Tackling inequality in Australia through improving education for marginalised learners

April 13, 2018

Australia’s Public Education Foundation has released a major report that examines the price of educational inequality in Australia’s schools.

What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, by the Foundation’s Executive Director David Hetherington examines educational inequality and its cost to Australia. The report estimates that over the six years from 2009 to 2015, “growing inequality cost Australia around $20.3 billion, equivalent to 1.2% of GDP,” and that, “the longer-term cost to Australia is even bigger, because the gap was widening prior to 2009.”

The report states that in the years immediately after the financial crisis, educational inequality “has transformed into a defining national debate.”

“Taken together, the assembled evidence points to several firm conclusions about educational inequality in Australia:

  • Inequality is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance;
  • Inequality for new student cohorts is worsening over time;
  • Inequality increases as students move through their school years;
  • Socioeconomic status and parental education are the main drivers for educational inequality, while Australia performs relatively well on gender and migrant status which are problematic in other countries; and
  • Inequality exists within sectors, as well as between them, with the public sector arguably more unequal due to its more representative coverage.”

My comment:

There is no doubt that equality and educational access – especially to Australia’s most marginalised populations and communities – is now a high priority national issue. Australia’s community education sector already makes a substantial contribution to reducing inequality. In a country riven by growing class divides, adult and community education providers specialise in reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals. For instance, in New South Wales almost 70% of government-funded VET activity is directed to the bottom 40 percent of individuals experiencing disadvantage. The report states that “economic inequality reinforces educational inequality”. Australia’s community education providers are in an excellent position to help counter that cycle for adults and school leavers.

The Public Education Foundation Paper

Other selected quotes from the report (complete report – PDF – available here):

“The question of inequality has permeated recent public debate in Australia. From stagnating wages to CEO salaries, from retiring boomers to renting millennials, the widening gaps in our society have come under intense scrutiny. With each passing year, the inequality drumbeat grows louder. What began as a distant ripple from Athens and Zuccotti Park in the years immediately after the financial crisis has transformed into a defining national debate. Australia was sheltered by the commodities boom from the worst distributional effects of neoliberalism, but as that boom has faded, the growing gap between haves and have-nots has become starker.

“There have been many analyses of the causes of this gap, which range from a less equitable tax system to the decline of the union movement. One which has been less explored is the relationship between education and economic inequality – whether changes in our education system have contributed to the growing wealth and income divide. Given that education is acknowledged as the critical determinant of future earning potential (Quiggin, 1999), it’s reasonable to ask how changes in education achievement may be affecting inequality.

“Another feature of Australian education is that inequality widens as children move through their school years. This trend is particularly pronounced amongst children whose parents have low educational achievement. Students of parents with no post-secondary education lag students of parents with a degree by ten months in Year 3. By Year 9, this gap has grown to thirty months.

“A final important point on educational inequality in Australia is that it is entrenched within sectors as well as across them. Much commentary around educational divides in Australia focuses on public versus private schools. However, the empirical evidence shows clearly that it is the socioeconomic background rather than school sector that affects results. Once socio-economic background is accounted for, there is essentially no difference in performance between public and non-government schools. So yes, educational inequality flows through to economic inequality. But there’s another dynamic at play here too.

“The causation also works in reverse: economic inequality reinforces educational inequality. They operate in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

“The first goal of education with regards to inequality should be to narrow the gap between top and bottom performing students by lifting the ones at the bottom up, without suppressing those at the top. It is well established that higher educational performance creates economic benefits and conversely that falling performance incurs economic costs.”

The full Public Education Foundation issues paper is available (PDF) here.

The Public Education Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing life-changing scholarships to students and educators in public education and enhancing the value and reputation of public education.

(I originally placed this post, in a slightly different form, on the website of Community Colleges Australia. I am duplicating it here in order to extend the reach.)

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Streep wins Oscar for Iron Lady, credits her Dartmouth experience for understanding the role

March 4, 2012

This post belongs in the “sad but true” category, as it does not reflect all that well on one of my “alma mater” undergraduate universities:  Dartmouth College.

One week ago, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for her stand-out performance in The Iron Lady.  For a couple of months now, a number of news sources have been reporting on how Streep connected her performance in that role to her experience as an exchange student (from Vassar College) at Dartmouth College in the (northern) autumn of 1970 – see The Dartmouth newspaper, The Seattle Times, and the “Simply Streep” fan blog posting from 18 May 2000.

As I revealed on this blog in my review of the film Julie and Julia (6 October 2009), I acted with Meryl Streep in a student-written play – called “The Killer Ape” – at Dartmouth in October 1970 during her exchange period.

A 19 May 2000 interview in The Dartmouth newspaper (reporter Mark Bubriski) provides much of what we understand about Streep and Dartmouth College.  She went to study there because of its reputation for good theatre and the students there “seemed pretty cool”.  She took a playwriting class with Errol Hill, a dance class (in which she was the only woman) and a costume design class (and received all “A’s” in her courses).  She reportedly “does not remember” the plays she acted in while at the College, although the interview notes that she did participate in the “less than memorable” Frost playwriting competition one acts – which she does not remember.  Okay, for the record (including Meryl’s, in case she is keen to collect this sort of thing, which I somehow suspect she is not), here is a copy of the program of part of the Frost competition in that October 1970:

And yes, there’s my name on the program with hers.  Click on the image above to enlarge it.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing (and hey, what Dartmouth or Vassar grad is not?), The Dartmouth interview also notes that Streep returned to live in Norwich, Vermont – near Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School.  She acted with the Green Mountain Guild in Vermont and waited on tables.  The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.  The rest, as they say, is history – or rather, very public history.

Neat, huh?  And the connection to The Iron Lady?  Well, Streep has been quoted saying that as one of 60 female exchange students with 6000 men at Dartmouth in the fall of 1970, she felt the isolation which she could later translate to her role as Margaret Thatcher and get inside the head of the character:  “And so a little bit of my emotional work was done for me.”

Actually, it was 120 female exchange students (as I recall) and only 3000 men, but it probably felt worse to her, so I won’t argue.


Digital inclusion paper on Australian Policy Online

December 8, 2011

My paper on digital inclusion – presented to the Communications Policy and Research conference on 7 November 2011 – has been posted online on the prestigious “Australian Policy Online” (APO) website, which is managed by Australian National University and Swinburne University of Technology.  Click here to go to the APO website page.

My paper has also been highlighted on the website of the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum, which is “dedicated to economic growth in the broadband economy in communities large and small”.  Forum co-founder Robert Bell recently (October 2011) visited Australia and spoke at the Economic Development Conference in Adelaide.  Click here for Bell’s reflections and perspective on the Australian NBN.


Governor General of Australia event

February 10, 2011

Here is a bit of shameless self-promotion.  Yesterday (February 9, 2011) my organisation – the Rural Health Education Foundation (of which I am the CEO) – had an event hosted by the Governor General of Australia (Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce) at Admiralty House, her Sydney residence.  There is a news item on her website this morning:  I am in right-hand photo talking with her and Professor Paul Worley (Dean, School of Medicine, Flinders University, Adelaide).


New film about Anna Halprin

April 25, 2010

The New York Times reports on April 23 that there is a new documentary about the dancer Anna Halprin.  Called “Breath Made Visible”, this 80 minute doco has just opened theatrically at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street in Manhattan.

Anna Halprin is the widow of the late Lawrence Halprin, a famous Marin County landscape architect whose passing I reported on December 9, 2009.  I had taken an intensive workshop with Lawrence Halprin (at Sea Ranch and in San Francisco) in November 1977 (and did another one with him in Sydney in 1981 or thereabouts), and I recall from that workshop how much Anna had influenced his work.

The New York Times has a great online trailer, which includes samples of some of the astonishing footage in the well-made documentary.


Waltz With Bashir film review

October 25, 2009

This film review originally appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on September 12, 2008

Written, directed and produced by Ari Folman

We Jews are excellent at remembering, with many of our major festivals organised around re-telling of historic events.  But what happens when memory does not come?  This is what faced Israeli film-maker Ari Folman in attempting to remember what he did at age 20 during the 1982 Lebanon War, when he ended up in Beirut, very close to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres.  How fitting that Folman is the son of Auschwitz survivors.

One friend asks if has tried psychotherapy, shiatsu, “that sort of thing”.  But Folman went a different route, tracking down people other soldiers who served in Lebanon at the time and turning their stories into one of the most unique documentaries in many years.  The result is Waltz with Bashir, a feature-length animated documentary with re-creations of the incidents described in the interviews.

This MA15+ rated film well and truly earns its strong rating in the first scene:  a pack of wild, mean and very angry dogs race through the streets of a city which appears to be Tel Aviv, knocking over street furniture and terrorising bystanders as they arrive at an apartment building, from which a man fearfully peers down.  These are the nightmares of Boaz Rein-Buskila, an accountant whose job in the Lebanon War was to shoot the dogs in the villages his army unit entered so that their barking would not give the soldiers away.

And thus it goes with each interviewee’s on-screen story.  Ronny Dayag was the only survivor of a unit that was ambushed near a beach in Lebanon, but he survived by swimming south in the ocean at night until he reached Israeli lines.  But he remained scarred by the experience of survival.  And there is Shmuel Frenkel, a unit commander who applied patchouli oil so that his men would know where he was by its distinctive smell.  During a street fight in Beirut when he and his men are pinned down by sniper fire he grabs a machine gun and runs into the street, firing and dancing wildly – thus the film’s title Waltz with Bashir, Bashir referring to the murdered charismatic Lebanese Christian politician Bashir Gemayel.

Most of the interviewees appear on screen in animated versions of themselves, all in discussion with the director Folman, and in most (but not all cases) it is their actual voices which we hear, telling their stories in their own words.

The drawings in the film operate on a number of levels.  They help us to re-live the horror of the war, the visuals of which could be overwhelming if we were watching real pictures or possibly would be distracting if actors played the roles in the recreations.  They also help to shield the interviewees – we don’t see their faces as they re-live what for many are terrible memories.  Instead, we see the film-makers’ interpretations of how they expressed themselves.

The animation – in a strange palette of colours, mostly yellows and greys with occasional flashes of other colours – both simplify and unify the stories.  The animation artists’ strokes are often broad, but the drawings are powerful and emotionally engaging, and frequently blackly humorous.  The sense of the absurd (resonances of Apocalypse Now and other classic war films are surely intentional) is accentuated by a brilliant soundtrack with a mixture of original scoring and a number of popular but biting Israeli songs.

The visuals are captivating, and the result of Waltz with Bashir is powerful and unsettling.  But be warned:  this is strong stuff.  If some of the recreations were live action and not animations, the film could very well have strayed into full “R” (restricted) territory.

With its unusual approach, Waltz with Bashir breaks new ground in film-making and was nominated for best foreign language film in the February 2009 Academy Awards (but did not win, losing to the Japanese film Departures).  It could equally have been nominated for best documentary.  It’s that type of film:  part art film, part psychological journey.  Aside from some explicit criticism of Ariel Sharon’s inaction during the siege of Beirut, there is little specific political content here, although the futility of war (given that Waltz with Bashir was released after the 2006 Lebanon war) is an obvious point to make.  Few films capture the tormented post-traumatic stress of former soldiers as well as this one does.  What surprises will the contemporary Israeli film industry come up with next?


The Curse of the Media Mogul

October 17, 2009

An important article has just appeared in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Moguls’ New Clothes”, by Bruce C. Greenwald, Jonathan A. Knee and Ava Seave, taken from their book – just published in the USA (October 15, 2009) entitled The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies.

Jonathan A. Knee is an investment banker and an adjunct professor and director of the Media Program at Columbia Business School.  Bruce C. Greenwald is a Professor of Finance and Asset Management at Columbia Business School.  Ava Seave is principal and cofounder of the consulting firm Quantum Media and has held management roles at Scholastic Inc. and The Village Voice.

Here is an interesting quote from their article and book:

A number of highly profitable media companies provide so-called must-have content to professional markets, like the legal, medical, or financial communities.  But even here, the actual content rarely creates the competitive advantage.  Indeed, much of the content is not even owned by the media company—for instance, public legal decisions, or the price at which two parties trade a security on an exchange.  The barrier to entry raised by these companies comes instead from how they integrate, analyze, and deliver multiple sources of diverse content, much of which is widely available.  Put simply, the core of any competitive advantage more often than not derives from the manner of aggregation rather than the creation of content, continuous or otherwise.  It is no coincidence that Google, the most profitable and successful new media company, is an aggregator, not a content creator.

Being economists, they go on about the “barriers to entry” and “competitive advantage”, but their analyses – not especially complimentary to media moguls (presenting various myths which the moguls operate on, and demolishing them) – are particularly valuable.  The Google competitive advantage has been hashed and re-hashed many times (and will again shortly, with Googled – The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta – early November release in USA and a 1 December release in Australia).  And it is easy to say that “Google is an aggregator” and therefore so much more powerful than a simple producer of content.  But it is awfully hard to become a financially successful aggregator of content.

Postscript:  Ken Auletta has just published an article entitled “Searching for Trouble: Why Google is on its guard”, in the October 12, 2009 edition of The New Yorker, which draws from his upcoming book.  (Note not all of the article is currently not all available online.)