PARLIAMENT OF AUSTRALIA
How can we get education up to scratch in the schools which have the most disadvantaged students and where the teachers have a less-than-average amount of experience? This is the challenge for many schools, especially those in remote Indigenous communities. Noel Pearson and his colleagues in the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy have produced the most convincing analysis of this problem, and perhaps they are also coming up with the best solution.
In broad terms, Cape York’s analysis and policies are in alignment with the government’s official Closing the Gap strategy, but in their details the education policies are unique in Australia and deserve close attention by this parliament. If they continue with their success, Cape York’s policies should be replicated elsewhere. Their policies are in two parts.
First, there are broad community reforms with the objective of ensuring that children turn up to school and are school ready. Measures such as alcohol management, conditional income management and student education trusts have been introduced to meet this end. Second, there are school reforms. I focus my comments this evening on the latter—on school reforms—but acknowledge that both community reform and school reform are necessary to achieve progress in this area.
To achieve uniform and comprehensive school reform, the Cape York academy struck a unique agreement with the Queensland government. Under this agreement, the Academy takes responsibility for policy leadership, for selection of the school principal and for the choice of the teaching method. Meanwhile, the Queensland Education Department continues to provide the teachers and the school facilities. There is a large group of Indigenous students who are so far behind that you cannot find students comparable to them in other developed countries. There are community schools where previous testing appears to have understated the problem and the entire cohort of students is clustered around the kindergarten to year 1 level.
The Academy therefore, set out to identify and implement an instruction method that has been proven to be able to bring severely underperforming students to mainstream levels and beyond. They chose Direct Instruction, a method developed by Siegfried Engelmann, founder of the National Institute for Direct Instruction in the United States. Direct Instruction is based on decades of scientific research into children’s learning. The instruction is non-categorical.
All disadvantaged students benefit from the same instruction no matter whether their initial difficulty is social, cultural, linguistic or an individual learning disability. Regular and frequent testing is integral to the method. Students are grouped and taught at their current level, which is determined through weekly testing, and are only moved to a higher level when they master the content at their current level. Students from four or more different nominal year levels can be taught together if necessary.
For the disadvantaged students to catch up, all details of Direct Instruction teaching are controlled ‘to minimise the chance of students misinterpreting the information being taught and to maximise the reinforcing effect of instruction’. Direct Instruction lessons are therefore highly scripted. Some elements of direct instruction lessons—where students answer in uniform in response to a prompt from the teacher—would appear unfamiliar to some people, who would mistake it for rote memorisation. But the controlled nature of the instruction makes the outcome relatively independent of the teacher’s aptitude. Almost any teacher, or indeed non-teacher, who is trained by the specialist to deliver the programs will achieve good results. This is particularly important in remote communities, where it is very difficult to attract and retain high-quality, experienced teachers.
In remote communities we need instruction that is constantly externally monitored, as the Direct Instruction programs are, and work well even with inexperienced, relatively transient teachers. Direct Instruction programs have been running for a year in two communities in Cape York, and a third started this year at the community’s request. So what are the results? One year into the program, there are signs of
considerable improvement. Many students in years 4 to 7 who could not read or count a little more than a year ago have already reached year 2 or year 3 levels.
These results are incredibly promising and, with the wealth of data being collected, we will in this parliamentary term be able to categorically say whether this represents the breakthrough in Indigenous education that it promises. If it is indeed this kind of breakthrough, then the government should support in this term of parliament the rollout of direct instruction along with community reforms in other parts of Australia where there is entrenched educational disadvantage, be it in remote Indigenous communities or in mainstream communities. (Time expired)