Saturday, October 14, 2006

School system fails B.C.'s aboriginal students
Oct. 13, 2006

Perhaps it’s not particularly noteworthy in itself that 83 per cent of Canadians think our country’s schools are doing a poor job at teaching the basics. That may be their opinion, but it isn’t necessarily true.
Still, it’s unsettling to hear that so many people give schools a failing grade on that basic test. What’s more disturbing is that at least on one front, they’re right. Whatever you may take away from the very subjective findings of the Canadian Council on Learning survey released this week, other more objective measures of how our students are doing tell us we’ve got plenty to worry about.
Few things would be more challenging than teaching school, and I have respect and admiration for B.C.’s hard-working teachers. But the number of students failing to complete high school in our region is closing in on 28 per cent. Losing that many kids in a community as privileged and involved as ours is cause for considerable alarm.
B.C. school stats are particularly grim for aboriginals. The good news is that more than twice as many aboriginal students graduate from Grade 12 these days as they did a decade ago. The bad news is that the non-completion rate is a staggering 56 per cent.
The story that leads to that sad ending obviously begins long before an aboriginal teen heads into high school. The most recent edition of the province’s annual report on aboriginal students reveals that trouble starts early for such children and continues in a relentless downward spiral for most of their school years.
On every assessment test from Grade 4 on, aboriginal students perform well below other students, with gaps of 20 percentage points or more in virtually all subjects. While 80 per cent of other Grade 4 kids are meeting or exceeding acceptable reading-comprehension levels, just 62 per cent of aboriginal kids are. By Grade 7, barely half of the aboriginal kids are meeting reading standards, compared to more than three-quarters of other students.
The problems go deeper than poor performance on tests. With the notable exception of “gifted,” B.C.’s aboriginal students are also overrepresented in every special-needs category. They’re at least two times more likely than non-aboriginals to be categorized as having a special need due to a sensory, learning, behavioural or intellectual disability.
The gap is most significant in the behavioural category. Eight per cent of B.C. aboriginal students in 2004-05 were categorized as having behavioural disabilities, compared to just two per cent of non-aboriginals.
By Grade 10, more than 10 per cent of aboriginal students are in a “behavioural” class, versus three per cent of non-aboriginals. (On every measure, the difference is dramatic enough across the board that you have to wonder whether it’s solely about performance, or if racism plays a role.)
From Grade 9 on, aboriginal participation in school drops dramatically and grades tumble. Almost 40 per cent of the aboriginal kids who wrote their Grade 10 science exam in the 2004-05 school year got an F.
On a positive note, the learning gap starts to shrink for aboriginal students who do make it to Grade 12, where final grades and provincial exam results are much more comparable to the overall student population. “Aboriginal students, when participating, perform very well on the provincial exam,” the annual report from the Education MInistry points out in a footnote about the English 12 exam.
But there’s the rub. Barely half of the aboriginal students who start Grade 12 in a B.C. school will graduate, and many more will never even make it that far. They will pay dearly for the absence of a high-school education in this fast-paced information age and will work that much harder to support their own children as they in turn head into school. One more generation falling behind before they’ve even had a chance to begin.
As with all problems, somebody has to blink. If a majority of us really do believe that our children aren’t getting the basics in our school system - as seems to be indicated by the national learning council’s survey this week of 5,300 Canadians - then we’re presumably open to ideas for intervention. Crisis-level problems for aboriginal students are hardly news, but surely we’re well past the time of pretending it isn’t having an impact.
Like children in government care, it’s hard to separate the chicken from the egg when looking at health outcomes for B.C.’s aboriginal kids.
Yes, a significant number of those kids will struggle no matter what, because they didn’t get the head start that a happy, healthy family with a decent income can provide. That’s just the bleak reality of growing up aboriginal in Canada.
But with rising dropout rates for all students in two of our region’s three school districts in the past five years, we clearly have to try harder on all fronts. Aboriginal or otherwise, B.C.’s kids deserve better.

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