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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

Co-operation, not ranking, improves learning

by Pat Clarke

The BCTF recently received a friendly invitation from the Fraser Institute to attend the unveiling of their latest inquiry on the state of the province’s schools. This one is entitled "Report Card on Aboriginal Education in British Columbia." The invitation states that "on every indicator of academic performance at both elementary and secondary levels the results are the same—Aboriginal student performance at even the highest ranked schools is barely average." It goes on to claim there is, however, considerable variation in the levels of academic success enjoyed by Aboriginal students, and this indicates that there are schools where these students do achieve well. All we have to do is find out what they do in these successful programs or schools and replicate it.

The approach the FI is using is quite familiar to B.C. teachers. It is the research equivalent of the big-lie strategy in public relations—repeat often enough, and belief begins to set in. The FI has for many years perpetrated the notion that data obtained from test scores, either the FSA at the elementary school level or Grade 12 exams in secondary schools, can give us a reliable indication of how schools are doing. They will be doing the same in their "report card" on Aboriginal education. That is, doing a province-wide comparison of Aboriginal education entirely focussed on student achievement on paper and pencil tests. As a means of making judgments about the adequacy of school programs in general, this Victorian-era bromide for obtaining better results is simplistic and dangerous. For Aboriginal education, it is downright nasty and potentially disastrous.

As always, the FI ignores the context. We know very well that the leading indicators of success for students, such as the socioeconomic circumstances they come from, are the primary determinants of how well they will do in school. For Aboriginal students, the consideration of these leading indicators is essential in planning for their success. The problem is that the reliance on results provided by test scores as a primary source of information diverts attention from root causes and focusses only on measurable outcomes. We know that an obsession with counting tends to focus our attention only on what is counted. For students who come to school with a complex array of issues from poverty to cultural dislocation, factory-model approaches to learning are too often exactly the wrong thing to do. A lock-step devotion to testing for example, is a good way to keep Aboriginal students away from schools, not in them.

After many years of neglect and false starts, we have only recently started to turn the tide in Aboriginal education. We have seen the number of Aboriginal students who obtain Dogwood certificates almost double in five years. There are still far too many who are not succeeding in school, but the FI’s claim that the school system is failing, is a convenient overstatement that ignores some significant progress. That progress has begun mainly because we are paying more attention to the learning context for Aboriginal students. We are slowly making public schools more welcoming for Aboriginal students. We know that building a public school system that works for Aboriginal children requires an enormous and co-operative community effort. We know it requires resources dedicated to meeting the particular needs of these children, and programs that are sensitive to cultural and social circumstances. The BCTF has been trying to assist that development through our work with Aboriginal educators, a workshop program, and resource development specifically for Aboriginal teachers and learners.

Making judgments about how well Aboriginal students are doing, based on standardized test results, doesn’t help. It does the opposite. A large-scale standardized testing program is nothing more than an expensive goose chase that drains resources from what we know really helps students succeed--smaller classes, relevant learning resources, learning assistance, and timely counselling. These are all features of a public school system that is devoted to success for every child. But the Fraser Institute evidently doesn’t have that as a priority. Once again, their mission is to undermine public confidence in public services and open the door to their friends and fellow travellers in the private sector looking to make a buck.

Pat Clarke is the director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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