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Racism reason for indigenous underachievement?

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Pervasive, strong opinions about indigenous students and their inability to engage and learn effect their performance at all levels of education and in later life, still.

Writing in a review to be presented government and its agencies researchers said; “The research demonstrates that both students and parents have high expectations for achievement, but exposure to persistent and repeated negative representations of indigeneity or indigenous academic ability from teachers and the media leads to disengagement, de-identification and reduced wellness.”

“Empirical evidence demonstrates that racism negatively impacts the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from primary school, through high school, and to later life, when those students become parents, employees and Elders.”

“The impacts on students are harmful, wide-reaching and life-long, and influence academic achievement, attitudes to language, emotional wellbeing, physical health, self-concept, school attendance, and post-school pathways, and eventually school choice and engagement when those students become parents.”

Dr Kevin Lowe of Macquarie University completed a review on factors affecting the development of school and Aboriginal community partnerships. Seven major themes emerged from the research, including the historic effects of colonisation, institutional practices that damaged engagement, and the importance of leadership in establishing successful collaborations.

He says that factors shown to feed student success included an agreed purpose of schooling, a holistic approach to learning, quality teaching practices, and access to language and cultural programs.

“Communities prefer purposeful engagement that is directly linked to a specific cohort’s education outcomes,” said Dr Lowe. “It is important for schools to develop meaningful, two-way relationships with families and the community built on trust and respect between the parties .

“Meanwhile, for teachers to be able to effectively communicate with parents and relate with them, they need specific knowledge about the community they’re teaching in.

“Teachers’ beliefs determined their success in the classroom. Teachers’ often had strong preconceptions about Aboriginal kids and communities even if they had little or no experience in these communities. Many thought that the kids can’t be engaged, or can’t be given challenging activities, meaning they’d dumb down materials. This highlights the need for ongoing professional development that helps teachers to challenge their understanding of what Aboriginal communities can and can’t do.”

Further steps for future success, he says, include establishing “effective processes for school/teacher engagement with families” and building a culturally inclusive curriculum that takes into account local context and Indigenous knowledge.

Dr Cathie Burgess of the University of Sydney said that “In the larger, empirical-based studies, Aboriginal students are generally a subset of a larger group, included because of disadvantage and low achievement levels and so any evidence claiming the success of a pedagogic intervention is not specifically for Aboriginal students.”

Further, she highlighted the shortage of studies “that seek Aboriginal voices about these issues.” Failure to remedy this, she said, “will continue the trend of short-term, minimal impact projects limited by context and pressure to meet quantifiable outcomes, rather than what Aboriginal students and their families believe will best meet their needs, and are willing to address.”

“The failure of school systems across Australia to make sustainable inroads into closing the deep achievement gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students is symptomatic of the depth and complexity of issues shown to affect the development and implementation of policies and schooling practice,” says a statement issued by the team.

“[T]he long-term resolution of these students’ educational underachievement can only occur when educators and Indigenous communities have an informed understanding of how these issues affect students’ capacity and willingness to engage in their schooling.”

The findings will be reported to policy and program managers in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, AITSIL, ACARA and other agencies.


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