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Equity in education should be one of the main goals that the Government and all schools should be aiming to achieve. It should not be accepted that students from various backgrounds and social groups achieve different outcomes (Ryan, 2000). Each student should be entitled to the same education as another student and such things as; educational structures, funding, testing methods, and teachers and the curriculum should be reviewed so that they do not contribute to this inequality prevalent today in Australia's education system.
'Educational Structures' and Educational Inequality:
There are many educational structures in Australian schools that help them to run smoothly and to provide students with a fair and high quality education. There are however, some educational structures such as 'Admission Policies', 'Tracking' and 'Classroom sizes' that do not cater for the diversity of Australian students and families, resulting in educational inequality.
Both Government and Non-Government schools have policies that determine which children are to be enrolled in their school. Although Government Schools cannot fully control their enrolments, factors such as zoning/location of families can effect and limit the choice of school that parents can send their children to (Department of Education, 2008). Unlike Government Schools, Private schools are able to decide who they enrol and can choose to exclude children as per their digression. Factors such as race, religious beliefs, academic achievement and behaviour of students can affect whether a child is accepted or not (Harrison, 2010).
Enrolment selection can contribute to educational inequality as families often have to meet a certain criteria in order to be accepted into any school. If a family cannot afford to live in an area near their desired school, then they often have to settle for a different school that may not meet their needs. Likewise, if parents want to send their children to a private school, then they usually have to have certain religious beliefs or highly academic children. Even if families do fit the criteria for their chosen private school, not everyone can afford the school fees and therefore must settle for a government school that again might not suit their cultural, social, educational or religious needs as well as their desired private school would (Harrison, 2010). This enrolment selection process allows more choice for families with a higher income and less choice for lower-economic families, creating educational inequality.
Many teachers and school administrators have come to believe that students learn better when they are placed with other students who have similar skills and cognitive abilities (Sadker & Zittleman, 2006). As a result of this belief, a high majority of schools place students in different classes where they are provided with different curricula based on their intellectual abilities, consequently directing their future. Tracking (also known as 'ability grouping') is the name given to this system and although many believe that this process makes teaching easier, others suggest that it contributes to inequality in Australia's education system (Sadker & Zittleman, 2006).
According to research, race and class are two of the major factors that determine which children are directed to certain 'tracks' and that a high proportion of children placed in lower ability classes in Australia are Indigenous, come from minority groups such as migrated families, or come from low socio-economic backgrounds (Brunello & Checchi, 2006). "Once tracked into the lower ability group, students are almost always restricted in their access to quality programs and courses... and learning opportunities. In most lower track classes, students remain unchallenged and are often subjected to a highly repetitive curriculum" (Hill, 1998, p1). Tracking in this way promotes inequalities of race and socioeconomic status in education. It introduces barriers to further education and reinforces the differences in educational achievements across various social classes (Brunello & Checchi, 2006).
When children are enrolled in schools that use tracking programs, it is important that parents get to see and understand how the school determines which group children are placed in and how lower-ability groups are taught. If these groups are not challenged and encouraged to achieve higher things then parents should push for their children to be put in higher-ability tracks where they often receive a better quality education (Hill, 1998). Teachers can also help by encouraging students and parents to aim for the high ability tracks and informing them of their options and how their decisions may affect a child both at and beyond school.
According to Toppo (2008), smaller class sizes leads to higher educational achievement. Although quality teaching is a major factor in student achievement, research has found that splitting large classes into smaller sized ones has a positive impact on individual success. Smaller class sizes means that students are able to receive more one-on-one time with their teacher as there are less children competing for the teacher's attention (Parker, 2008). Students in smaller classes are more behaved and focused for longer periods of time than students in large classes (Toppo, 2008). Teachers of small classes are also more able to incorporate motivational activities and engage in class discussions where more students become involved and contribute ideas (Toppo, 2008).
The size of classes in Australia varies per state, however, on average Australian classes are bigger than the 'Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development' (OECD) average, with South Australia having an average of thirty students per class (Parker, 2008). In smaller classes, teachers are able to focus their attention and interact with each child more often. In larger classes, teachers spend more time dealing with misbehaviour and off-task students (Toppo, 2008). Classroom engagement is also not as high in larger classes compared to smaller ones. "In larger classes, pupils' classroom engagement decreased particularly for pupils already attaining at lower levels. This meant that teachers in larger classes spent more time dealing with negative behaviour by low and medium-attainment pupils" (Parker, 2008, p.19).
Large classroom sizes are contributing to educational inequality as students with higher needs are not receiving the attention and one-on-one help they require to 'get ahead' and are instead falling further and further behind (Toppo, 2008). Small classes may be much more valuable for lower-attaining students to assist them in becoming higher academic achievers as teachers are able to spend more quality time with each student and can see which students are off-task much quicker/easier than in large sized classes (Parker, 2008).
'Funding Inequalities' and Educational Inequality
The way all Australian schools are funded is currently under review however, schools are currently being funded in the following way:
Federal and State funding for Government and Non-Government Schools :
In Australia, the Federal Government provides funding to both Government and private schools "as part of a funding partnership involving state and territory governments and parent communities" (Australian Government, 2010a, p.1). Government schools are mostly being funded by state and territory governments with the Federal Government providing 'supplementary funding'. Catholic and independent schools are mostly being funded by the Federal Government with the state and territory governments providing the 'supplementary funding'. According to the 2010 'Report on Government Services' (Policy Pointers, 2010) the Federal and State Governments combined, provided schools with $36.4 billion dollars of which government schools received $28.8 billion. The Federal Australian Government gave private schools $5.5 billion and government schools $2.5 billion and the State Governments gave $26.3 billion to government schools and $2.1 billion to private schools (Australian Government, 2010b).
How does this contribute to educational inequality?
In May 2009, the Rudd Government introduced an initiative called 'National School Pride' where all Australian schools were given between $50,000 and $200,000 to go towards building new classrooms and buildings (Dowling, 2007). This funding was received by every school around the country including both struggling schools and wealthy private schools. Private schools are currently receiving a large amount of money from the Government and so there was disgruntlement from many people as to why more money was not given to the needy Government schools instead of these private schools (Vickovich, 2009).
Private schools often charge parents high fees to send their children there, yet the Government still provides them with large amounts of money while many government schools struggle (Dowling, 2007). This helps the wealthy private schools to provide even higher educational standards while students who attend government schools are disadvantaged (Vickovich, 2009). Every person despite their race, socio-economic background or intellectual ability should have the right to a high quality education (Cobbold, 2002). Making a decision on whether parents send their children to government schools or private schools "should not be based on the fact that government schools are underfunded" (Boston, 2002, p.1).
In order to improve this situation, public funding for private schools could be made conditional upon them keeping fees below a certain amount and "dramatically reducing a school's per-student funding once it began charging fees above a given level" (Harrison, 2010, p.1). Funds should not be merely allocated according to the size of the school or number of students in it but according to the educational needs of students. More funding should be given to schools with students who need to improve or have learning disabilities (Harrison, 2010). Educational equality in regards to funding will only come when funds are targeted at students who are most in need and should not be determined on whether a school is government or private (Vickovich, 2009).
'Testing Practices' and Educational Inequality
When the Howard Government was in charge, there was a large increase in funding and support for private schools. The reporting of school results (for both Government and private schools) become prominent and Federal Government funding was determined by these results. Currently the Rudd Government is in charge and is committed to furthering the Howard Government's programme of funding depending on results, by publishing these results on a Website called 'MySchool' (found at www.myschool.edu.au).
Currently in all Australian schools, children in years three, five, seven and nine, are required to take part in a national test called NAPLAN which tests students on their literacy and numeracy skills (MCEECDYA, 2009). From the results of these tests, students, teachers and parents are able to see how well a child is going compared to the rest of Australian children. It also helps teachers to see what areas need to be improved as a class, helping to direct teaching materials and goals (NSW Teachers Federation, 2009). NAPLAN is important in many ways such as professional learning, however, it does have its limitations.
NAPLAN only tests part of the curriculum and does not show the overall picture of a student's abilities. It also may not be completely accurate as it does not cater for students who do not perform as well under test situations or for those children who may be sick or have had something happen in their family life at the time of the test. NAPLAN should not be used to measure the success of a school and should not be relied on to determine how much a teacher gets paid or how much funding a school receives (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009).
Using and publishing the results from standardised testing such as the NAPLAN to compare schools is not fair and can have negative impacts on both schools and students. There are many reasons why schools may not perform as well as other schools in standardised testing including funding, resources and teachers. Using the results in an inappropriate manner could lead to problems in the communities and create the idea of 'good' and 'bad' schools, encouraging competition and "social segregation between schools" (Cobbold, 2002, p.2). Teachers may also begin to narrow the curriculum by focusing their teaching on what will be in the tests which leads to students not receiving the educational quality that they should. Standardised testing may also promote low self-esteem in students who consistently do not perform well (Stiggins, 2009). Repeated testing reinforces this idea and increases the gap between low and high achievers (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009).
In order to prevent negativity when using the results of testing for accountability purposes, both standardised test results, class test results and teacher assessment results should be examined. The Government should not be involved in this process and should not determine which schools receive more funding depending on how well their students perform (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009).. Teachers should not be judged on the students' standardised testing results but on how well a student improves throughout the year, taking into account aspects such as learning disabilities. The results of assessment should not be used to judge schools and teachers but for professional development in order to enhance student learning (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009).
'Teachers and the Curriculum' and Educational Inequality:
In order to have an inclusive classroom with educational equality for all, the pedagogical practices that are employed should be suitable and effective for each individual, not just for some students at the expense of others (Turner, 2006). Each student comes into the classroom with various characteristics such as language barriers, special needs (physical/intellectual), race/ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status. The responsibility of a teacher is to provide students with a high quality education by ensuring that what they teach as well as how they teach it supports the learning of each and every student regardless of their background (Turner, 2006).
Classroom diversity should influence the "design, content, delivery and assessment of programmes and modules" (Bird, 1996, p.3). The curriculum should not merely focus on content but on the complete learning environment including pedagogical practices, classroom interactions, support and resources (Bird, 1996). Students should not be expected to 'fit' in to the current structures; the teaching and curriculum should change to 'fit' the students (Ryan, 2000). Recognising the diversity within a classroom is not enough, the teaching and curriculum must be manipulated and presented in a way that encourages, values and caters for differences (Brady & Kennedy, 2007)
Teachers and the Curriculum contribute to educational inequality when they are not flexible enough to be inclusive of all students and the diversity that accompanies them. The way in which a teacher presents the curriculum is influenced by the way they interpret curriculum documents along with their beliefs, attitudes and values. Curriculum documents "outline content and outcomes for all students, [however] it is up to teachers to make more fine-grained decisions that will cater for the realities of classroom diversity" (Brady and Kennedy, 2007, p.32). By gaining an understanding of the diverse experiences that are brought with students into the classroom, teachers can use them to shape classroom learning practices (Brady and Kennedy, 2007).
Another way teachers and the curriculum contribute to educational inequality is when they do not acknowledge the different ways students learn. Teachers should have an understanding of the differences between the learning styles between boys and girls along with multiple intelligences between all students (Bowes, 2004). A range of pedagogical methods such as group work, hands-on tasks and audio-visual media should all be encompassed into the classroom in order to cater for the huge range of learning styles in the classroom. As teachers get to know their students, they will be able to see which teaching styles are more efficient as well as which topics and content material is of interest to the students (Brady and Kennedy, 2007).
Educational equity in education is very important. All children regardless of their background have a variety of skills and talents and it is the role of the school and its' teachers to encourage students to develop these by providing them with a range of opportunities and learning experiences. Not all children will achieve the same outcomes, but there should not be a huge gap between the outcomes that one social group achieves compared to another (Cobbold, 2002). Australia should be aiming to provide all students with a good education regardless of wealth, background or social group.
Throughout the completion of this research report, I was required to read widely on various topics regarding educational inequality in schools. Educational structures, funding, testing practices and teachers and curriculum were the foundation of my research from which I learnt about the effects of each on students, teachers and schools. My previous ideas and understandings were constantly challenged and have resulted in me modifying my own values and beliefs regarding numerous concepts.
Some of the readings were very surprising to me and prompted quite a few discussions between myself and those around me at the time I was reading them. The statistics regarding funding were quite a surprise but the readings that 'got to me' the most were those relating to admission policies. I was unaware of the process of student enrolment and selection for both government and non government schools and the idea of families from low socio-economic having less choice over which school they could send their children too provoked in me a strong feeling of disgust and unfairness.
The readings about tracking were also very enlightening as I have heard about ability grouping being a major aspect of some schools but have not had much experience with it myself and so was quite neutral towards the concept. After reading about the effects that tracking can have on students who are placed in low ability groups, my opinion on the matter as swayed quite dramatically and I am now aware of the negative impacts it can have on students.
Before completing this assignment, I took for granted the idea that standardised testing such as the NAPLAN was a necessary aspect of schooling and was a positive and necessary concept. The readings on this matter completely disrupted my assumptions towards standardised testing and opened my eyes to the effects it can have on not only students but on schools, teachers and the curriculum. I had not considered that some children do not perform as well on tests or that teachers might narrow the curriculum to 'teach to the test'. The idea of the 'MySchool' website, where the results from standardised tests are published on the internet for all to see, is now quite appalling to me. After reading about this topic I believe that this website could easily create social segregation between schools by labelling them according to their results. I now understand why there was such uproar from teachers and schools when this idea was announced.
After completing this assignment and reading the information that I did, I will now apply various aspects to my own teaching. There is not much I can do to change 'admission policies', 'funding' or 'standardised testing', but I can do my best to ensure that as a teacher I am valuing and catering for the diversity in my classroom regardless of social class, wealth or background. All students bring with them to school a variety of skills and talents and I now feel that it is my job to encourage students to find and develop these. I also feel that it is my job to have high expectations of all students and to help students feel like they will go far in life regardless of where they come from.
I believe that Australia and the world have a lot to change before educational inequality is not so prevalent in schools. It is important that people come to realise that all races and social groups of people are equal no matter what their background is or how wealthy they are. The government, schools, teachers and the curriculum need to reflect the idea that each student deserves a high quality education and should be given the best possible chance to achieve similar outcomes as another student.
As a future teacher, many questions were raised throughout the completion of this assignment such as how I can make the curriculum reflect the needs of all my students, how I can encompass a range of pedagogical strategies in order to cater for the various learning styles of my students and how I can help to make each and every student that I teach feel as though they are equal and valuable in my classroom. I feel that these are the three most valuable questions that have come to mind after reading the materials that I did for this assignment. As a teacher, if we can make the classroom reflect educational equality, then that is one step towards making our whole school equal.
Although this research report took me some time to complete, I am glad we were required to read widely as my ideas have changed somewhat for the better after doing so. I feel that educational equality is something that we must all strive to achieve so that each student is provided with ample opportunity to succeed not only throughout school but also in the real world.