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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Bridging the Gap: Another 'deficit thinking' reform model

David Zyngier
David Zyngier is an Education Consultant and former principal of a K-12 Independent School. He is currently undertaking a PhD in education at Monash University.

Bridging the Gap between the 'Haves' and the 'Have Nots': The Role of Education in Overcoming the Increasing Distance between the 'Haves' and the 'Have Nots' (Bridging the Gap) highlights real and deep problems in Australian society, in particular with the way that our education system and schools deal with the socially disadvantaged. It has the commendable aim of fostering an Australia that is just and equitable as well as economically successful.

But its answers ignore the crucial question of the pedagogy needed to address 'disadvantage'. It fails to do this because it is unclear about the true role of schooling in society. Without an appropriate pedagogy it is irrelevant how many more resources are made available to the disadvantaged.

The findings of the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study and the recent analysis by Tony Knight in 'Equity in Victorian Education and "Deficit" Thinking' show that Bridging the Gap is yet another misguided but well meaning attempt to find a solution to society's structural inequality through our classrooms.

Implicit in Bridging the Gap is the model of deficiency of resources, both physical (we need more computers and faster Internet connections) and socio-cultural (students come to school without the necessary incentives to learn or the social capital to succeed). It implies that an investment in education, targeted at the most disadvantaged people and communities, will assist them to break out of the cycle of unemployment, underemployment, marginalisation and reduced participation in our society. 'There [was] mounting evidence that some parts of the Australian community were being left behind. The challenge was to ensure that those not doing so well did not fall further behind [resulting in] a permanent underclass of disadvantage in a chronically divided society,' it states.

There is overwhelming evidence from a corpus of international and Australian research in education that schools' actual role is to continue these same inequalities.

The solutions proposed by Bridging the Gap are little different to the cultural deprivation models of education reform. These paradigms of deficit have been re-labeled and repackaged, first as cultural deprivation or environmental deficit, later as individualised learning and finally as choice and diversity. They have recently been challenged effectively by Noel Pearson as well meaning but destructive liberal guilt, creating destructive welfare dependency.

The reality is that there are no serious work choices available today for these same youth who are the focus of Bridging the Gap, who increasingly find it difficult to take school and its curriculum 'choices' seriously.

Tony Knight in Melbourne Studies in Education writes, 'In a political economy that has built into its structure unemployment, poverty and insufficient jobs for all who aspire to them, the best possible result is an equalisation of poverty. Schools are therefore left to try and equalise inequality, unless there is a different purpose to education'.

Bridging the Gap's recommendations will only serve to increase and sharpen the social disadvantage so long as its advocates perceive the problem as one that is merely based on the unequal distribution of resources and not the unequal distribution of power.

In the final analysis, however, broadening the curriculum to become more flexible and accessible can only condemn the disadvantaged and those at risk to their current role in society as an underclass, unless these initiatives are accompanied by social and economic restructuring of society. Whether equality is attainable is, in the end, a political question and not one that education alone can or should be responsible for.

So long as educators and administrators work on the premise that 'education has the ability to transform the personal and social futures of the disadvantaged' as a group, we will continue to operate in the deficit mode of thinking. Individuals will no doubt benefit, but while there are no serious work choices for the disadvantaged youth and a decline in alternative pathways for 'at risk' students, then only students in the privileged group of society will succeed.

We are witness to a rise in disengagement from school. Supplying national broadband Internet connection will not somehow miraculously re-engage students to an alienating curriculum. The Queensland research found that students most at risk of failure, from socially, culturally and economically conditions, were the least likely to be exposed to the intellectually challenging and relevant material. Those most at risk of failure are condemned to mediocrity in a most Kafkaesque way.

The real issue is not one of resources but one that is closely tied to the curriculum, to the practice of pedagogy in the classroom, the school and the system. Unless our education system, and the pedagogy it implies, promotes relationships that foster self-expression, self-realisation, and self-determination then we will continue to contribute to the injustice, domination and oppression that characterises our schools for the 'at risk' students.

Pedagogy must be inclusive, engaging and enabling. It must not only recognise and respect difference but celebrate it as 'a source of strength and vitality in the community'. Pedagogy must encourage relationships that enable and engage students in valued and worthwhile activities, not just linking learning to the community but also empowering students to use their own authentic knowledge, values and culture to take control over their own lives.

Bridging the Gap focuses on the individualistic success of the disadvantaged. It is silent on how we develop a society that is not only economically productive but is also socially just - a society that not only provides work and sustenance for its members but also seeks to redress and eliminate oppression and domination - the cause of the disadvantage in the first analysis.

References

Feeney, A, Feeney, D et al 2002, Bridging the Gap between the 'Haves' and the 'Have Nots': The Role of Education in Overcoming the Increasing Distance between the 'Haves' and the 'Have Nots', World Education Fellowship Australian Council - University of Queensland, Brisbane, http://www.wef.com.au
Knight, T 2002, 'Equity in Victorian Education and "Deficit" Thinking'. Melbourne Studies in Education, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 83-105.
Lingard, B, Ladwig, J et al 2001, Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study, vol. 1.
Teachers who are interested in exploring the concepts of productive pedagogies and the New Basics can read about them in more detail on the Education Queensland website at http://education.qld.gov.au/public_media/reports/curriculum-framework/qsrls/ where original source material can be downloaded and printed or read online.

KLA

Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Equality
Socially disadvantaged