The native education gap

National Post – opinion
January 30, 2008
John Richards,

Among Pierre Trudeau’s first initiatives as prime minister was his 1969 “white paper” on Aboriginal policy. Its prescription was straightforward: eliminate reserves, and treat “registered Indians” as individuals with rights and obligations identical to those of other Canadians.

That white paper has served as a foil for two generations of Aboriginal leaders who have insisted the opposite: The cultural difference between themselves and other Canadians requires, first, expansive interpretation of treaties enabling First Nations to exercise self-government and, second, generous revenue transfers.

The self-government agenda has arguably increased Aboriginal self-esteem and the respect afforded to Aboriginals by other Canadians. Whether it has improved Aboriginal social conditions is more debatable.

While the National Post’s root-and-branch editorial opposition to reserves is in my opinion too close to Trudeau’s white paper, the editors deserve credit for launching a major series of articles (“Rethinking the Reserve”) challenging current orthodoxy. For too long, the agenda of the reserve leadership has sidelined evaluation of the actual performance of governments — federal, provincial and re-serve-based. In particular, the current orthodoxy has sidelined evaluation of schools responsible for Aboriginal children.

Whatever the differences between the Post editors and leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, there should be consensus on two simple propositions:

(1) Communities with low education levels are condemned to poverty because in modern societies there are few well paying jobs for those without formal education.

(2) A high school completion certificate is the minimum requirement for most jobs, and good jobs usually require further training that is inaccessible to those without high school.

Everyone pays lip service to these propositions — who can be against schooling? — but few Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal leaders seem credibly committed to them. In 2005, then-prime minister Paul Martin, the provincial premiers and leaders of major Aboriginal organizations met in Kelowna, B.C. They promised to close within a decade the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal high-school completion rates. A fine goal, but one backed by little more than the words of a communique.

Aboriginal high school completion has improved somewhat over the last generation, but the gap remains large and unchanged (because non-Aboriginal completion also rose). Writing for the Caledon Institute, Michael Mendelson states the obvious: “The absolute level of failure to complete high school Â… remains shocking. An astonishing 43% of Aboriginal people aged 20 through 24 reported in [the 2001 Census] having less than high school education. This is the age group that would have been in high school in the 1990s, not in some distant past of discredited (The comparable percentage for non-Aboriginals is 16%.)

What’s to be done? There are many answers and, I admit, much uncertainty.

First, public authorities should be measuring school performance. Neither Indian Affairs, band councils nor provincial education ministries are doing much of this. The only publicly available comprehensive evidence comes once every five years, from the national Census. And the Census measures education levels for those 15 years and older –after children already have completed most of their schooling.

There is one important exception to this critique: British Columbia, where 10% of all provincial students are Aboriginal. Since 1999, the provincial education ministry has conducted annual province-wide tests in reading, writing and numeracy, in grades four and seven. Results are publicly available by school and by Aboriginal identity.

One insight from the B.C. data is that Aboriginal student performance exhibits a much wider statistical spread than does the performance of non-Aboriginal students. While the average Aboriginal student performs below the comparable average for non-Aboriginal students, the top 10-15% of provincial schools (among schools with large Aboriginal cohorts) are doing well. Aboriginal students in these schools perform above the provincial average for non-Aboriginal students.

What are these schools doing right? They incorporate Aboriginal cultural content into the curriculum; they engage Aboriginal parents and local Aboriginal leaders in school affairs; principals encourage teachers who engage Aboriginal students; they maintain academic standards in core subjects. Typically, the relevant school districts have an active tradition of pursuing Aboriginal education, stretching over several decades.

So much for the supply side of education. Demand also matters. Better schools tend to be found in districts where local Aboriginal leaders actively call for better outcomes.

School choice, another dimension of the demand side, matters, too. Choice can take many forms. Reserve-based parents may choose between an on-versus an off-reserve school. Or it may take the form of choosing between schools operating in distinct systems.

In Alberta, for example, publicly funded kindergarten-through-grade-2 Catholic schools operate alongside public schools. In Edmonton, the public school system has designated magnet schools that stress Aboriginal cultural activities. On the other hand, the Catholic school system has injected Aboriginal cultural material into all neighbourhood schools with sizeable Aboriginal student cohorts. Parents can choose.

There is no straightforward answer to the problems of Aboriginal education. Even if we honestly measure student progress and make credible commitments to better outcomes by promoting choice and innovation, we will still fail to meet the Kelowna objective of closing the high school completion gap by 2015. But with commitment, measurement, responsiveness and some money Â… we can make the gap a lot smaller. – John Richards teaches in the SFU Public Policy Program, and holds the Roger Phillips chair in social policy at the C.D. Howe Institute.

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