potential. A culture of high expectations cannot be left to rhetorical desire. It is for this reason that Tess wants the responsibility to fall on the shoulders of administrators and policy makers. She argues that improvements in student performance must be matched by similar improvements in teaching skills. In this regard, her message is simple: “Teaching reading, writing and math really IS rocket science, involving linguistics, child psychology, behaviour, measurement, operational statistics, planning, expertise … standard teacher preparation, accreditation and professional development approaches must precisely skill teachers for the exacting work expected of them.”

All of these solutions exist in theory, but the challenge is to translate them into practice. In this regard, Tess Lea paid close attention to the approach taken in the US, where the Bush government has enshrined legislation making individual schools responsible for measuring the success of the teaching methods and programs they employ. In exchange for federal funding, schools must show plans for meeting federally defined proficiency targets— targets which all schools are expected to meet by 2014. Failure to show incremental improvement in closing the gap between the school’s starting point and these targets after two years ushers in a series of interventions.

Tess believes that a similar policy framework can be predicted within Australia and that local policy makers should seize the opportunity to be knowledgeable about how to make such tough reforms actually work.

In her report, Tess makes a number of recommendations that focus on developing the research infrastructure need to support Indigenous education reform. For this to be achieved, a reliable funding source is needed to establish a number of new graduate programs in education policy, school reform, technical assistance and scientific research methods. One of the key prongs in this strategy would be to develop a ‘Centre of Excellence in Applied Education’. It is also recommended that Charles Darwin University forms alliances with the Batchelor Institute and the health sector to economise on existing resources.

All in all, the report surveys the entire width and breadth of the educational system in the NT, and all its elements should be studied to understand what really needs to be done.

Despite the difficulties involved, Tess believes that these systematic reforms must be put in place to make modest but significant improvements: “Despite the desire to be practical, many of the recommendations identify what should happen if the architecture for a logical education system were built. But even if it were agreed that preparation of teachers and investment in evidentiary processes were warranted, the simple truth is, given the law of natural averages, only a small percentage of these initiatives would represent clever breakthroughs … This can be predicted. It does not constitute an argument against the attempt, as the 5% - 20% of seminal material and effective program development which would nonetheless emerge would be a quantum improvement on the strategic environment that exists now.”

Article by William Martin