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The Case for Change: A review of Contemporary Research on Indigenous Education Outcomes

Paul Hughes

The recently published ACER Report
The Case for Change: A review of contemporary research on Indigenous education outcomes is a powerful reflection of key issues at play in this field. The review analyses and critiques existing policy and research in the area of Indigenous education. The authors argue that Indigenous education policy in Australia continues to be insufficiently based on research findings, contributing to a slow improvement in outcomes for Indigenous students. Indigenous research continues to be isolated from broader education discourses and the particular needs of Indigenous students should be seen in the context of those universal educational needs of all students. In the view of the authors, much of the research overemphasises the uniqueness of the Indigenous experience of education and underemphasises the many factors that impact on the learning of all students.

The review concludes that changes to existing policy and practice in the field of Indigenous education are required and it calls for the establishment of a new national research agenda, consisting of large-scale studies using both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Similar research agendas when adopted in other developed countries have led to significant policy changes and improved outcomes for Indigenous people. Australia should instigate a similar research agenda, one that would better support more effective and efficient policy development in the area of Indigenous education. Eminent Indigenous educator, Professor Paul Hughes' Foreword to the Review is reproduced below for readers.

On behalf of the members of the Advisory Committee to ACER, I am pleased to provide the foreword for The Case for Change: A review of contemporary research on Indigenous education outcomes. We welcome such important research. Research in the area of Indigenous Peoples has always been an emotional issue. Politically, the Indigenous community has long held the view that we have been extensively researched for little outcomes.

Indeed we have often claimed that we are the most researched group in the world. We have felt that many people, mostly non-Indigenous, have studied us and in the process produced many publications that have helped them advance their academic qualifications, professional standing and careers. These activities have not necessarily helped us advance as Indigenous communities and peoples.

The view that we are the most researched group is very debatable and only true in part. Many non-Indigenous people have indeed advanced their qualifications by doing research on us. We as an Indigenous community have only recently begun to produce people qualified at the postgraduate level, therefore becoming trained and available to become involved in research.

While our community still thinks that we are over-researched, the Advisory Committee and I do not agree, and we call for a substantial increase research in the area of Indigenous education. This review so excellently and objectively done by Suzanne Mellor and Matthew Corrigan, supports the contention that much more focused and longitudinal research is needed.We would add that it is essential that such research be done in conjunction with, and inclusive of, Indigenous people - both for the purpose of capacity building for our people, but more importantly for Indigenous knowledge to be incorporated.

This review of outcomes for Indigenous students is very detailed and raises many issues that we hope will spark controversy and debate. I comment on some of them as follows.

National data collection practices

The Indigenous community is not homogeneous, but data for national comparisons is collected and analysed as if we were. This does us a disservice because it does not compare 'apples with apples', and masks data on the real growth of our communities.

The National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), in its 1979 submission to the National Inquiry into Teacher Education led by John Auchmenty, developed a Socio-Geographic Chart that distributed our communities in four ways:

Category 1 - Traditionally Oriented Communities, where the local Indigenous vernacular is the common daily language.
Category 2 - Rural Non-Traditional Communities, where the common daily vernacular is English, with a mixture of Indigenous words and Indigenous English.
Category 3 - Urban Communities, where the common daily vernacular is English.
Category 4 - Urban Dispersed Indigenous people, where the common daily vernacular is English.

The need to disaggregate the data from those communities where the daily language is not English, from those communities where English is the daily language, is important in comparing outcomes. When that disaggregation happens we can truly compare outcomes.

Government Indigenous education policy initiatives

The Case for Change: A review of contemporary research on Indigenous education outcomes argues that policy initiatives are funding 'top-ups' to basic funding programs aimed at achieving social justice, with each provider left to work out how to do this. It further argues that there are a range of performance indicators that lack precise accountability because they do not arise from a coherent body of research that clearly articulates the most appropriate means of addressing Indigenous educational disadvantage. Put simply, future Indigenous education policy decisions must be based upon real research findings, and where these findings necessitate policy action, those actions must be taken.

Principles and standards for culturally inclusive schooling

We agree with the contention in the review that, along with the obvious multiple factors of socioeconomic status and language, cultural influences are obviously important to learning outcomes and that there needs to be much more research attention paid to exactly what is the influence of culture. Research data collected to date does not support the current policy contention that culturally inclusive curriculum and/or the presence of Indigenous teachers will automatically lead to an improvement in Indigenous student outcomes. We are sure that the above will be debated by both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Inclusion of Indigenous conversation and voice in research

The publication comments on the lack of Indigenous voices in research. In 1979 there were 72 qualified and practising Indigenous teachers in Australia, and far fewer than that number qualified in all the other disciplines combined. So, up to the early 1980s, our Indigenous communities had very few academic graduates to contribute to the development of us as a people and the nation as a whole. The National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), which existed as the principal policy adviser to the Commonwealth government from 1977 to 1989, recognised this and made several policy decisions designed to correct the situation.

It advocated the training of 1000 Indigenous teachers by 1990, as a way of quickly increasing our people's involvement in the education of our communities. It advocated the development of programs that would advance the production of Indigenous graduates, particularly in teaching, but also all other areas of university study. It supported the notion that our own people should engage in postgraduate research to obtain higher degrees. It argued that the involvement of Indigenous people in Indigenous research was paramount.

The result was that the numbers of our people enrolled in university programs began to grow.

For example:

  • In 1992 there were 153 in higher degrees; by 2001 this had risen to 433.
  • In other postgraduate programs there were 191 in 1992 and 283 in 2001.
  • In Bachelor Degree programs there were 2780 in 1992 and 4629 in 2001.
What all of the above says is that the Indigenous community now has the beginnings of a critical mass qualified at the degree level. With some proceeding to the postgraduate level, there are more of us with the skills and experience to be involved in research, thus advancing our academic qualifications, professional standing and employment opportunities for ourselves personally and our community. From here on there is every reason for our people to be involved in any new research agenda.

What is wrong with current research techniques?

The review makes the following comments on the characteristics of current research techniques in Indigenous Education. I quote (see page 46):
  1. Research has generally been either testing without context or small case studies.
  2. Research has generally focused on a specific set of the population.
  3. Research findings have been equivocal, incomplete or unclear.
  4. There has been a focus on the uniqueness of the Indigenous experience of education.
  5. Indigenous education research has been to an extent isolated from the broader research discourses over teacher quality, ongoing professional development, class sizes, and social and emotional readiness for formal education.
  6. Indigenous education has not been integrated with discourses in other disciplines such as developmental, cognitive and social psychology; paediatrics; sociology and public and community health.
  7. Research has focused predominantly on 'problems'.
  8. The relationship between cause and effect has been asserted rather than the inferences tested through research.
  9. There is a tendency to adopt and promote the significance of single solutions.
I have no doubt that this section will be vigorously debated. However, we on the Advisory Committee believe that the above comments on current research need to be considered seriously. Research practices, and the reasons for which research is undertaken, need to change. There is, in our opinion, a need for research into Indigenous education to be brought into mainstream debates about education outcomes. This publication highlights the discontinuity between research and policy in some areas and argues the need for more extensive research beyond the small case study paradigm to provide coherent and better targeted policy initiatives. It argues for more qualitative and case study research, along with a more rigorous evaluation of policy targets and indicators by quantified research into actual achievements.

Changes to policy and practice in the field of Indigenous education are required because we really do not know enough about improving Indigenous students' learning outcomes. The review paper has identified the kinds of methodologies this research needs to employ. It has also identified the range of issues applying to both mainstream and Indigenous education that need to be the focus of this new research. It proposes a significant National Research Agenda, arguing that only in this manner can the learning outcomes of all groups of Indigenous students be significantly raised. If we as Indigenous peoples are to become full citizens, able to fulfil our full potential in this country, the need is manifest. More and better research is the key. We commend this publication as important background for all who may be involved in future planning, policy and research in Indigenous education.

Professor Paul Hughes AM, FACE on behalf of the ACER Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Committee of Ms Isabelle Adams, Ms Wendy Brabham, Mr Peter Buckskin, Ms Dale Sutherland, Mr Arthur Hamilton, Ms Maria Stephens, Dr Margaret Valadian, and Mr Shane Williams.

'The Case for Change: a review of contemporary research on Indigenous education outcomes' by Suzanne Mellor and Matthew Corrigan.
Australian Education Review No 47. Melbourne ACER. To purchase printed copies of the AER email: sales@acer.edu.au.


Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples
Aboriginal students
Education research
Language and languages