Sunday, 22 May 2016

Justice re-investment and educational casualties: What can education learn?

Yesterday (May 21) I presented at the researchEd conference in Melbourne. If you’re not familiar with these “pop-up” conferences, the brain child of UK teacher Tom Bennett, you can read more here

My presentation at researchEd was about the notion of justice re-investment, and how this contemporary approach to an old problem could inform an ongoing problem in education – the long tail of under-achievement in reading ability. Of course there’s another connection here too, and that is the one between an early pattern of under-achievement, the emergent of externalising behavioural difficulties, and disengagement from school and learning. Sometimes this sad confluence of events is referred to as the School-to-Prison pipeline. The fact that this is even an accepted term in the literature should make us all hang our heads in dismay. 

Justice re-investment has been summarised as: “…. a new approach in tackling the causes of crime and provides a viable option as our prison expansion costs become unsustainable. It re-directs money spent on prisons to community-based initiatives which aim to address the underlying causes of crime, promising to cut crime and save money”. 

As you can see, the idea here is to be tough on the causes of crime, rather than replicating tabloid rhetoric about being “tough on crime”. In the case of youth justice involvement, there are many risk-factors and comorbidities that need to be considered, including:

    • Coming from low-SES, single-parent households, most notably where fathers are absent;
    • Exposure to dysfunctional communication / parenting, e.g., coercion, harsh punishment, and erratic discipline;
    • Parental mental health problems;
    • Involvement with Child Protection services;
    • Poor oral language skills;
    • History of behaviour / conduct disturbance;
    • Low educational attachment / attainment;
    • History of school suspensions and exclusions;
    • Developmental disability (diagnosed or not);
    • Intergenerational un/under-employment in parents;
    • Early initiation into substance use / abuse.
Many of these factors are of course observable in the classroom (particularly behavioural difficulties and low educational attainment), while others constitute the complex, often invisible background factors that children bring to school with them. These young people are over-represented in the tail of the reading achievement curve, and their experiences of education are often negative and punctuated by suspensions and exclusions, sometimes with detours to specialist education settings such as “flexible learning environments” and “behaviour schools”. Of course education systems cannot change the background factors that children bring to school with them. They can, however, ensure that reading instruction in the critical first three years of school is informed by the best cognitive science that we have at our disposal. If you don't cross the learning-to-read bridge after three years, you can pretty much forget about reading-to-learn.

To what extent then, should we simply accept, as reported at researchEd by Professor Geoff Masters (Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research; ACER) that 

“…approximately 40,000 Australian 15-year-olds (that is, one in seven students) fail to achieve an international baseline proficiency level in reading. After 10 or more years of school, these students lack the reading skills that the OECD believes are required to participate adequately in the workforce and to contribute as productive citizens in the 21st century”.
Of course we should not accept this.  It is unacceptable. It is hardly surprising, though, that the Industry Skills Council of Australia is crying out to be heard about the fact that almost half of our adult workforce lacks the literacy, numeracy, and language skills to participate meaningfully in the paid workforce.

So, instead of calls for expensive ambulances at the bottom of the steep cliff, what might it look like if we were to build better fences at the top of the cliff, and apply the logic of justice re-investment?

Here’s some possible starting points:

  • We need better application of scientific evidence (Vs ideology) in teacher pre-service education. This would entail more focus on evidence-based early reading instruction, focussing on all of the "five big ideas" in literacy instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics-based instruction, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency).
  • In particular, we need education academics to acknowledge that the first of these two big ideas are currently under-done. It's not enough to say "they are all there", or "we deliver Balanced Literacy". When someone can tell me what Balanced Literacy actually is, I will go out and research it. However at the moment, it's one of those Alice-in-Wonderland terms that education loves, because it means whatever the user wants it to mean.
  • Explicitly setting out to create a shorter tail in the achievement curve.
  • Making more targeted use of specialist support services (such as speech pathology), e.g. via Response to Intervention models;
  • Greater reliance on evidence-based interventions for struggling readers.
And here’s what I see as the barriers to progress on this important front:
  • Education academics arguing that there is really not a problem here at all, aka It’s just moral panic;
  • The ideological hold of Whole Language-informed approaches on teacher pre-service education, e.g.  
    * Three-Cuing strategies (where phonics is last, and the approach used is not Systematic Synthetic Phonics)
    * Look’n’Say approaches
    * Memorising lists of sight-words
    * Reading Recovery, Running Records etc
  • The fact that simple down-stream teacher PD is not the answer. Teachers cannot be expected to seamlessly “unlearn” the non-evidence-based approaches to which they were exposed in their pre-service education, and have been practising ever since, simply by attending a few one-day workshops. There is a science to the teaching of reading, but for some bizarre reason, our teaching workforce is kept behind the iron curtain on this.    

I can’t go past the provocative words of Rod Morgan, former Chair of the UK Youth Justice Board, who observed in 2007* that:

“It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would almost certainly have less need of prisons. Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy”. 

Reforming our schools and better engaging our students has to begin upstream, with an acknowledgement by education academics that they are doing downstream harm by promulgating non evidence-based approaches that perpetuate the long tail of under-achievement and the steady supply of children to the youth and adult justice systems, via the School-to-Prison pipeline.

There is no justice in this at all. Education academics need to get busy building fences at the top of the cliff.

*See: Stephenson, M. (2007). Young People and Offending. Education, Youth Justice, and Social Inclusion. Devon: Willan Publishing.

Related open-access links that may be of interest:

© Pamela Snow 2016