Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

2.1.2 The contemporary context (2000- present)

Many challenges face schools who want to enhance the success of Aboriginal students, but two are important in the context of this impact study. First, the role of teachers. As Williams (2000) identified, teachers play a significant role in student success given their autonomy in the classroom. But curriculum is also important; provincial policy makers have understood this, and devoted considerable efforts to creating resources that teachers can use to integrate Aboriginal knowledge across the K-12 curriculum. They have also created two provincially approved courses at the high school level: First Peoples English 12 and First Nations Studies 12. Despite this, enrolment in these courses remains relatively low, and they are not offered in all school districts. One study, Learning about Walking in Beauty (2000-2001) illustrated at least part of the problem when it reported that: “over two-thirds of [Canadian] young adults couldn’t recall discussing contemporary Aboriginal issues in elementary or secondary school, while 80 percent were ‘dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied’ with existing Aboriginal Studies curriculum”. The study went on to suggest that “a pedagogy infused with Aboriginal perspectives will help all students build both a knowledge base and the critical analysis skills relevant to contemporary regional, national and international affairs” (Hyslop, 2012, para 6). More will be said about the importance of Aboriginal pedagogy in the next section of this report.

The BC Ministry of Education provides financial resources to school districts to fund support for Aboriginal education through its funding formula. However, in addition to this it has co-created several policy directions for BC school districts, with an emphasis on enhancing accountability for Aboriginal student achievement. The lack of success of Aboriginal students in the BC (and Canadian) school system was a growing concern for Aboriginal Communities and was becoming a more frequent topic of conversation among educational policy makers at all levels of government. The First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) is a notable partner in this discussion; it has been a significant organizational player in its efforts to shape the BC government’s directions in Aboriginal Education. An important outcome of their lobbying efforts resulted in the signing of a formal agreement between the government and Aboriginal Community leaders and a Memorandum of Understanding in 1999. One of the directions initiated as a result of this MOU was the requirement for school districts to similarly construct local Aboriginal Education Improvement Agreements as a means of focusing on Aboriginal student success. These later became known as Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements.

The provincial framework for these agreements highlights the need to: enhance Aboriginal voice in education through local consultations; focus on Aboriginal student success; and support the genuine infusion of Aboriginal culture and language throughout the BC curriculum (New Relationships with Aboriginal Peoples, Annual Report, 2009, p. 18). Many of these locally developed agreements have set in place specific targets and benchmarks to guide district efforts at effecting change for Aboriginal students. Annual reporting is required. As later sections of this report will document, nearly all school districts in British Columbia in place such agreements, and many are making significant efforts to effect changes in programming and services to Aboriginal students.

Aboriginal education remained a priority area among educational policy makers and Aboriginal communities alike. Evidence of this comes from the decision in 2006 to sign the Educational Jurisdiction Framework Agreement; government also legislated the First Nations Education Act in 2007. These events signaled an important increase in the priority given to Aboriginal students’ education in BC . Other initiatives the Ministry has spearheaded have included the development of several resources to support educators working with Aboriginal students, such as Shared Learning (2000/2006), the development and implementation of approved provincial courses for secondary schools, including First Nations 12 and First Peoples English 12, as well as incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into most provincial curriculum documents.

Another important policy antecedent was the adoption by the Ministry of what are called “Principles of Aboriginal Learning”. These were initially developed in partnership with the Provincial First Nations Steering Committee in 2008. School district and teachers are encouraged to use these principles in the design of Aboriginal educational programming. The principles are discussed in more detail in other sections of this report, but importantly for this general overview, they illustrate an emphasis on a more holistic and culturally responsive model of education that recognizes the importance of Aboriginal beliefs, culture, and knowledge for all students.

As this brief summary illustrates, there is a history of addressing Aboriginal Education in BC that emerged out of the closure of residential schools in the 1960s, although the last residential did not close in BC until 1986 (Oikawa, 2010). How jurisdictions responded in light of these circumstances has been illustrated by focusing on both the local (as in the case of the Vancouver school board) and provincial through government policy initiatives. This ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’ between these jurisdictional levels helps to illustrate several things: first, that there were common threads of concern around Aboriginal education that developed at different jurisdictional levels, but that the voices of Aboriginal peoples have been a consistent dynamic in demanding changing responses. However it also illustrates the dynamics of how dominant beliefs about Aboriginal peoples have shaped policy and practice provincially and locally.

There have been systemic efforts at effecting change. And while the intention has been to engage local school districts and communities in ways that will focus their efforts on Aboriginal student achievement, their successes have been modest as is evidenced from annual reports produced by the Ministry of Education, Aboriginal Education Branch. Improvements are being traced locally and districts are required to report on an annual basis their work in achieving the goals of their local Enhancement Agreements. This is bringing an increased level of visibility to the goals of bettering Aboriginal student success.

Williams’s (2000) observations, as noted above, are important to re-emphasize here because her description of the need for flexibility and locally developed partnership initiatives. This is important in thinking about the affordances and limitations offered by provincially mandated measures. If we take her advice, then it is locally and contextually specific features that work best when Aboriginal learners and Aboriginal communities are genuine partners in the design and implementation of district level agreements. In other words, there is need for a policy bridging tool; a mechanism and approach that can bridge between local contexts and provincial/district mandates. As later sections of this report will emphasize, we see the work of the AESN as such a policy lever through which change is being realized more effectively and comprehensively and responding to diverse local needs.

While the above discussion is necessarily brief, another important antecedent to understanding the approach taken by the AES Network comes from scholarship and literature about promising practices in teacher professional development, learning, learning communities and pedagogical approaches to Aboriginal education. In the next section of the report we begin by briefly summarizing Aboriginal educational research drawing from selected Canadian and New Zealand scholars, as these two jurisdictions share a common commitment to enhancing the success of their Indigenous learners.