Hiding the Truth About Native Schooling

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Appeared in the National Post, 20 February 2006
The road to a better life for Canada’s Aboriginal people begins with a good education. But the scant evidence available indicates that they are still failing at school. After decades of wrangling among Aboriginal leaders and federal and provincial governments about what to do, and after so many billions of taxpayer dollars spent, why has there been so little improvement?

One reason is clear: In most of the country, a conspiracy of silence hides the truth about how Aboriginal students are doing in school.

In Alberta, Aboriginal leaders and the provincial ministry of education have made a pact that denies public access to academic test results at band-operated schools. All of my organization’s repeated requests for information under that province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act have been denied.

In Quebec, test results at schools operated by the two boards serving the province’s Cree and Inuit communities are excluded from the data sets that we receive from the ministry of education. Elsewhere across the country, the ministries of education do not attempt to identify Aboriginal students. As a result, their test results cannot be tagged for analysis.

It is Aboriginal leaders themselves who have forced provincial governments to remain mute about the failure of Aboriginal students in school. For whatever reasons, they are afraid to let the truth be known. If improvements are to be made, this must change.

Regular, public disclosure of school-by-school student achievement results drives improvement in several ways. Where school-by-school results are available, third parties with no stake in individual schools -- such as my organization, the Fraser Institute -- can offer unbiased assessments of each school’s performance.

Indeed, parents regularly use the Fraser Institute’s annual reports to compare their children’s school with others. Armed with evidence of poor or declining results, parents pressure schools to make changes. Where parents are able to choose among schools, poorly performing schools are punished with declining enrollments.

Reports on school-by-school results are also of great value to teachers and school principals. Successful schools can offer hints about how other schools might improve.

Only in British Columbia and Yukon are Aboriginal students’ test results routinely collected and released publicly. More than a decade ago, B.C.’s ministry of education began identifying Aboriginal students so that their results could be identified for analysis. Clear thinking Aboriginal leaders did not object to the initiative. In 2001, the ministry began to publish an annual summary of Aboriginal student results under the title, How are we doing? In 2004, the Fraser Institute initiated its Report Card on Aboriginal Education in British Columbia.

Has this intense focus on results made a difference? The recently released 2006 edition of the Report Card suggests it has. Over the last five years, the test results of Aboriginal students in reading and numeracy at grades 4 and 7 have shown statistically significant improvement. An increasing percentage of Aboriginal students are now successfully progressing from Grade 9 to 10, from Grade 10 to 11, and from Grade 12 to graduation. Importantly, the gap in these grade-to-grade transition rates between Aboriginal students and their non-Aboriginal classmates is declining.

These first signs of success have encouraged more Aboriginal leaders to accept measurement of results and comparison of schools as necessary tools in the drive to improve. By 2004, eight band-operated, on-reserve schools had established themselves as independent (private) schools in compliance with the requirements of the province’s Independent School Act. By doing so, they agreed to adopt the provincial curriculum and ensure that their students took part in the provincial tests at Grades 4, 7, 10, 11 and 12.

At a November, 2005, First Ministers conference with Aboriginal leaders, the participants committed themselves to dramatic improvements in Aboriginal conditions over the next 10 years. In K-12 education, the program’s success was defined as reaching equality in the percentage of young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal adults holding a high school diploma.

Building on the foundations for improvement already established in the province, B.C.’s Aboriginal people may achieve that goal. Elsewhere in the country, where the devastating conspiracy of silence prevails, equality in educational attainment will remain an impossible dream.

Aboriginal leaders across the country should carefully study the British Columbia experience and rethink their attitude toward the public release of student data. By forbidding it, they are not protecting their children. In fact, they are doing them irreparable harm.

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