Linda Graham

Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

Australian research is almost silent on how disciplinary practices in our schools are affected by racial bias. 

In the United States there is ample evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to labelled as having behaviour disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with having a mild intellectual impairment, learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, and placed in special education classes.

Research from the US consistently shows that African American, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to be overrepresented if they are:

  • male,
  • from a low SES background,
  • live in a high-density urban area, and
  • where there is a high proportion of students from minority groups.

Similar trends have been noted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

The lack Australian research on this issue is not because we somehow have escaped the problem but because Australian education systems are remarkably eclectic in the ways in which they report data.

Sophisticated longitudinal and geographical analyses tracking trends in diagnosis and placement are currently impossible. We remain ignorant of magnitude, cause and effect. But there are indicators and if you can see the tip of an iceberg, logic suggests that you would make a serious effort to alter direction.

What DO we know?

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) publishes an extensive array of educational data. Whilst they are riddled with inconsistencies and blind-alleys, DEC does at least publish some statistics disaggregated by Indigenous status.

These data show that Indigenous students are significantly over-represented in long school suspensions (5-20 days) and in separate special educational settings. DEC doesn’t draw that conclusion themselves but it is clearly evident when Indigenous students make up only 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012 but account for:

24.4% of long-suspensions,

14.6% of enrolments in primary school support classes,

12.6% of enrolments in secondary school support classes, and

12.8% of enrolments in special schools.

These numbers tell us far less than we need to know. For example, is the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students in school suspensions and special educational settings increasing or declining over time? Are there discrepancies that might indicate institutional bias or is Indigenous over-representation in these data simply a reflection of social disadvantage?

I looked for evidence of trends emerging. What I discovered has made me believe urgent attention is needed.

Let’s start with the use of suspension: the strongest predictor of later special education placement and school failure.

Long-school suspensions: 2008-2012

Indigenous students accounted for 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012, but received 24.4% of long-suspensions (averaging 11.8 days), up from 22% in 2008.

They were 5.1 times more likely to receive a long-suspension than non-Indigenous students (up from a risk of 4.3 in 2008), and 6.1 times more likely than non-Indigenous students to receive a repeat long-suspension (no change from 2008).

There was a 35.1% increase in the number of Indigenous students receiving a long-suspension between 2008 and 2012.

This is almost twice the increase in long-suspensions received by non-Indigenous students.

This is a serious problem because suspension is an ineffective and often harmful response to student disengagement that does nothing to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

As I mentioned earlier, suspension is also the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure. If that’s true, then high rates of suspension may be impacting Indigenous enrolments in special education. Let’s have a closer look at this part of the iceberg…

Enrolments in separate special educational settings

longitudinal analysis  of enrolments in separate special educational settings (1997-2007) found that Indigenous enrolments in support classes and special schools are increasing faster than enrolments of non-Indigenous students, and faster than Indigenous enrolments in mainstream.

In other words, the rise in Indigenous special education placements cannot be explained by Indigenous population growth.

This research also found that Indigenous students were already over-represented in separate settings back in 1997, and that the degree of over-representation has increased significantly since. Particularly worrying was the finding that the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students had accelerated in the 6 years since the Review of Indigenous Education (2004).

Enrolments in NSW government special schools

So, we know that Indigenous students are over-represented in special schools and that their enrolments are increasing relative to non-Indigenous students. This doesn’t appear to have stirred much in the way of public outcry, so I investigated whether Indigenous disproportionality differs by special school type.

There are three broad types of special schools in the NSW government school sector:

  • Traditional special schools enrolling students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment, physical and sensory disabilities, and autism;
  • Mental health special schools enrolling students with emotional disturbances, severe psychiatric disorders, or behaviour disorders; and
  • Juvenile justice special schools within juvenile justice detention centres.

In 2009, traditional special schools enrolled just over two thirds of special school students, mental health special schools enrolled almost one quarter, and juvenile justice special schools enrolled just under 10 per cent.

Indigenous representation varied significantly by school type with 1 in 4 kids in mental health special schools and almost 1 in 2 in juvenile justice special schools identifying as Indigenous. Less than 6 from every 100 students in Traditional SSPs were Indigenous.

This means that Indigenous disproportionality in special schooling is explained by over-representation in particular types of special schools; namely mental health special schools and juvenile justice special schools.

Now, I know that still might seem unremarkable to some, so I looked a little more closely at mental health special schools. There are two broad types in this group:

  • special schools for students with verified mental health issues, and
  • special schools for students with disruptive behaviour.

The former requires a confirmation of disability (under the category of mental health problems) prior to entry, the other doesn’t.

Indigenous students accounted for 18.8% of enrolments in the type that requires confirmation of disability and 27.1% of enrolments in the type that doesn’t.

In my field of research, that’s more than the proverbial tip of an iceberg.  It’s the equivalent of a smoking gun.

At the very least, these trends tell us that our school disciplinary practices are affected by racial bias and that we need to more carefully examine how discipline is applied, to whom, what for and in what ways.


Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). She is presenting this research at the NSW Aboriginal Education Council’s 50th Anniversary Conference, Saturday August 30, 2014.


Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies

 Popular media erupted this week around the use of naughty corners in Australian classrooms. Two South Australian researchers, Dr Anna Sullivan and Professor Bruce Johnson, suggested the use of naughty corners and other similar time-out behaviour management strategies could be in breach of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The point they made is these strategies can exclude children from the classroom and therefore have the potential to deprive them of their right to an education. Children who are regularly excluded will miss vital elements of their basic education. Other strategies, such as children’s names being added to smiley and sad faces on classroom whiteboards, could violate their right to be treated with dignity.

The comments section of The Adelaide Advertiser, the first news service to run with the naughty–corner-should-be-gone story, went into meltdown with statements including:

What about the rights of teachers who need time out from the bad behaviour of children? Bad actions have consequences so sometimes it is necessary for children to be removed from the class. Disruptive children must be removed from the class so the teacher can teach other children who want to learn. (Kerry)

And this:

It is easier to understand why our world ranking in education is dropping and that we have no Primary School in this State in the top 100 schools in Australia, when our Universities are so out of touch with reality. (David)

Most of the respondents, many of whom were teachers, could not understand what could possibly be wrong with these strategies; especially the seemingly benign use of visual tallies.

Strategies like the ubiquitous “happy/sad faces” (traffic lights, ladders, class dojo’s… take your pick) may seem unobjectionable to adults, however they tend not to work with the very children at which they are aimed.

Why not?  Well, those children tend to be less motivated by their relative position in the class, which is what these strategies rely on. Think about it. If they were, then they would already be up there with the “good kids” – striving to be in the top group for reading, to get the most gold stars, to receive the most pats on the back. They wouldn’t be horsing about instead.

The children at risk I work with don’t tend to be motivated by such tired, old gimmicks. And, even if you can get traction by introducing something they haven’t seen before (stickers, counters, reward charts, free time), the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

The only students you’re ever really going to reach with strategies that rely on relative position  (best, first, the one with the most stickers) are the ones you never have to worry about.  They are the ones whose names are reliably found at the top of the ladder, the green spot on the traffic light, and under the happy face on the class whiteboard.

In the meantime, what happens to the ones you really want to reach?

Well, they’re pretty intuitive. They’ve already worked out that they’re in the bottom reading group, have the least gold stars, and most wouldn’t know what a pat on the back feels like. They are used to seeing the names of the “good kids” at the top and theirs at the bottom. To be frank, they probably don’t need a visual aid to know what they’re used to seeing on their teacher’s face.

Don’t get me wrong. They don’t like being at the bottom; not initially anyway. For many, it’s a puzzle. They just don’t understand how they always manage to get it wrong or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t know how the hell the “good kids” always seem to get it right! And do it so effortlessly.

Little by little they cease to care. Some become hard-baked and bent on revenge. Most end up excluded in some form of time out: the naughty corner, the principal’s office, the quiet room, suspended. That’s a process that I want to understand as an educational researcher because it is complex, multifaceted and NOT driven solely by the child.

Let me tell you where I think it starts.

I was recently out in primary schools collecting data for a project that is tracking prep (kindergarten) children through to the end of grade three. The research, which has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, involves a multitude of child measures including the “Who am I?” Developmental Assessment, the School Liking & Avoidance Questionnaire (SLAQ), together with language, literacy and numeracy assessments.

It has been a real eye-opener for me to work with four and five year olds.

I usually work with disgruntled teens who aren’t particularly bothered if they can’t do something or at least are much less open about it. You’re more likely to hear them say that they “can’t be f***ed” doing something, rather than admitting “I’m just not able to”.

It is a totally different story with the preps or kindy children. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met by wide eyes and doubt when I turn from asking them to draw a square (one of the developmental tasks on the “Who am I?”) to the dreaded triangle.

I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met by eyes filled with fear, when they’ve attempted to do it and their triangle looks more like a pear. I’m sure you’ve worked out that I’m not talking about the most competent kids in the class. Some of the children whose names are under the happy face can draw triangles that look like they’ve been traced using a protractor.

No. I’m talking about a particular sub-set of children who have trouble working out the difference between letters and numbers, who hold a pencil like it’s a nunchaku, and whom my grandmother would say have “ants in their pants.”

One little fidgeter sticks in my mind. Let’s call him Hayden.

Hayden was 4 years and 9 months old when I first met him earlier this year. The same age my son was when he started Prep. My son is now 12 and a rugby forward, so Hayden seemed tiny and completely unready for the demands of the classroom.

He was fascinated by everything though and especially interested in what I was doing. He kept coming up to me and asking “When’s my turn? I haven’t had a turn yet!”

On one of those occasions, he arrived with a small can of fizzy drink in his pudgy little hands that he put down to point to something on the page to which my current participant had just turned.  In that moment, his pinky finger brushed the top of his can of drink and it spilled over the “Who am I?” booklet.

I’ll never forget the look of sheer terror on his face as he stood rooted to the spot waiting for me to erupt.

Knowing instantly that’s what he expected, I put my hands in the air in mock surprise and said in a silly voice and a big smile (I’ve done time with a few Hayden’s):

Oh dear! Whoops-a-daisy!  I think we’ll need a paper towel.  Can YOU show me where I can find a paper towel?”

Brimming with purpose, he raced me to the corner of the room and pointed to the top of a cupboard.

Now, for those of you who haven’t met me, I’m only 150 cm tall. There was no way I was going to be able to get the paper towels down without breaking something. So, I asked the class teacher who was nearby.

I purposely didn’t say what the paper towels were for and I purposely didn’t tell her what had happened. The look of fear on Hayden’s face warned me not to do that.

We took off with our paper towels and began mopping up the drink. Kaylee’s “Who am I?” was none the worse for the experience and I was happy to tell Hayden that it was okay, it was an accident and everything was fine.

Then his teacher happened to put her head outside the door and saw what the paper towels had been for.

And it began.


And that was it for Hayden. He returned to time-out where he spends a great deal of his day, never finding his name under the happy face or on the green traffic light.

My challenge to the apologists in The Advertiser’s comments section is this: was that response deserved?  Was it appropriate?  Would the teacher dare to behave like that in front of Hayden’s mother or father?  Is that behaviour “management”?  Will it achieve anything remotely positive?  Most importantly, what is Hayden learning? If we constantly hit 10 on the Richter Scale, is he ever going to notice when the next teacher tries a 3?

I will tell you I believe his teacher is a good teacher. And I can understand how difficult and frustrating wrangling a class of 20 squirmy five year olds can be. But, I also know, having worked with many angry, adolescent Hayden’s that experiences like that have an indelible effect.

At first, they are shocked and scared and hurt. But, over time and with enough repetition, a big “F**k you” forms and some kids come out fighting.

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

( Read  The Adelaide Advertiser article and comments HERE )

Linda Graham  Linda Graham

Associate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030).

For those looking to educational researchers for alternatives to time out strategies:- Persistent misbehaviour challenges teachers more than student violence and aggression

More from Linda Graham HERE

A high achiever who always wanted to be a teacher but never did: here is my story

It appears that many high achieving students are shunning a teaching career these days.

More than half the Year 12 students offered places in teaching degrees this year had university entrance scores below the average of 70, with one in eight scoring 50 or less, according to a recent article in The Australian.

Arguments about the ability of ATAR scores to predict the quality of graduating teachers aside, I suspect this trend has less to do with university “standards” and more to do with the perceived attractiveness and public face of teaching.

Why do I say that?  Well, that is what made me change course even though I believe passionately in education and in teaching. This is my story.

I was about 15 when I first thought I might like to become a teacher.

I have to admit it wasn’t the result of rigorous consideration. It came to me as I sat in maths class bored out of my brain, wondering what I was going to do with my life and realising that there were only two things that I liked: English and Modern History.

There didn’t seem to be much that you could do with these subjects though, apart from being an author or an archaeologist. As the ancients never appealed to me and I was pretty sure I’d never make enough money to survive as an author, I settled on English and History teacher. That decided, I returned to drawing on the desk, wishing the day away.

That was mid-Year 9. A year later, I walked out of school after a blistering encounter with the principal, determined never to return. So much for that teaching career. But return I did. In a manner of ways.

At the age of 21, I decided that the corporate world was lacking in meaning and substance. I was searching for something more; something that my Dad believed I would find at University.

Believe me, it is a convoluted path to get into university when you don’t even have a Year 10 Certificate. But I knuckled down, studied a little more than I partied, and managed to complete Adult Matriculation at TAFE with quite a high Tertiary Education Rank (TER).

That rank, together with a Diploma in Marketing from TAFE, gave me a world of options. I considered equine science, genetic counselling, law, and even film make-up artistry … and teaching.

Again, I couldn’t escape from my love of literature and history, so it was back to my dream of being a teacher. I enrolled in a BA Double Major with a Dip Ed.

During my time at uni something strange happened. I fell out of love with literature and in love with the study of education.

I did better in my Education subjects than in anything I’d ever studied. In my third year, I received a letter of offer, as did others in the top 5% of my cohort, to join a fast-track Honours program, while completing my Dip Ed, to become a teacher.

I did neither.

By this point in my degree, something was clear to me. Schools hadn’t changed since I’d left. If anything, they were worse.

I wanted to be the teacher in Dead Poet’s Society. I wanted to make a difference. To change the world. Instead of drawing on the desks, I wanted to stand on them and shout “My Captain! My Captain!”

Basically, I wanted to enjoy teaching and for the kids in my class to enjoy it too. It just did not seem possible.

So instead of becoming a teacher I did what many women my age do, I took time out to have a baby.

Two years later and I was back to do a Masters, still entranced by everything Education but ever more convinced that I didn’t have what it now took to be a teacher. By this time it was the early 2000’s, before we really entered the throes of “performance pay”, PISA, NAPLAN and My School.

Even then, it was clear that teaching was a high-stress, high-responsibility but relatively low-paid and low-status profession, particularly if one happened to teach in the “dreaded” public system.

I used to watch various Education Ministers – aided and abetted by sections of the media – vilify teachers as lazy, unintelligent and poorly qualified in order to justify policies that sought to “teacher proof” the learning and teaching process.

Who would want to buy into that?

Not me.

Like most people who think of going into teaching, I had family members who were public and private school teachers who could tell me what it was really like. The hours they spent marking, writing reports, following up with parents. The countless times they spent their own money buying resources and replacing children’s forgotten lunches.

They didn’t often speak of the joys of teaching but I’m glad to say that I now understand that for myself.


I did a PhD and entered the world of educational research.

After many years as an academic, observing in classrooms, interviewing teachers, researching with kids and working with creative and innovative principals, I sometimes regret not becoming a teacher.

I now know it is possible to make a difference – perhaps not in the revolutionary and immediate way that I wanted to – but in different ways and at different times for many hundreds of kids.

But that is not the public face of teaching.

That is not what aspiring school students with ATARs that function like a deposit on their future see when they scan the UAC book as I did exactly 20 years ago.

Perhaps this is why we have so few applicants with +75 ATARs entering teaching? Not because universities are seeking lower achieving students but because higher achieving students are scanning the environment, like I did, and are saying, “No thanks! I’m not signing up for that!”

Ultimately, if we do not respect and reward teachers for the public intellectuals that we need them to be and trust them accordingly, then why would anyone with the means to obtain that respect, reward and trust elsewhere be expected to enter teaching?

It is an image problem that increasing ATAR cut-offs won’t fix. This will simply work to reduce the pool of applicants.

The only way to attract high-achieving students to choose teaching is to treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves.


Linda Graham  Linda Graham

Associate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). This research has been published as: Graham, L. J., & Buckley, L. Ghost hunting with lollies, chess and Lego: appreciating the ‘messy’ complexity (and costs) of doing difficult research in education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-21.

We need to value and properly fund research in education to ensure Australia’s future

Our future economic growth, prosperity and wellbeing depend on what we do now as a nation. And anything we do should be based on research-evidence.

For those reasons alone, investment in educational research should be at the top of our agenda. Someone please tell me why it isn’t.

Let’s look at school education in particular.

Hardly a day goes by without some collective wringing of hands over literacy and numeracy performance, teacher quality, student absenteeism, year 12 completion rates, teacher quality, school preparedness, university preparedness, what should and shouldn’t be in the curriculum, teacher quality, student distaste for mathematics, high youth unemployment, teacher quality, Indigenous student performance, teacher attitude. And did I say teacher quality?

Yet funding for educational research, one of the few ways we have to better understand and tackle these issues ( including teacher quality)  is scarce and becoming scarcer.

You may be used to hearing researchers in general complain about the lack of funding for research. And I know that we have a so-called “budget emergency”, but some of us are doing it tougher than others.

In a paper to be published in a 2014 issue of Australian Educational Researcher, I investigated what has happened to funding for Education research over time by examining outcomes for the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects grant scheme between the years 2002 and 2014, comparing allocations to education against those allocated to psychology and cognitive Science.

I did this because I was interested to learn if other disciplines were suffering a similar drop in funding to educational research.

I found that between 2002 and 2014 there has been a decline in the percentage of ARC Discovery funding  (the major source of Australian research funding) being received by educational researchers.

However, this downward trend was not shared by our peers in psychology and cognitive science.

In fact ARC Discovery funding to psychology and cognitive science more than doubled in the 2002-2014 period with an increase of more than $7 million, whereas education received only $309,199 more in 2014 than in 2002 (see Table 1 below).

And remember the real cost of research would have grown during this period. In other words, you get a lot less bang for $3 million now than you did a decade ago.

Table 1. Real and percentage change in funding for Discovery, comparing Divisions 13 and 17




Percentage change

Total Discovery funding pool




13 Education




17 Psychology & Cognitive Science




Given the complexities and cost of conducting research in schools, these differences have had a serious dampening effect on research relating to education.

It is also important to bear in mind that education research is almost exclusively funded by the ARC but that psychology and cognitive science also gets a significant share of funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as well. The funding gap between these important disciplines is therefore much larger than indicated by an analysis of Discovery alone.

There are a number of implications that flow from both the shortage in funding and its concentration, but the one we have to urgently address is that Australia risks strangling the development of future educational researchers – in particular those who have the ability to conduct high quality research in the complex and poorly understood field of school education.

Research in schools is a messy business. Schools are often chaotic places with agendas and timelines that do not gel well with academic research designs (the type of submission that is likely to be successful in an ARC application). Students, particularly the types I work with, can be even less accommodating than their schools.

Unfortunately, these factors are not well understood by our peers and there remains a common perception that education research lacks rigor, particularly qualitative approaches.

It is well known that scientists have worked hard over the last few decades to communicate the value of research in the clinical and natural sciences and that they have been successful in raising the profile and prestige of scientific research.

Given the contraction in education research funding in recent years, it is now critical that researchers in education speak up.

We need to speak up about  the value of the work we do.

We need to speak up about the beauty and complexity of research in this field and  the critical role that qualitative approaches to data collection, and analysis, play in ensuring quality.

We need to point out the invaluable insights and powerful connections  that this type of research can produce.

Bottom line is Australia is spending less and less on quality research in education.

We risk getting what we pay for. No one will win in that future.

Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). This research has been published as: Graham, L. J., & Buckley, L. Ghost hunting with lollies, chess and Lego: appreciating the ‘messy’ complexity (and costs) of doing difficult research in education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-21.