The government is in a quandary about aboriginal education.
It doesn’t matter if you read this, today or a decade from now; or if you’re reading it in Canada or the United States or Australia or any other country with a significant aboriginal population. That statement is a constant. Any government that is responsible for aboriginal education is always in a quandary.
The quandary is maintained by the refusal of politicians, educators, and the aboriginal people themselves to listen to the truth about aboriginal education.
Someone has to speak the truth, as difficult and distasteful as it is. I am volunteering.
Begin by considering the cast. There are three players on stage: students, teachers, and administrators. Everyone else is just part of the scenery, no matter how much money and bluster they’re throwing around.
The first problem is that aboriginal children have low IQs. There. I said it. Horrible, racist, and hateful. Maybe true; maybe false, but it has to be addressed because a lot of people believe it and they act on that belief, one way or another, even if they are unwilling to say it aloud.
The numbers are clear. If you give IQ tests to comparable groups of aboriginal and non-aboriginal children, the average score of the aboriginal children is about fifteen points lower than the average score of non-aboriginal children.
How can you argue with fifteen IQ points? It’s not a trivial difference.
But academics do argue. It’s cultural. It’s biological. It’s a result of low income families. It’s a result of poor nutrition. It’s genetic. The tests are biased. There’s more than one kind of IQ. And on and on.
If you want to study the literature on possible causes of differences in IQ scores, go for it. You can spend the rest of your life reading scholarly papers. Many educators have. I won’t. I’ve read more than enough to last me for the rest of my life.
The truth is that it’s a red herring. IQ matters but average IQ scores don’t. And that’s what the academics argue about. Averages.
Aboriginal people are like any other group. Some individuals are geniuses; some are morons; most are scattered in the middle. You have to educate every single child as best as possible. Period. Some children will do better than others. Live with it.
The best educators understand that. The worst politicians don’t. It’s the politicians that demand high average scores. They want to say that their policies, however ill-informed, were successful because they raised the average score on standardized tests.
And we’re not talking only about those evil, white, patriarchal, neo-colonial politicians. Aboriginal politicians get just as trapped by outcome studies as any other politician.
That’s because the easiest way to measure outcome is to calculate some kind of average score (there are many kinds of averages) on something (there are many kinds of dependent measures). It’s the only way to get a single number that you can graph going up and going down, depending on your preference.
It’s up to us, the voters, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, to say, “Enough with the outcome assessments. Just teach each child as best as possible.”
Which brings us to the second actors on the stage: the teachers. They are the heroes of the classrooms. Everybody loves teachers. Except when it comes to paying them and trusting them with our children’s education. Then, they get paid too much for doing too little without sufficient oversight. We have to reduce their salaries; make them work a longer school year; cut their pensions; force them to teach a standardized curriculum, right down to dictating their lectures to them; and most of all, we have to measure their performance by giving their students standardized tests.
And that’s just the non-aboriginal teachers. In the aboriginal communities, a whole new level is added to the debate. Racism rears it’s ugly head, of course. There’s no escaping that. Should the teachers be aboriginal or can they be white? How can white (or black or Asian) teachers understand the aboriginal culture and psychology well enough to teach aboriginal students? You have to be aboriginal all the way down to your genes to relate to aboriginal students.
It sure doesn’t help that we hear so many stories of physical, psychological, and even sexual abuse of aboriginal students by white teachers. Some of that abuse never happened – some is recovered “memories” and some outright lies. But a distressing amount really did happen. In all schools, some teachers abuse students. Traditional, upper-crust British boarding schools are rife with horror stories. But the teachers who wanted to abuse students knew that they could get away with much more in an aboriginal school. They could claim that the students were untrustworthy and resentful of whites. And they would be believed over the students.
There’s no question that the aboriginal community has been given good reason to mistrust non-aboriginal teachers. But it’s always a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Abusive teachers are in the minority in aboriginal schools as they are in other schools.
All students need the best teachers that they can get and the pool of aboriginal teachers is much smaller than the pool of teachers as a whole. Especially considering that non-aboriginal students could use a little exposure to aboriginal teachers as much as vice-versa. Aboriginal teachers don’t have to stay on the reservation if they don’t want to.
The answer is to forget racism and send the best teachers that we can find to teach aboriginal students as best as they can. The best teachers for aboriginal students may not always be aboriginal teachers, but they definitely have to be sensitive to aboriginal issues. More sensitive than me. We don’t need any racist teachers on either side.
It may be worth exploring new solutions like doubling the class size and having two teachers, one aboriginal and one not, teach simultaneously, using as much technology as possible to make their work manageable and give the students as much individual attention as possible.
There are people far smarter and far more conversant with educational methods than me. The administration should hire the right people and then trust them. Give them good support and a free hand to design the optimal education for aboriginal students. And when they succeed maybe they can improve the rest of our schools as well.
Which brings us to the third actor on stage: the administrators. They fund the educational system, hire the teachers, and authorize building schools and purchasing technologies.
That’s where things get really messy. I don’t know how it works in your part of the world, but here in Canada, the provinces are responsible for all education, except for aboriginal education. That is the responsibility of federal government. So the feds fight with the provinces and both fight with the aboriginal bands.
Actually, the provinces play a relatively small role. It’s mostly a fight between the feds and the bands. The bands’ position is simple. They want the federal government to hand them a big check every year – if not blank, then for as large amount as possible – and then walk away and never look back.
That’s not going to happen. Thankfully.
Some bands are honest, open, and work hard for the good of their people. Some bands are well-managed and their people well off. But not all. There are too many stories of band leaders filling their own pockets with federal money and leaving their constituants broke, hungry, and homeless. Or at least, less well off than they should be.
This isn’t a problem that’s limited to aboriginal governments. Any government will become corrupt quickly enough if it’s not watched carefully.
The problem with aboriginal governments is that they have special tricks to avoid oversight. They claim sovereignty. They accuse the feds of racist colonialism whenever someone tries to pry into their books. They stir up racially-tinged civil unrest to distract their own people.
The truth is that we have no more reason to trust aboriginal governments than any other governments. They aren’t special.
Given that the federal government is going to stay involved in aboriginal education, the question is how to do it?
First, we have to insist that the books be open. The taxpayers have a right to know what’s happening to every dollar that they give to the government, even those dollars that are spent in aboriginal communities. And not just the financial ledgers; we have to know what’s happening in the classrooms.
Second, the aboriginal education system has to be a joint venture between the federal government and the aboriginal communities. Each side has something important to bring to the process. Neither should want nor expect to go it alone.
Third, aboriginal education should be well funded. At the moment, the Canadian government spends about as much per aboriginal student as is spent by the provinces for the average non-aboriginal student. Aboriginal education is not underfunded, but it’s not overfunded, either.
There are two problems with this. First, the provinces vary widely in how much they fund education. The least-funded students in Canada receive a fraction of the financial support of the best-funded students. Second, there is precious little evidence that increased funding results in better education. But those are outcome studies that rely on those pesky average test scores. That doesn’t say much about what effect funding has on individual students.
We have to educate each individual student as best as possible.
My feeling is that we should support aboriginal students toward the high end of the scale because history, culture, and geography make it more difficult to maintain schools where many aboriginal students live.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if the horrible “truths” – that aboriginal students are stupid, aboriginal teachers are incompetent, and aboriginal leaders are corrupt – are true or not. Those stereotypes don’t matter; they only distract us. We must put them aside and work on educating each student as best as possible without measuring outcome with average scores.
If we refuse to be sidetracked by racist stereotypes, maybe our government can finally escape at least one perennial quandary.