New programme mooted to tackle unconscious bias in education

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Studies show high levels of racial bias and discrimination in schools continues to disadvantage Māori and Pasifika children. Some say a new initiative has already yielded results but isn’t getting the support it needs. 

The Ministry of Education has told the government it could achieve a “step change” in Māori children’s achievement by tackling their teachers’ unconscious bias against Māori children. A briefing obtained under the Official Information Act shows the ministry told the government in January a “bold step” was required to accelerate Māori achievement. It said it could work with Māori to create a scheme by the end of this year based in part on a previous programme called Te Kōtahitanga, which ran in some secondary schools.

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the ministry’s deputy secretary early learning and student achievement, said it had not yet made any firm decisions about a replacement for Te Kōtahitanga.

But Myles Ferris, the president of Māori school principal association Te Akatea, said the ministry was right to target unconscious bias.

“There’s a high level of racial bias, discrimination throughout our system that’s not often talked about. And it’s not till we address those issues that I think we’re going to see long-term and effective change,” he said.

Mr Ferris said projects targeting Māori achievement tended to involve teachers and principals who were willing to change and a national change needed to be led from the very top of the education system, including the government, Education Ministry and Education Review Office, so that all teachers and principals would participate.

“There are too many pockets of groups in education who do not see addressing the issue around lower levels of Māori achievement as being essential to New Zealand and until we get that sea change, I think we’re going to continue to struggle.”

Researcher Anton Blank was one of the authors of the report Unconscious Bias and Education published in 2016. He said 30 years of research proved unconscious bias had a strong effect on Māori and Pasifika students, but it was hard-wired into people and was hard to change.

“The bias itself is very, very difficult to shift so the focus of the training needs to be on creating new behaviours. So for teachers that would be simple things like making sure they engage with Māori students, spend time with Māori students, say their names properly.”

The ministry’s paper said its new programme could be based in part on Te Kōtahitanga, a scheme that ran in some secondary schools between 2001 and 2013 and improved Māori achievement significantly by changing teachers’ attitudes toward Māori students.

But the ministry said the programme and subsequent interventions had not delivered change in all schools and it was time for something new.

“Te Kōtahitanga delivered a powerful step-change for a small number of schools and students when it was introduced 15 years ago. We advise a similar bold step is now required to support equity and accelerate Māori education achievement and build system coherency,” the report said.

Secondary Principals Association president Mike Williams said the lesson from Te Kōtahitanga was that successful interventions cost a lot of money.

“It was the one programme we’ve had in New Zealand that made a significant difference in the schools and to Māori achievement and it got axed,” he says.

“We seem to have had since then a new programme every two or three years, a new version comes out, but nothing’s invested in enough to get the traction it needs.”

The ministry’s paper indicated any new programme might also run in primary and intermediate schools not just secondary schools.

“Te Kōtahitanga was originally delivered in secondary schools. As part of the co-construction work we will need to explore whether this is the best approach.

“We know that many Māori are becoming disengaged early in their education pathway – ensuring cultural responsiveness right along their pathway is important for reducing the risk of disengagement and its impacts on learning progress and achievement.”

It said some primary schools were already running a less intensive programme than Te Kōtahitanga which had increased Māori achievement in reading and maths by two or three percent and in writing by 11 percent.

Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick said the primary school scheme, the Māori Achievement Collaboratives, focused on schools’ principals and was working well.

“We would hope that that programme would be able to be extended alongside a refreshed Te Kōtahitanga programme which helps teachers in their culturally-responsive practice,” Mr Cormick said.

This post originally appeared on RNZ.



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