How to solve a wicked problem like indigenous education outcomes?

By David Donaldson

June 9, 2016

Despite a long history of policy focus, little progress has been made in recent decades in education outcomes for indigenous primary school students.

Even after accounting for things like socio-economic status and geographic remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids still lag behind their peers.

There have been targets to improve literacy and numeracy scores since at least the 1980s, but no consistent improvement in indigenous primary school students’ literacy and numeracy achievement for at least the past 16 years.

The failure to gain consistent progress over this period “suggests that current policies are not working”, says the Productivity Commission, and that we need clearer evidence of what’s happening on the ground and why improvements have stalled. A report released Wednesday takes advantage of newly available data linking student achievement and demographic characteristics with school characteristics to examine these questions.

Explaining the achievement gap

It is clear there is something that holds indigenous students back, as they “are over-represented among low achievers, and under-represented among high achievers.” While the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous children is worst in very remote areas, there is still a significant gap for the 40% of all indigenous students who live in metro areas.

Gaps in education achievement increase with remoteness, but most Indigenous students do not attend school in remote areas. Source: Productivity Commission estimates based on ACARA data.
Gaps in education achievement increase with remoteness, but most indigenous students do not attend school in remote areas. Source: Productivity Commission estimates based on ACARA data.

The study confirms what we already know about students in general: an individual’s socioeconomic background explains more of the variation in literacy and numeracy achievement than any other external characteristic. Like other studies, the PC finds the general socioeconomic background of students attending a school is also important. But there are also a couple of factors that appear to be specific to indigenous children — average school attendance rates and the proportion of indigenous students at the school.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, though. The Productivity Commission says these characteristics explain less than one-third of student achievement. In other words, the biggest factor in student achievement is the students themselves. This has important policy implications:

“This meshes with findings from the broader education literature — emphasising that children have individually different learning needs — not readily categorised according to demographic characteristics. The literature suggests that the key to improving achievement, for all students, is individualised instruction.”

This means a “one size fits all” approach would not be helpful, and that educators should focus on teaching students based on their individual needs.

Solving the problem

The PC argues that for indigenous students, the evidence suggests a range of interventions that are probably important in improving outcomes: a culture of high expectations in schools, strong student-teacher and community relationships, support for culture and strong school leadership. For the many indigenous students who attend schools where they are in the minority, an individualised approach may be particularly important:

“Arguably, quality teaching will be especially critical to these students in the absence of the types of support that can, perhaps, be provided to students in schools with larger indigenous enrolments, for example, indigenous education workers or physical acknowledgements of indigenous culture in the school environment. An understanding of indigenous cultures, the importance of high expectations and how to build strong relationships with indigenous students is important for all teachers.”

It notes there are schools that punch above their weight, either doing noticeably better or worse than might be expected from their context, and suggests future study to find out if there are observable patterns could play an important role in helping reduce the gap.

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