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JEFFREY SIMPSON

It still comes down to fixing the reserves Add to ...

It’s reflexive in certain quarters, especially when teachers unions are up in arms, to chastise Canada’s school systems for all manner of weaknesses. Facts, as we know, never deflect ideology, or else some of these now-ritualistic attacks would have long yielded to a more balanced analysis.

Canadian teachers are among the best paid in the world. They have no claim whatsoever to even more during tough fiscal times. Their strike in British Columbia and their grumbling in Ontario are unjustified.

And yet, teachers deliver very good results, judged by international tests. Far from being the shipwreck some describe, Canadian school systems have produced some of the best test scores in the world: second best in the Western world (after Finland) and behind only Korea and Japan in Asia. Canadian results shame those in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and France.

With all its faults, Canadian school systems deliver value for money judged by outcomes that can be compared internationally, something that can’t be said for the health-care system. Teachers and the organization of the school system contribute to these results; family support (especially a respect for learning), cultural assumptions and community norms are also critical – more critical than class size or school funding formulas.

So why would anyone, given the international evidence, pull away from such a system? Apparently, Canada’s aboriginals want to – or at least their leadership does. And so does the recent panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve.

Note the words “on reserve.” This three-person study, appointed by Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations, looked only at education on reserves that produce, sadly but predictably, very substandard results – as for every other indicator of social and economic well-being from employment to poverty, infant mortality to child abuse, earned income to per capita income.

Reading this report was like going back to the 1960s when “child-centred education” was in vogue. Everything in schools was to become culturally sensitive. Objective measurements were deemed bad for pedagogy. Self-affirmation by students was in; measuring up was out. Tests were bad, report cards a thing of the past.

The “child-centred” philosophy proved disastrous and, by the 1980s, parents and ordinary citizens were up in arms. Their struggle met resistance from civil servants in the education ministries, the teachers unions and university theorists. Eventually, the pressure from parents, coupled with the decline in students’ results, ended the “child-centred” system and ushered in a more balanced approach. Similarly, Asian immigrants thought the “child-centred approach” to be rubbish. Today, the much improved results for Canadian students reflect the abandonment of the philosophy of this latest report on aboriginal education.

The report, which uses the phrase “child-centred” as a mantra, is heavy with new structures and systems designed to give on-reserve Indians the power to run school systems themselves, with or without links to the provincial school system.

The report is long on aboriginal students feeling good and short on practicalities. Is there, for example, a “funding gap” between aboriginal schools and provincial ones? Aboriginal groups insist the gap is wide; the Aboriginal Affairs Department told the Auditor-General last year that no such gap exists. Or how would a National Commission for First Nation Education possibly operate, even with provincial chapters, for more than 600 aboriginal communities, many with fewer than 500 people?

Systems and structures are fine and necessary, as is proper funding. But the University of Ottawa’s Ross Finnie (among others) has convincingly shown that results from formal education have more to do with parental attitudes, cultural assumptions about the importance of education and community norms than anything else.

Which means that aboriginal education can’t be divorced from its core contextual problem – the reserves themselves that the panel correctly notes display socio-economic and health inequities, poverty, suicides, youth incarceration and abuse, high teen pregnancy rates, lower life expectancy and chronic disease.

Fix those problems, which flow from the reserve system, and better educational results have a chance.

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