When the Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson was in year 5 at Hopevale primary school, in the mid-1970s, a fill-in teacher arrived to take his class. She was an older woman, but he can’t remember her name. He can remember names of more charismatic teachers.
He just remembers a “long, torrid” year with this nameless teacher, who had once taught high-school English and who drilled the children in literacy so intensively it felt ”like doing football practice day in and day out”.
That was the year of his “literacy breakthrough”, he remembers, and when he went away to boarding school in Brisbane at the Lutheran St Peter’s, he outshone most of his contemporaries in English. He continued to do so at Sydney University where he took his history and law degrees.
It was in this teacher’s classroom that the seeds were sown for the high-stakes education revolution he has launched on Cape York, to erase a generation’s dysfunction and lost opportunity.
It was there that Pearson came to understand that the “essence of the good teacher is above all the quality of their instruction”, as he wrote last year. This led him eventually to the door of a 78-year-old professor at the University of Oregon last year.
Pearson remembers his old teacher used a boxed set of cards for the literacy exercises, which the children called ”SRA cards” because they were published by the mysterious sounding Science Research Associates. Thirty-five years later he discovered the SRA and its cards had been part of a teaching method known as Direct Instruction, designed by Professor Siegfried Engelmann.
The discovery came via Bernadine Denigan, the inspirational chief executive of Cape York Partnerships, who went to the US on a Churchill fellowship two years ago and discovered the startling successes Direct Instruction was having in similarly disadvantaged schools in places as diverse as Harlem and Nebraska.
As Pearson wrote in a brilliant article entitled Radical Hope in Quarterly Essay last year, Engelmann’s contribution is ”the most profound of any education theorist in the modern era and yet he labours in near complete-obscurity”.
The American adman turned education professor designed the teacher-proof program that allows children, particularly those from disadvantaged background, to excel. The teacher reads exercises to children from a set script, with clear examples, consistent working and explicit phonics, delivered with high energy and at a fast pace. Children are placed in classes according to ability and only progress when they have mastered every lesson in the workbook. Like phonics, it is unfashionable in the “pupil-directed learning” milieu. Pearson had to fight to get the $7 million, three-year trial off the ground at Coen and Aurukun schools this year.
Undermined by elements of the Queensland education bureaucracy, he had to replace both principals this year and a number of teachers.
But he expects the program to work better than what he calls the Groundhog Day of “shameful failure” in which Aboriginal children are two to four years behind their non-indigenous counterparts.
At Aurukun school last week, where I saw the program in action, Lizzie Fuller, a 25-year-old from Orange, says Direct Instruction just ”makes sense. It takes all the guesswork out of teaching. You thrive on the results and the kids thrive on the lessons.”
She tells of the student who was moved into a higher ability group who came to her at the end of the day and said: ”Miss, I am just so proud of myself.”
This is real self-esteem, says Pearson, the kind that comes from achievement rather than the illusory sort that comes from people offering you false praise.
Last week, a year 4 girl, Imani Tamwoy, became the first child to catch up to her grade level in reading, a significant achievement in Aurukun.
Colleen Page, a 24-year-old teacher from the Sunshine Coast, in her third year at the school, says her students revel so much in synonyms they now will say, ”Miss, I’m feeling indolent today” rather than ”lazy”.
Another teacher, Patricia Thompson, has also noticed ”a big change in my kids – there’s been a big improvement in behaviour because they’ve learned to read … We [teachers] love it.”
At Coen School, where Pearson’s cousin Cheryl Canon, from Hopevale, is the new principal, results are similarly pleasing after just 18 weeks.
Visiting the school last Friday, Pearson is delighted at what he sees in Majella Peter’s class. A tall, elegant Coen local, she is not a trained teacher but a tutor who completed an 18-month traineeship at the school in 2006, and had a four-week crash course in Direct Instruction this year. With her script in front of her she briskly moves her small class through the morning’s work. “Is this food?” she says in the instructor’s bright, energetic voice. “What kind of food is it?”
”This food is a carrot.”
Her pupils sit in rapt attention, calling out answers in unison.
Pearson says it was NAPLAN testing in 2008, showing abysmal scores for Aurukun, Coen and other Cape York schools, that prompted concerns by parents. For all the sophisticated explanations from teachers’ unions about why NAPLAN rankings are a disaster for our children’s education, there is a countervailing story out in the real Australia.
On Cape York, in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools, the NAPLAN tests of 2008 actually empowered parents to demand a better education for their children. When they saw how far below the national average their schools had scored in the 2008 test, they demanded answers.
At Aurukun, test results were at least 70 per cent below the national benchmark in reading, writing, numeracy, spelling, grammar and punctuation. The precipitous step on a bar chart of comparative results says it all.
At Coen School, Pearson’s Cape York Institute has been running a successful phonics-based remedial literacy program MULTILIT with Macquarie University. The results were more encouraging, with all year 7 students at or above the national minimum standard in writing, spelling and numeracy.
But having made the commitment to send their children to school – and with attendance rates climbing – Cape York parents felt the schools were letting them down on their side of the bargain.
It was welcome criticism for Pearson, who has spent years drumming up parental involvement in education and has introduced a suite of radical social reforms, including student trust accounts to pay for future education expenses. Education is the crucible around which his plans for Cape York revolve – for welfare reform and economic self-sufficiency to end the cycle of despair that comes from passive welfare dependency.
The next NAPLAN results in 2012 are expected to bear the fruits of his work.