Saturday, April 2, 2011

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars- Some Thoughts on the Fraser Institute's Report Card on Aboriginal Education in British Columbia

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause
in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
                                               - Walt Whitman (1819-1892) (Borrowed from the beginning
                                                 of Willie Ermine’s Aboriginal Epistemology in The Circle Unfolds,
                                                 edited by Marie Battiste and Jean Barman 1995)

I was dismayed to read the Report Card on Aboriginal Education in BritishColumbia 2011, released March 31, 2011.  As a teacher working in this province, I have always looked upon releases with some apprehension, as I do perceive a bias in the research that does not reflect the working and learning conditions of the classrooms or the lived experiences of the students, their families or their teachers.  I do, however, try not to let that govern my thinking too much when I read their report cards, as I am sure the Fraser Institute does try to avoid letting their perception of bias in their critcs’ words govern their objectivity in reading those words.  As a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry, I find it a little more difficult to maintain that level of objectivity, but I do strive to do ensure that I balance the opinions and points of view inherent in the words and research in all sides of a discussion.  I recently made the argument that, in order to effect real change, we need to be willing to hear and consider all voices, even if we do not necessarily agree with them.  To deny the voice of the other does a disservice to the transformative potential of education and weakens the strength inherent in the Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.

I do feel a need to respond to the Report and to some comments made by one of the authors, Mr. Cowley, in a Vancouver Sun article Aboriginal education in B.C. gets failing mark, by Janet Steffenhagen published on April 1, 2011. 

1.    I need to point out that the Report Card seems only to make a quantitative analysis of standardized statistics culled from FSA results and success rates on provincial exams, using these narrow set of criteria to shrink down Aboriginal education to a simple formula based on success versus failure.  In doing this, the report does say that it is using these statistics to allow parents of Aboriginal ancestry the right and freedom to make choices about the schools they place their children into.

Freedom for Aboriginal parents to choose is supported in the 1972 policy paper delivered to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development by the National Indian Brotherhood/Assembly of First Nations:

If we are to avoid the conflict of values which in the past has led to withdrawal and failure, Indian parents must have control of education with the responsibility of setting goals. What we want for our children can be summarized very briefly:

• to reinforce their Indian identity,

• to provide the training necessary for making a good living in modern society. (pg. 6, from the report)

The statement seems to be a noble assessment of the Indian Control of Indian Education (1972) document, but I do not believe that the Report Card is respecting the intent of the document in its declaration above.  To give parents control of education with the responsibility means to allow them a seat at the table to work towards a consensus of the needs of their children and communities that allows them to protect and recover the sense of belonging inherent in the connection to one’s culture and identity.  It does not discount the second bullet, to provide the necessary training for making a good living in modern society, but the limited nature of the statistics analysed do not allow for a proper evaluation of what a school is doing or failing to do in preparing students for our modern society.

2.    I cannot speak to the FSA statistics as I am not a specialist in that area, either as a teacher or advocate, however I can speak to the provincial exam analysis, briefly.  I have had the opportunity to teach four different courses that require a provincial exam as a mandatory part of their final mark: BC First Nations Studies 12, Social Studies 11, English 10 and English 12.  I have not placed very much value in the exams as reflective evaluations of student achievement, as they have relied far too heavily on multiple-choice questions as a means of determining student learning in the course.  This reliance does not allow for an accurate measure of applied skills development or critical thinking, instead boiling down the curriculum learning outcomes to choosing between four possible answers to knowledge-based questions that assess factoid memorization and not whether the student understands the concepts being explored in the curriculum.  I can use the exam to test whether you know when the Calder Case took place and what the Sparrow Case was about, but multiple-choice questions do not let you determine if the student understands the implications of those two cases on the development of Aboriginal self-advocacy and the applications of that to their understanding of the lived experiences of Aboriginal people in Canadian society.

A more reflective evaluation process is necessary, with a more inquiry-based type of project may be more useful in determining the extent of learning and understanding the student has achieved.

3.    I won’t need to spend a lot of time reiterating the socio-economic issues of poverty, racism, ongoing colonialism and residential school affect, or intergenerational legacy.  These are constantly in the news and the comments sections of any online article that addresses Aboriginal issues.

Having said that, I need to address the issue of relationships in the education system.  Parents do care about the education of their children, despite what many non-Aboriginal people believe.  They are, however, balancing that desire with the aforementioned challenges and the foundation of mistrust in the institution that has been the result of many decades of abuse at the hands of the education system in Canada.  I have had to challenge the assumption of lack of caring many times and I reiterate here that, sometimes we have to be willing to set aside our own assumptions and reach out ourselves with a little bit of humility to the parents.  We do this by being the advocates our Aboriginal children need in the education system, and being willing to advocate on behalf of their parents if they need us to do so.

While the language in the Report purports to do so, it does so from the paternalistic perspective that we are giving you all the information you need now make the right choice.  This is my perception of course.  It is also not the best way to approach parents to build a relationship.  As I have already stated, we need to set aside our assumptions and ask them what they need, what they want and how they would like to see us work together in creating a successful environment for their children.

And then we should actually listen.

In addition, we need to understand that for many of our students, education is not the most important thing in their lives.  Our students face many challenges and we need to address this by creating a safe environment where a sense of belonging can be developed.  This needs to be built on a relationship of trust and respect that dignifies the voice of the student in the classroom.  I know teachers are doing this around the province.  It is an aspect that requires time and patience.  It is something that cannot be measured by analysing test and exam results. 

4.    I am opposed to the arbitrary measurement of six years as the required time to achieve graduation success.  I have asked about whether grad rates beyond the six year cut-off is tracked, but have received no answer.  To be fair, I have probably not found the right people to ask.  My experience with some students has been to have seen grad achievement in year seven or year eight, or through other means, adult education, GED completion.  Sometimes life gets in the way and arbitrary completion deadlines are not the most important things in the world of the student.

5.    I did want to acknowledge the compliment Mr. Cowley paid to Peter Skene Ogden (PSO) Secondary in 100 Mile House in Ms. Steffenhagen’s article, but I think it is unfortunate that he and the Fraser Institute have not made an attempt to see what work is being done in the schools across the province to improve the lives of Aboriginal students in BC.  Test scores are not the be all, end all for Aboriginal families and I believe that a lot of positives do exist in this province.  My previous post Twenty-Six Years addressed the lack of teachers and administrators of Aboriginal ancestry in the education system.  When I was a student, I never knew any, or knew of any.

Where is the commentary that acknowledges the integration of Indigenous pedagogies into the classroom?  Where are the celebrations of the relationship-building between schools and communities in collaborative efforts?  Why aren’t we talking about the improvements that are going on, or the fact we are teaching ALL students about the Indigenous lived experience so that the acceptance of our Aboriginal students into the modern Canadian society will be much less painful than it was for my generation or that of my parents.  Where is the commentary that acknowledges the loss of sleep we have worrying about suicides and whether our kids have something to eat in the morning, or the fact that our attempts to build positive relationships have shown some progress attendance-wise? Our efforts to build a safe environment and a sense of belonging are starting to show results, though I have no way to quantify that.

Where is the commentary about the Province’s abandonment of support for the First Nations Kindergarten programs?

I think we need to remember that by simplifying Aboriginal success down to a set of statistics based on small test results, we forget the whole person that is the child we are teaching and learning from.  These are extraordinary young people who face many challenges and who persevere in circumstances many of us would call, at the very least, unfair.  There is a spark there that we need to nurture and it takes far more than what the Report Card measures to nurture that spark, and I believe we are doing that.  In the larger picture, I believe we are making progress and we are achieving successful results, even if they are not easily quantifiable.  Where are the sheep in this picture?  Understanding that we need to take the time to do what is right by our children and grandchildren.  Understanding that we are trying to nurture the whole child at every stage of his or her development.  I understand these stats are important as assessment tools.  I live in my community on my reserve.  I have taught my cousins in the local public schools.  At the end of the day, when I have to answer to my Elders and my community, I need to be able to say that I taught the children, they entrusted to me, with a good mind and a good heart.  I want to be able to say I taught them how to learn and to wonder and to live with hope.  To seek, not just knowledge, but wisdom and understanding as well.  I don’t know how to measure that and I do not see that reflected in the Report Card. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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