More Culture Not Necessarily the Answer

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel, Uncategorized

Government initiatives to increase Aboriginal education outcomes – including the Ontario government’s new Urban Aboriginal Education pilot project which would bring more aboriginal culture into the school curriculum – are fundamentally flawed.

Such initiatives seem to be based on the assumption that First Nations are failing academically because they are not learning enough about their culture, language and spiritual traditions.

In fact, Ontario government officials responsible for the Urban Aboriginal Education pilot project contend it will “give native pupils the confidence they need to do better in schools.”

The fundamental flaw of this reasoning, which brings to mind the recent controversy surrounding the creation of an “Afro-centric” school curriculum in a Toronto school board, is the unproven assumption that Aboriginal students, and minority students in general, are failing because they lack cultural identity.

However, the real culprits are actually the lowering of standards of excellence which permeates our schools, as well as the reduction in the core subjects that will prepare students succeed in our modern, knowledge-based economy.

It is always positive to be proud of one’s culture: First Nations and other groups should learn about their history and contributions. While courses should allow First Nation input, the injection of cultural programming into everything is not a panacea and actually segregates indigenous youth, while ignoring modern skills they need for life. There is also the question as to whether the parents of First Nations are comfortable with what is being presented as Aboriginal culture. Many come from homes where indigenous culture and spirituality is not taught, so we could actually be imposing values they do not condone.

Isn’t it wiser to leave choices about cultural identity and spirituality up to individuals and families and to not impose beliefs in a public environment? When culture becomes the focus of education, crowding out the crucial goal of preparing our youth for life and employment, aren’t we asking for trouble?

As to First Nations, the disproportionate emphasis on culture has come at the expense of core subjects. For example, years ago, the Aboriginal Education Directorate in Manitoba introduced several initiatives – emphasizing Aboriginal culture and languages, but low in core skills – in the provincial education system. This will not cure the low level of high school completion among Manitoba First Nations students.

First Nations are not failing because they lack culture. They are failing because our system places them in segregated groups and does not expect much from them, which is perverse when they possess so much potential. They are also stuck in under-performing schools, with parents having little choice about where to send their kids. It is a sad truth that many come from troubled homes, but this should not prevent them from succeeding. Research has found that a culture of higher expectations and a common focus, along with dedicated parental involvement, is what it needed for students to succeed.

Calvin Helin, an Aboriginal author from British Columbia, in his book Dances with Dependency, writes of the Grandview/?Uuquinak’uuh Elementary School in East Vancouver as a model for under-performing schools. Located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, the school has a student body that is 50 per cent Aboriginal, with the rest being from immigrant families. The reason for its success? The new principal and her staff – not happy with the fact that their students were under-performing by provincial standards – decided at the outset to reject a model of a culturally-centred curriculum. Under a culturally-centred curriculum, the principal argued, students were conscious of being treated differently and felt like failures; they knew they were not succeeding. But by emphasizing the basics, school pride and discipline, student achievement accelerated.

Helin believes Aboriginal parents need to educate themselves more on the value of education and pass that along to their children.

This one recipe for success – others include an increase in school choice for First Nation and students of all backgrounds, including the use of school vouchers – refutes the assumption that all First Nation parents want their children to have a culturally-centred curriculum. Policy makers should leave those decisions up to families and focus on preparing indigenous people for the modern economy.

injection of cultural programming into everything is not a panacea and segregates indigenous youth, while ignoring modern skills they need for life. It is also questionable whether the parents of First Nations are comfortable with what is being presented as Aboriginal culture. Many come from homes where indigenous culture and spirituality is not taught, so it would be an imposition of values. It is wiser to leave choices about cultural identity and spirituality up to individuals and families and to not impose beliefs in a public environment.

The problem arises when culture becomes the focus of the educational mission and crowds out the crucial goal of preparing our youth for life and employment.

When it comes to First Nations, the emphasis has been to focus disproportionately on culture to the detriments of core subjects. Years ago, the Aboriginal Education Directorate in Manitoba introduced several initiatives in the provincial education system. These were high on Aboriginal culture and languages, but low on core skills. In Manitoba, First Nations have a low rate of high school completion, but it is unproven that injecting cultural content will change that.

First Nations are not failing because they lack culture. They are failing because our system places them in segregated groups and does not expect much from them, when they possess so much potential. They are also stuck in under-performing schools with little choice over where to send their kids. It is a sad truth that many come from troubled homes, but this should not prevent them from succeeding. Research has found that a culture of higher expectations and a common focus, along with dedicated parental involvement is what it needed for students to succeed.

Calvin Helin, an Aboriginal author from British Columbia in his book Dances with Dependency, used the example of Grandview/?Uuquinak’uuh Elementary School in East Vancouver as a model for under-performing schools. Located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, the school is comprised of 50 per cent Aboriginal and the rest from immigrant families. What they discovered was that students were under-performing in provincial standards. The new principal and her staff decided at the outset that they were rejecting a model of a culturally-centred curriculum as the answer. The principal argued that students are conscious of being treated differently and felt like failures. They knew they were not succeeding. Through an emphasis on the basics and school pride and discipline, student achievement accelerated. Helin believes Aboriginal parents need to educate themselves more on the value of education and pass that along to their children.

This is one recipe for success, as is increased school choice for First Nation and students of all backgrounds, which includes ideas like school vouchers. Rather than wrongfully assume that all First Nation parents want their children to have a culturally-centred curriculum, policy makers should leave those decisions up to families and focus on preparing indigenous people for the modern economy.