Undoubtedly, the vast majority of First Nations families want their children to acquire the basic skills and knowledge that they will need to prosper-either on the reserve or in the world beyond. But are the schools that their kids attend up to the challenge? In most cases, parents simply have no way to judge.
Parents aren’t the only ones in the dark when it comes to First Nations student learning. The Auditor-General’s recent report concludes that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada doesn’t have any idea if the roughly 1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars that it annually contributes for First Nations elementary and secondary schooling are actually being used effectively.
How can parents (and the officials at Indian & Northern Affairs) find out whether schools are successfully educating their First Nations students? They should have access to the same detailed school-by-school provincial test results that are now routinely available to other Canadians.
But many First Nations schools don’t want parents or anyone else to know how they are doing. In Alberta, for example, federally funded, First Nations operated, on-reserve schools do participate in that province’s achievement testing program. The tests measure basic skills and knowledge in the core subject areas at grades 3, 6, and 9. However, under an informal agreement between Alberta Learning (the province’s ministry of education) and certain First Nations government officials that Alberta Learning will not name, the school-by-school results are kept secret.
The same secrecy surrounds the results of those First Nations students who attend Alberta’s public, separate, and private schools. Only recently has Alberta Learning given parents the opportunity to identify their kids as of Aboriginal ancestry when they enroll them at school. This voluntary identification will enable Alberta Learning to isolate Aboriginal students’ results. These data can be used to identify schools that are successfully educating their Aboriginal students and those schools that need to improve. Regrettably, Alberta Learning has offered no assurance that it will make these Aboriginal results publicly available for independent study.
In Ontario, the situation is no less frustrating for parents seeking information about the effectiveness of First Nations schools. Data from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office indicate that few, if any, of the province’s federally funded, First Nations-operated, on-reserve schools choose to participate in its province-wide literacy and math testing program. In addition, the results of Ontario’s Aboriginal kids attending public, separate, or private schools cannot be isolated from those of the general student population.
In Quebec, a province that has established separate First Nations school boards, the ministry of education provides virtually no student results data from any of the First Nations schools nor does it offer Aboriginal families the opportunity to voluntarily register their kids as being of Aboriginal ancestry.
What good would it do to make school-by-school First Nations student performance data available to anyone who wants them? The answer can be found in British Columbia. For several years now, that province’s First Nations and other Aboriginal students have been able to voluntarily identify themselves as such on their permanent student records. As a result, a growing historical record of school-by-school students’ results is available to families and other interested parties.
Using these results, the Fraser Institute recently introduced an annual, school-by-school study that shows how BC’s elementary and secondary schools are doing when it comes to Aboriginal education. For the first time, parents can compare Aboriginal students’ results at the province’s schools to find out which ones are doing a better job, which are improving, and which are failing. With this information, Aboriginal families can take better advantage of any school choice they might enjoy and, just as importantly, armed with this objective data, they can become more vocal and effective advocates for school improvement.
It is abundantly clear that when relevant, annually generated, comparative data on school performance is easily available to parents, the focus on student results intensifies and school-by-school improvement is encouraged. First Nations education leaders should overcome their fear of confronting the truth, however painful it might be at the outset. Only when they allow their students’ academic performance to be regularly measured and the school-by-school results published can real improvement begin. Isn’t that what everybody wants?
Peter Cowley is co-author of the Report Card on Quebec’s Secondary Schools.