Indigenous Learning, School Community

The Meaning of “Success” for First Nations Schools

When the First Nations Student Success Program (FNSSP) was first introduced in September 2009, my initial thought was: “No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has finally arrived in Canada.” It seemed prophetic that the 2010 spring issue of Education Canada contained both a piece by Joel Westheimer warning against the pitfalls of constant assessment and Michael Chandler’s article on the social and cultural factors that affect Indigenous learners.[1] FNSSP is a literal marriage of both Westheimer’s concerns and Chandler’s frustrations. The program, initiated by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, exclusively targets the education systems controlled by First Nations. The purpose of the program is to increase student improvement and build a system of teacher and school accountability.

There exist substantial parts of the FNSSP and NCLB that can be open to comparison. The founding tenet of the No Child Left Behind legislation put forth by President Bush in 2001 is to ensure the success of all students.[2] This American legislation was passed based on an understanding that, by implementing educational reforms based on continuous assessment and accountability, the state would have the data and power needed to make swift adjustments to school administration and teaching staff based on the objective of raising student success outcomes. Nine years after NCLB was introduced in the U.S., it has raised some serious concerns about the merit of assessment-based teaching, continuous standardized testing, and the disappearance of the social sciences. With respect to a struggling school, the NCLB Act allows for three levels of intervention: first the replacement of the teachers, then the replacement of administration, and finally, if the results of the assessment do not indicate significant improvement, school closure.

The FNSSP program is similar to the NCLB in that it focuses on key areas of performance indicators – literacy, numeracy, attendance, and retention. In the first three years of implementation of the program, schools are required to develop success plans based on these indicators and to establish their own community-relevant indicators as well (which tend to focus on language preservation and culture). In its first year, the program – which is optional for on-reserve schools that already are underfunded compared to provincial schools and could benefit from the additional funding – requires that schools evaluate and adopt assessment schedules, which result in data that can be transferred to the Federal government. What is clear is that to receive the additional dollars for school improvement, the communities must agree to participate in all parts of the FNSSP.

Who controls First Nations education is a valid question to ask. First Nations communities continue to struggle for their right to exercise control over their own education systems, which are funded through the Federal government. With the FNSSP, the Federal government is taking an overtly paternalistic approach to improving student success rates by insisting on provincial equivalent testing. The standards-based approach is a linear Western mode of conceiving formal education, and it is antithetical to the holistic model of education based on a First Nations’ world view. As outlined in the Canadian Council on Learning report on the First Nations Model of Learning, teaching and learning have traditionally been home- and community-based, without a formal evaluation system; instead, this model relies on the existence of evidence that a comprehensive understanding of knowledge has been transferred.[3]

Currently, as First Nations communities begin to respond to the requirements of the FNSSP, an open discussion on the questions raised by the NCLB experience in the U.S. would be beneficial. The most important questions are as follows: For what purpose is this data on literacy, numeracy, attendance, and retention being used by the government? Is it possible that what has been presented initially as a constructive tool to improve student outcomes has the potential to become a justification tool to undercut First Nations funding for not improving academic success? Unless First Nations communities clearly define and own the data they produce, there is significant risk that – as has been the case with NCLB – the data can be used to undermine, as opposed to constructively strengthen, their efforts.

[1] Michael Chandler, “Social Determinants in Educational Outcomes in Indigenous Learners,” Education Canada 50, no. 2 (Spring, 2010): 46-51; Joel Westheimer, “No Child Left Thinking,” Education Canada 50, no. 2 (Spring, 2010): 5-9.

[2] Daniel Koretz, “Moving Past No Child Left Behind,” Science 326, no. 5954 (November 2009): 803-804.

[3] “First Nations Holistic Model of Learning,” Canadian Council on Learning, 4 April 2010, available at www.cclcca.ca/CCL/Reports/RedefiningSuccessInAboriginalLearning/RedefiningSuccessModels

Meet the Expert(s)

Kassandra Churcher

Kassandra Churcher currently works as a school success counsellor in Quebec and is completing her doctorate in culture and values in education at McGill University.

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