Four weeks after the federal Education Minister declared that the latest Indigenous education results were a “hit in the guts”, we are still none the wiser about what her pledge to spend $2.3 billion under “new arrangements” to combat Indigenous illiteracy and truancy might actually mean.

On 29 December 2008, at the close of another year of poorly implemented schooling across the country, what was the newly resolved Minister offering that differed from previous table-thumping efforts following rediscovery of poor outcomes among Indigenous students?

Follow closely: The money is available to educators to use flexibly, but schools will be held accountable. Data will be collected. There will be no more pilot programs coming and going without long-term reform. It will be evidence based. Red tape will be slashed. No one is underestimating the need for resources, determination, resolve, high expectations and high standards.

But wait. The money is not exactly new, but represents money that has already been allocated via state-federal education agreements. This standard, perhaps CPI-adjusted budget allocation, will be supplemented by various amounts of actual new money dedicated not to Indigenous students as such, but to education for generic literacy and numeracy programs, disadvantaged schools, computers in schools, teacher quality programs, and the like, of which a proportion will naturally incorporate indigenous students.

And despite the disavowal of pilots (which seems to contradict the commitment to evidenced based decision making, being an essential methodological step in the sequence of testing claims for effect), truancy interventions targeting welfare-dependent parents will be conducted in a limited number of communities “to see how the program works”. Hmm.

The point is not that the announcements are full of contradiction, but rather that the lack of specificity and deceptive ability to appear as if new moneys really are being extraordinarily committed to an extraordinary national problem has attracted no critical comment at all. The announcement date may be part of the explanation: two days before New Year’s Eve does not guarantee an alert populace.

But behind the inarguable statements, surely some detail about what is being proposed, what evidence is to be called upon, how (beyond standardised data reporting) any of it will be scientifically measured, should be expected? It is an opaque policy agenda, one which could represent any service delivery portfolio, given the generic statements in play.

Does it matter? Well yes. Education results for Indigenous youth truly are appalling, and the lifelong consequences are devastating. The report that hit the Minister in her intestines shows that about 30% of Indigenous children across Australia fail basic tests in spelling, writing, reading, grammar and mathematics (against the Australian average of 10%); while in the Northern Territory, over 70% indigenous children in remote communities fail.

Responding to these longstanding challenges in the recent context of mad interferences and moral panics in the Indigenous domain is more difficult than ever.

Absolutely, education needs to be evidence based. Much of what takes place now is nothing other than antiquated habit and proceduralism, with the system reproducing itself year in, year out, cloaked with this year’s latest rhetoric about reform and urgency.

The very phrase “closing the gap” suggests the science of dentistry, not the science of sustained instructional improvement in classrooms with failed and failing students.

Such a science requires access to quality research expertise and tested ideas for gearing schools to accomplish the systemic reform that is being asked of them. That means having an idea of what the steps involved in generating evidence are and resourcing the substantive research and follow through thus entailed. Well designed pilots (not scattergun implementation efforts misnamed as pilots) are part of the pursuit. 

A focus on actions at the unit of teachers and students will fail if contextual issues are ignored or left to the unlikely chance of having a good local problem solver at the school level, working in harmony with an intelligent and enabling policy support environment.

Reforms to improve the capacity of individual teachers to transform learning outcomes must also attend to the capacity of schools and the quality of the support systems available to schools within regional and central office administrations. This architecture of service delivery (encompassing the all-important responsibilities of workforce development, instructional expertise, teacher attendance and retention) cannot be left to vague assurances about leaving it to schools whilst holding them to account.

I am happy to be told that I am missing some key details. That would be the point.

Anthropologist Tess Lea is the Director of the School for Social and Policy Research at Charles Darwin University. Author of a recent book on the culture of public health, Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in northern Australia (2008 UNSW Press), in 2006 she toured the United States and Canada under a Churchill Fellowship tracking down evidence on effective education solutions for disadvantaged students.

Her interest in Indigenous education was first provoked a decade ago when, with the late Bob Collins, she undertook the first independent evaluation of Indigenous education conducted in the Northern Territory (Learning Lessons: an Independent Review of Indigenous Education).

Peter Fray

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