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Is there a need for Social Justice in Schools? Part 1

It should be a reasonable expectation that all children entering school do so with equal opportunity of success which will be reflected in essentially equivalent outcomes of assessment of a diversity of groups irrespective of class, ethnicity or gender. This paper examines academic inequalities created by the use of standardised testing and some contributing factors including utilisation and the interrelated sociological elements such as language, socioeconomic status and ideological bases.

For the context of this paper, equity is defined as resources, such as services, funds, understanding, context and knowledge are made available to everyone to provide opportunities to participate and succeed, not just certain groups of people; Equality provides all people the right to receive appropriate quality services. Diversity requires educators to reflect the array of differences evident not only in our children and families but in the community. Social Justice sequentially requires educators to challenge discrimination and inequity within our systems of education, community and class (Acedo, 2008). The principles of justice and fairness can be thought of as rules of fair play for issues of social justice. Social justice requires both that the rules be fair, and also that people play by the rules (Saunders, 2004).

Australians overwhelmingly believe in equality of opportunity as a social norm. It is a common belief that Australians’ life chances are less dependent on their circumstances of birth and less hampered by rigid class structure, debilitating snobberies, or lack of social networks, than are the life chances of many people in comparable nations (Crooks, 2006).

When politicians pontificate about equality of opportunity and ‘a fair go for everyone’, they often mean little more than equality under the law. Their concern is to ensure that the legal, regulatory and institutional framework does not impede Australians from competing on equal terms. Many Australians have something far more ambitious in mind than this classical liberal vision. Their norm is substantive equality of opportunity which refers to a situation where everyone is able to develop their full potential irrespective of the original circumstances of their birth and childhood and where a person’s economic prospects are determined overwhelmingly by their own ability and character (Saunders, 2004).

It is possible to gauge the extent of equality of opportunity in society and education by measuring social mobility (Breen, 2010). This reflects the ease and frequency by which people move up the social hierarchy during their lifetime and between generations, irrespective of their different backgrounds and starting opportunities (Habibis and Walter, 2009). Its aim is to discern to what degree individuals can succeed utilising the virtue, talents or motivation (Beenstock, 2004).

Habibis and Walter (2009) surveyed research on social inequality in Australia and highlighted the research that children from low socio-economic, indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds have considerably less chance of achieving large amounts of social mobility over their lifetime than those who come from a high socioeconomic background. For example In Australia, about forty-five percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary school children are deemed to have lower than average literacy and numeracy performance levels, compared with sixteen percent of non-indigenous Australians, a disadvantage carried over into their secondary education (Australia 2020 Summit, 2008) and often beyond.

Habibis and Walter (2009) express how educators unknowingly perpetuated social hierarchies through subject requirements, class activities, teaching methods and communication with students in and outside of the classroom. It was found that many in the past did not accept that the education system is one of the education structures that historically generate social inequalities (Burnheim, 2004). Instead, it was believed that poverty was the basis for educational disadvantage, sequentially the educational system simply registers the effects (Horgan, 2009). The links between poverty and educational processes in the above belief are an over-simplification of the issue. Low income has material effects, such as lack of books and equipment; adding to this is a complex of environmental and psychological pressures, ranging from damaged self-esteem to racism (AARE, 1994). There is an intricate cultural dynamic around education that leads to families in poverty feeling excluded from decision-making process. This paradigm can produce misconceptions about their skills being undervalued and their children being seen as innately less intelligent.

Based on initial readings and examining classroom experiences, teachers desired students to become critical thinkers about social issues, who would review and expand knowledge about oppression, advocacy, and marginalized groups (Groundwater-Smith, Ewin and Cornu, 1998). Carrington and Elkins (2002), research demonstrated teachers desired the classroom experience to be relevant and students to be engaged and empowered by their learning, in an environment that was inclusive; leaving no student marginalized or without a voice in their learning.

Paulo Friere (1970, 2007), the Brazilian educator strongly believed in democracy in the classroom. His pedagogical theory was labelled critical pedagogy and focused on eliminating hierarchy by filling classrooms with teachers who learn and learners who teach. Friere advocated classroom activities that encourage empowerment supporting students to initiate change and take action. Ira Shor (1987, 1992) spoke of the importance of educators maintaining hope and also respecting and caring for students in order for learning to take place. In very similar ways, Carl Rogers (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994) expresses the components needed to structure an atmosphere conducive to learning and change. The work of Rogers reminds educators that the contribution of the relationship to successful outcomes for teaching cannot be minimized.

Overwhelmingly the research indicates that, of the factors that schools can control, quality teaching is the greatest single factor in students’ achievement and that; in fact, quality teaching makes the difference (Rowe, 2002).

There is an argument that teachers have the desire and ability to facilitate change and promote social mobility, it is contended that by using standardised test that do not take into consideration cultural, socio-economic, language and gender the classroom teachers unintentionally perpetuates social injustice. The cultural gap described by Thaman (2003) refers to the distance between the culture of the classroom and the home. It is the process of exclusion of the culture and the non-schooling lives of the students from the happenings and assessment in school. Thurman contends that assessments that have no relationship to the students cultural context intensify the deficit view within the schooling system, this opinion is supported by Connell (1993) and Sturman (1997).

Original standardised tests were created for the purpose of advancement and recognition based on individual merit rather than inheritance or corrupt means (Symes and Preston, 1997). The goal was to provide objectivity and fairness but positioned various populations on unequally grounds as tests were norm-referenced on mainstream children. Wheatley (2006) suggest, the subjective biases reflecting assumptions of the day were built into tests, disadvantaging groups along lines of culture, class and gender.

Broadfoot, (1996) indicated that western presuppositions of intelligence were fixed, measurable and an innate capacity, this notion consequently predisposition certain groups within the student population to become to successful or failures. According to Bourdieu (1974) inequality begins with attitudes and values that originate in the family unit, these are then reinforced by the school through tests that examine presumed acquired knowledge. Often this form of assessment does not draw on the student’s funds of knowledge and cultural capital which they bring with them; this subsequently confirms the low expectations and aspirations of the student who did not inherit the appropriate linguistic and cultural capital (Klenowski, 2009).

This paper is part one of a two-part series on social justice within the Australian education system.

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