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Why we need Indigenous education authorities in a failing school system

Most Canadian schools currently fail to meet the needs of Indigenous students. This piece examines the potential for structural designs and policies to better support educational outcomes for Indigenous learners.

The promise of increased self-governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada is the perfect climate for accelerating educational change.

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The promise of increased self-governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada is the perfect climate for accelerating educational change.

What changes might be ahead for the quality of education offered to Indigenous youth?

We pose this question in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent announcement that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) will be dissolved and replaced by two new federal departments under two cabinet ministers.

Currently, the federal minister of INAC is the governing authority over Indigenouseducation in all provinces and territories. The promise of increased self-governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada is the perfect climate for accelerating educational change.

Most Canadian schools currently fail to meet the needs of Indigenous students. Recent data show the gap in academic achievement between Indigenous learners and non-Indigenous learners is widening. Educational reforms are urgently needed in many areas - from curricular content and teaching to school-wide policy and program support.

The creation of First Nations education authorities (FNEAs) is one solution. Functioning at a level comparable to superintendents in provincial school systems, FNEAs could help Indigenous children in schools both on and off-reserves.

In making this argument, we draw from extensive careers in research and education. The primary author, Dianne Wilkins, is a retired superintendent of schools in New Brunswick, and a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). She is now researching Indigenous education in public schools along with Elizabeth Sloat, a professor in UNB's Faculty of Education.

Our research traces the emergence of educational authorities within Indigenouseducation discourse. We examine the potential for structural designs and policies to better support educational outcomes for Indigenous learners.

First Nations need to take control

As we know, the residential boarding school and community day school systems led to devastating outcomes for Indigenous children and families. These systems aimed to assimilate children into a Euro-Canadian culture. Their educational impact: 60 to 80 per cent of residential school children failed to advance past third grade.

Grave concerns expressed by parents and leaders kickstarted a process in the early 1950s of transferring Indigenous students to provincial public schools. Community day schools became band-operated schools. Since the 1950s, Indigenous peoples, with few exceptions, have struggled to graduate from high school and to seek post-secondary education.

In 1988, an Assembly of First Nations study examined all aspects of Canada's Indigenous education. The report highlighted the need for FNEAs to manage band-operated schools at all levels from pre-school through to post-secondary education.

Since the report's release, some First Nations education alliances have been formed across Canada to provide academic leadership. However, these alliances are not legislated or federally recognized. Instead, they are mainly funded through competitive federal grant programs.

An organizational gap

Aboriginal scholars Harvey McCue and Michael Mendelson advocate for a First Nations Education Act that would replicate the public school system of organization, but for Indigenous students.

Provincial schools are typically structured around three levels. Provincial departments of education sit at Level 3. District superintendents and education councils are at Level 2. School principals are at Level 1. McCue and Mendelson distinguish these levels as the political, the district and the school.

The structural organization for band-operated schools differs significantly. These schools are managed according to the Indian Act, which positions the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada at Level 3, with ultimate authority over all education-related matters. There are no Level 2 designations. Only a director of education and principal sit at Level 1.

To address this notable gap in Level 2 - or district-level operations - McCue and Mendelson favour establishing FNEAs.

Failure to consult

Provincially, Level 2 district superintendents and education councils are operationally responsible for setting regulations, standards, procedures and policies. They are responsible for school governance, administration and student support services. And they also support professional development and resources for curriculum and teaching.

Legislated FNEAs would hold similar responsibilities, as recommended in the Assembly's 1988 report.

FNEAs would develop curricular and instructional resources, administrative leadership, school policies and mission statements. They would manage student enrolment and achievement data. They would provide clearly articulated and tested public school processes for children transitioning from band-operated schools. They would offer professional development for principals and directors of education.

Finally, FNEAs would facilitate parental involvement in their children's education and forge partnerships with provincial education ministries and districts. Collectively, these operations could create consistency across band-operated school governance systems and structures.

Why has legislation not yet occurred? A First Nations Education Act was proposed by Bernard Valcourt, the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, in 2013.

But it was strongly opposed by the Assembly of First Nations because the Minister failed to consult with Indigenous leaders. The Act, reintroduced in 2014, was again rejected for the same reason.

Towards equality

Significant inconsistencies exist in operations and governance between provincial and band-operated school systems.

Establishing provincially comparable district-level education authorities - with responsibility for their administration firmly in the hands of Indigenous leaders and educators - would go a long way toward addressing the failings of current Indigenouseducation structures.

While First Nation Education alliances have been formed in various jurisdictions throughout Canada, they are not legalized entities. And they operate with limited funding, much of which is accessed through competitive Indigenous grant programs.

Legislating and enacting educational authorities is a way to attain equality for generations of Indigenous children.

It's important that all Canadian provinces, territories, Indigenous communities and the federal government move quickly to realize the lasting educational reform that Indigenous children so desperately need and deserve.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

This piece was written by Dianne Wilkins, a PhD Candidate in Education at the University of New Brunswick and Elizabeth Sloat, a Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick.

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