Racism and mediatizing the school education narrative: “high risk” business practices and suffering First Nations students

I recently was at a neighbourhood barbeque attended by mostly people my age, many with school-age children and grandchildren. Soon, the smart (cell/mobile) phones were being handed around and shared. This was a time when racist comments concerning Australian First Nations people were flowering in social media concerning an advertisement asking for “an energetic, self-motivated Aboriginal person” for a position in a school somewhere in Australia. For the barbeque gathering the (racist) punchline was that this was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. In Australia, a plethora of similar racist stereotypes abound, and particularly prevalent in social media.

This occurred about the time that James Thomas’ [2016] claims concerning the Good to Great Schools Australia (GGSA) appeared in the Australian mainstream media, and described in greater detail below in this section of this chapter. Of course, these racist stereotypes often were linked with other racist dog whistles abounding in the mainstream media, at the time related to an Australian First Nations sporting legend, Adam Goodes, who had been hounded out of his brilliant career as an AFL (Australian Football League) player with the Sydney Swans by never-ending racist abuse. Just as there was a dog whistle concerning the Australian Labor Party in government often is equated with certain sections of the mainstream media with economic waste and mismanagement, Australian First Nations projects — schools, environmental projects, and so on — in some sections of society-at-large and the mainstream media for political reasons equated with financial waste. The racist stereotype often is the focus for the dog-whistle dynamic. Social media plays its part in propagating these racist myths and laying a foundation for the dog whistle in the mainstream media. This is a phenomenon shared probably by all colonised people.

Often imbedded in a moral panic, and at the same time illustrating the world of mediatized school education as fertile ground for dog-whistle journalism and politics, in an attempt to alleviate centuries of wrongs this book should now focus on the way in which this impacts First Nations students. In this regard, American First Nations Peoples share many of the tragedies with Australian First Nations Peoples.

For decades, American scholars and journalists have attempted to introduce a more objective perspective on the narrative of alleged economic mismanagement by American First Nations Peoples. There’s a plethora of research centred on exposing the myth of economic mismanagement by American First Nations Peoples: for example, Gornell and Kalt [2006]; Begay [199]; Russel and Trosper [1975]. Much the same applies to Australian First Nations Peoples: for example, Davidoff and Duhs [2008]; Keen [1988/1994]; Langton and Mazel [2015]. Yet, an in-depth comparative study with Australian circumstances of the role of the media — both the mainstream and the social media — in popularizing and mediatizing this mentality, especially in regard to school education, is well and truly overdue. Imperatives of space restrict us here, so we need to be brief in our explanatory examples.

Occurring at about the same time, there’s a remarkable symmetry between the media hullabaloo surrounding an Australian Aboriginal school and an American Indian school, and what their Principals were achieving.

Based on state proficiency standards and how well students are prepared for college, the Washington Post rated this high school as America’s most challenging. Since 2007, belonging to the charter school district known as American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), this was the American Indian Public Charter High School (AIPCS) in Oakland, California. In 2009, the school was honoured with national recognition for academic performance, ranking it 36th in the entire country [Murphy: 2009]. With predominantly low-income, minority students, the school opened in 1996 and struggled over the next few years.

At its founding, the high school had a predominantly Native American student population focusing on Native American culture. Classes included cultural elements such as traditional bead-making and drumming [Wilson: 2006]. The school’s performance in California Content Standards plummeted, and in droves caregivers moved their children from the school, with one parent, a founder of the AIPCS commenting: “These are good hobbies, but our kids need to learn to read and write. I felt it was doing more harm than good” [Wilson: 2006]. All that was until a turnaround after 2000 resulted in massive enrolment numbers and test scores.

That year, educator and Native American, Ben Chavis was appointed the school Principal, immediately initiating numerous changes. He soon replaced most of the school’s staff, eliminated bilingual education and Native American cultural content from the curriculum, and abandoned the school’s technology equipment. Chavis focused instruction on the California Content Standards and instituted a number of unorthodox disciplinary policies. Soon, the school attracted an increasingly diverse student body as enrolment increased, with higher proportions of African-American, Asian and Latino students than Native Americans. By 2015, its students were overwhelmingly Asian [Landsberg: 2009].

By 2013, however, these high achievement standards began to untangle for Chavis and the school community when its charter was revoked by the Oakland Unified School District. Chavis was accused of “funnelling money into his private interest, awarding businesses to his own company with no big contracts, there was forger)' of attendance records, there was use of public credit cards for personal expenditure”, so Troy Flint, the Oakland Unified School District spokesperson was reported as stating. These were accusations which Chavis denied [Roller: 2012, up]. Of course, we need to ask whether Chavis was being labelled with the indigenous person equating to the financial waste stereotype?

At about the same time in far-off isolated Cape York in Queensland, Australia, J. Thomas [2016] from ABC Netos reported how Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson’s Good to Great Schools Australia organisation, also was involved in alleged “shonky financial practices”, with an aspersion of maladministration. Based in Cairns, Queensland, the Cape York Academy schools is a division of the umbrella body Good to Great Schools Australia

(GGSA), headed by Pearson, delivering school education programmes into about 40 remote Australian schools. With a strong focus on preparing students for NAPLAN and PISA assessment regimes and using direct-teaching pedagogy [Good to Great Schools Australia: nd, npj, the GGSA website states that it promotes “programs and practices that have been scientifically proven to be the most effective”, with an education model “based on extensive research and results sourced directly from our Academies, school network and supported by international evidence” [Good to Great Schools Australia: nd, np], The GGSA website assured the school community that “this enables us to confidently deliver improvement programs that continuously improve school practice and performance” [Good to Great Schools Australia: nd, np|.

James Thomas [2016, np| claimed the GGSA, “has been involved in ‘high risk’ business practices potentially leaving the schools open to possible fraud and official misconduct, according to a confidential government audit of the Cape York Academy schools obtained by the ABC”. Conducted between August 2014 and August 2015 and issued in February 2016, the audit revealed: “Hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments and purchases have not been adequately explained by the Cape York Academy” [James Thomas: 2016, np].

A regular contributor to The Australian, Noel Pearson hit back with accusations of dog-whistle journalism by James Thomas [2016], claiming: “Well! You wouldn’t know from the news headlines that Good to Great Schools Australia ... was cleared of last year’s media and political allegations about maladministration and ‘high risk business practices’ at the Aurukun school” [a part of the GGSA network] [Pearson: 2017, np]. Pearson [2017, npj claimed “the clearance was spectacular and clear, but the reporting of it was not”. For him, the ABC was invoking an old dog whistle here: “about blackfellas and money” [Pearson: 2017, np]. Indeed, he responded: “Just look at yesterday’s ABC News comment thread to see how the whistle brought out the dogs. The line between journalism and vendetta seems to be blurring” [Pearson: 2017, np].

Such have been the academic achievements of GGSA that “in 2015, a number of remote schools across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland adopted the Good to Great Schools literacy model to improve education and school attendance rates in students” [University of Notre Dame: 2015, np].

Our analysis here with the two indigenous schools, as far apart as Australia’s Cape York and California, should not centre directly on racist-inspired bureaucratic judgements or journalism, but the way in which historical circumstances have moulded white Anglo-Saxon views on the ability of indigenous people in the US and Australia in a general sense to manage their own affairs, or specifically to have the responsibility to run financially their own schools. Such has been the deep mediatization of these racist views, for many Americans and Australians these centuries-old prejudices are fertile ground for the political and journalistic dog whistle.

At least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century the supposed racial inferiority of Australian Aborigines was virtually unquestioned in Australian society, and was taught that way in schools. Social Darwinism determined that Aborigines were at the bottom stratum of human social evolution — a stone-age person — generally viewed by whites as a fossil race, and as with Australia’s unique flora and fauna, an oddity, and an object of interest. In 1883, for example, Australians and Australian school children read in informational literature that:

The native blacks of Australia are distinct and peculiar as are its vegetable and animal life. ... In physical appearance they are of height little inferior to the European, but of small muscular development, and inclined to corpulence. The cranial formation is, on the whole long and narrow; the colour varies from coffee colour to black. In mental qualities they stand very low, having no forethought, prudence, selfconstraint, or sense of decency [Universal self-instructor and manual of general reference, 328].

Through to the 1960s, Australian school students continued being exposed to these racist views of the First Nations Australians. For example, in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia — endorsed by the various departments of education and in vast numbers of Australian homes and schools — children learnt of the supposed racial inferiority of Aborigines. Students learnt that in animals the skull is behind the face, while in more highly developed “European man” the skull is above the face; it has “doubled over in front to make room for the brain”. However, in the “small-brained Australian native” the skull is behind the face [Mee: 1908-1964, Children’s Encycopaedia, Vol. 3, 1692, cited in Rodwell: 1997].

Early applications of culturally biased intelligence testing of First Nations Australians continued in mediatizing this inferior view by Anglo-Saxon Australians [Crotty, Germov & Rodwell: 2000]. The story in regard to Native Americans varied little to their Australian counterparts, where it has been shown, “the continued use of verbal measures such the Wechsler verbal subtests or the Stanford-Binet perpetuates the erroneous belief that these children have limited intellectual endowment and can anticipate only nominal education achievement” [Dana: 1984, 35; also see Sepsi, Nagy, & Vassa-nyi: 2014]. Of course, as in Australia, such views were perpetuated in the media and manifested in classrooms and in popular views concerning alleged maladministration as we have seen Chavis in Oakland Unified School District fall victim to, and his counterpart Pearson in his work with Good to Great Schools Australia. Often the process of deep mediatization can stretch back centuries, denying First Nations Australians their rightful history.

These days, many readers are in awe of the research undertaken by people such as Bruce Pascoe [2014], pointing out how and why early Europeans chose to ignore the obvious and ensure that generations of Australian thought of these indigenous people as being transient hunter/collectors, straddled with a stone-age mentality, with no claim to the land upon which they had nurtured for millennia. Of course, we now understand that this was a vital part of the mentality for Europeans to claim the land for their pastoralist pursuits.

 
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