Closing the Gap

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research

What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends.

Governments have been surprisingly frank about the failure of their Closing The Gap policies to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The search for better ways continues.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in looking for what works in Aboriginal education, and most importantly, how do we know what works?

As part of the larger ‘Aboriginal Voices’ project we decided to analyse research studies on Aboriginal education from 2006-2017. We carried out several systematic literature reviews following rigorous and replicable protocols  across a range of key issues.

The review I want to tell you about is one that looked for evidence of pedagogies that engage, support and improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

This review sorted through approximately 2000 research studies and, after applying the systematic review inclusion/exclusion protocols, analysed the remaining 53 research studies.

So, what did we find?

Most studies are localised small-scale qualitative case studies focused on engagement

Most research studies were localised small-scale qualitative case studies producing evidence of successful programs that engaged and/or supported Indigenous students in the classroom and in many cases, these were the aims of the program. The assumption appears to be that if Indigenous students are engaged in their learning then their educational outcomes will improve but without empirical evidence to support this, this can only be considered as conjecture.

Wholesale literacy and numeracy programs where Indigenous students are a subset

Eighteen research studies identified pedagogical approaches for specific skills such as literacy and numeracy revealing mixed results in terms of success. In many of these studies, Indigenous students were a subset of a larger group usually connected by socio-economic status (SES), achievement levels and location. Any successes reported in these programs occurred for all students and therefore did not shed light on any specific pedagogical approaches that improved Indigenous student outcomes.

Not surprisingly research studies that focus on practical skill improvements like literacy and numeracy tend to receive large-scale funding as results are more readily quantifiable and reportable in terms of government policy priorities. Moreover, programmatic approaches to literacy and numeracy appear to have become the default approach for Aboriginal student learning in preparation for vocational pathways.

Specific pedagogies identified as effective

Yes we did find 21 studies of pedagogies identified as effective in improving Aboriginal student engagement, support and /or educational outcomes.

Most described effective, innovative pedagogies such as

  •  ‘Pedagogies of wonder’. This involves adults listening to the wonder of the children about their own history, culture and context and trusting children to research this rich resource.
  • Generative pedagogies  Here, culturally safe spaces were created for Indigenous girls to engage with their everyday experiences of oppression, through writing.
  • Place-based pedagogies (also here) that take students out of the classroom and onto ‘country’ and involve Rangers, teachers and community members in a collaborative approach to teaching and learning were successful in engaging students .
  • pedagogies prioritising local Aboriginal voices that involve listening to voices in the community and understanding the values and cultural elements that inform students in their engagement with a formal education context.

These teaching methods engaged and supported Aboriginal students rather than ‘improved educational outcomes’ and while it could be argued that culturally responsive approaches such as these create conditions for improving educational outcomes, there was no empirical evidence to make this causal connection.

The seminal extensive research project Systemic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW public schools (SIPA) provides an exception. While Aboriginal students were a subset of a larger group, researchers focussed on results for specific groups, coding and measuring student assessment tasks utilising the NSW Quality Teaching Framework [QTF].

In terms of outcomes, researchers provided solid evidence that high quality assessment tasks not only improved all students results but contributed to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While not identifying specific pedagogies to improve educational outcomes, they noted pedagogical approaches that contributed to poor outcomes particularly for Aboriginal and low SES students such as ‘defensive teaching’, low expectations and a focus on behaviour management rather than effective teaching and learning of curriculum content.

Contributing factors to effective teaching

Many of the studies [43] discussed pedagogies in relation to other contributing factors to effective teaching such as student engagement, teacher professional learning and curriculum.

Engagement strategies identified the importance of:

  • individually paced learning,
  • culturally safe learning environments,
  • providing transport, food and community-based staff working in the school,
  • opportunities for Aboriginal student voices,
  • local community involvement in the school,
  • teacher understanding about their students ‘out-of-school’ lives, and
  • school as a place of belonging and relevance.

Teacher professional learning included the need for:

  • increased teacher confidence and efficacy through actively learning about local Aboriginal culture, history and the impact of colonization,
  • a shift from behaviour management to subject knowledge,
  • time and resources to adequately reflect on and improve their practice, and
  • ongoing engagement with Aboriginal parents and communities.

Students and parents highlighted the importance of:

  • culture,
  • positive relationships,
  • needing to learn about the literacy demands of schools and how to code-switch between home and school,
  • support for student behavior,
  • schools and teachers rejecting deficit views of Aboriginal people, and
  • affirming Aboriginal student’s cultural identity.

Knowing the community is critical

While only 14 research studies focussed on context, most studies referred to this as an important consideration especially in remote and very remote schools. This suggests that the issues for students and the challenges for teachers are largely context dependent and so critical and nuanced understandings of each particular community are crucial. It also points to the invisibility of urban-based students and communities. If a study was conducted in an urban area, the location was not mentioned or considered a factor in the study. Given that urban Indigenous populations are increasing exponentially, this highlights a concerning gap in the research design and priorities.

Deficit thinking

Concern about school and teacher deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples and cultures that also appear to permeate policy and practice, was evident in a number of studies, some of which contextualized this within ongoing issues of race and racism. Some studies also critically analysed the construction, problematisation and reproduction of knowledge noting that Aboriginal aspirations were not often included in definitions of what success might look like for these students and their communities, or how it might be measured.

The challenges are many and the answers complex

Consequently, while these research studies contribute to the conversation about ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, there certainly needs to be an evidence-based systematic approach to developing pedagogical approaches to improve Aboriginal student outcomes. In saying this, the combination of diverse Aboriginal contexts each of which are embedded in local place and knowledges, and the complexity of ‘measuring’ pedagogies given the multitude of complex, layered and nuanced variables that impact on the teaching/learning process, makes this an extremely challenging task. 

Need for a national vision

What we found throughout this review and the other systematic reviews conducted in this project, is what is missing or under-researched more than what was discovered or proven. It is clear to us that a national vision is needed. This vision needs to decolonize the parochial targets, outcomes and obsession with ‘measurement’ that currently restrains Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers and policy makers working together on the holistic project of improving Aboriginal student outcomes.

The Aboriginal Voices project will continue this work by developing culturally responsive approaches to schooling informed by local Aboriginal students and their families, who continually foreground the significance of Country, culture, language and identity to their success, emphasising the importance of success as ‘Aboriginal’.

Dr Cathie Burgess is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney currently teaching and coordinating Aboriginal Studies curriculum courses, Aboriginal Community Engagement and the Master of Education: Leadership in Aboriginal Education. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal education, and implementing innovative literacy strategies. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives positioning Aboriginal cultural educators as experts through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Community-Led Research, The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program and the Redfern Aboriginal Family Cultural Program.

Image by courtneyk