Only 40 per cent of First Nations students living on reserves graduate from high school. They score far below other students on standardized tests. And their numbers are about to explode.
So it might seem counterintuitive to send teachers with zero experience – or even a teaching degree – to help boost their educational prospects.
But Kyle Hill, one of the co-founders of a new organization called Teach For Canada, thinks idealistic young grads are just the leaders these students need. And he's trying to sell them on two-year placements in remote communities.
They will have mentors, and a crash course the summer before they get into schools. But as Mr. Hill, a Rhodes scholar who is now a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group says, "The most important training will come in the classroom, as it does for any teacher."
If his project sounds familiar, it's because it borrows heavily from Teach For America, which was founded in 1989 and has sent almost 30,000 college graduates and professionals to teach inner-city kids.
In Canada, the problem is most severe outside of cities. Unemployment rates for teachers in urban centres may be high, but native and rural communities struggle to attract and retain new grads, as a recent report from TD Economics points out.
A federal First Nations Education Act is aimed at redressing some of these inequities. But native leaders argue that the proposed legislation doesn't go far enough – tackling neither inadequate funding nor the relevancy of the curriculum.
And as the population of native school-aged children continues to grow – in 2016, 30 per cent of students entering junior kindergarten in Manitoba will be native – the urgency to make change, now, intensifies.
Can Teach For Canada step in where governments have failed?
Some studies have found that Teach For America recruits are more effective than "regular" teachers at raising student achievement, particularly in math and science. A similar program in the U.K. – Teach First, now in its 11th year – has also increased student achievement.
Recently, however, opposition to Teach For America has surfaced. Former recruits have said they did not feel adequately prepared for some high-needs classrooms, and they faced resentment and conflicts with full-time teachers.
But Mr. Hill is pressing on. He says Teach For Canada currently is working with universities and provincial ministries of education to find ways to get accreditation for recruits, or to allow graduates without teaching degrees to stand in front of the classroom.
He co-founded the initiative with Adam Goldenberg, a law student at Yale and a former speechwriter for Michael Ignatieff. Christie Kneteman, a Torys LLP associate, and Mark Podlasly, a consultant, educator and member of the Nlaka'pamux First Nation, are directors.
For an initiative that does not yet have a launch date, their launch event, at the Toronto offices of Torys LLP, was a high-profile affair: guests included CBC's Peter Mansbridge and Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music. And it generated a lot of buzz: Twitter lit up the next day with conversations about educational inequities.
Already, Mr. Hill says, his group is receiving weekly e-mails asking, "Where do I sign up?"
Ultimately, he says, Teach For Canada is a seeding strategy.
"The long-term dream is that we will have Teach for Canada fellows sitting at a Cabinet table, sitting in newsrooms, sitting in boardrooms on Bay Street, where they can have an impact on educational inequalities from those vantage points."
Simona Chiose is the education editor at The Globe and Mail.