How to get Aboriginal kids’ grades up

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Aboriginal students’ educational achievement is, on average, two years behind other Canadian students and their graduation rate is less than half the national average.

How can their educational outcomes be improved? Hire private tutors.

First, it is important to know that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development funds education for many bands. These funds are then in many cases passed on to off-reserve school boards so Aboriginal children can attend the local public schools.

One idea to improve educational outcomes is for school boards to give vouchers to aboriginal parents when their children have been assessed as being capable but are two grades below grade-level. These vouchers would last for a short time because when the children have improved to the appropriate grade level they would stop receiving tutoring and resume full-time attendance in the regular school program.

The voucher program would only focus on literacy and numeracy because these are the necessary skills for sustaining progress in all the other subjects. Local people with B.A., B.Ed., or B.Sc. degrees, or private agencies, such as Kumon or Sylvan, could provide the tutoring services. People who could tutor students are often available in rural areas where more than half of Canada’s aboriginal students live.

Obviously, vouchers will not be issued to parents who have children in kindergarten, or grades 1 or 2 because these students cannot be two years below grade level. As a result, teachers will have at least 2,000 hours of school time to assess the children and bring them up to the established levels of proficiency. If some children cannot be brought up to standard, the teachers and administrators, in cooperation with the parents, will need to take a different tack.

Why use school board money to hire private tutors? Because the band councils have already paid for their children’s education, and independent tutors are the only people who can, at any time during the school year, provide the services necessary to hold teachers and administrators accountable.

Of course, vouchers would also hold principals and teachers accountable for ensuring that all students are at acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. In fact, teachers and principals would have incentives to ensure that few students are in tutorial programs.

Parents will also become more accountable because they will pay for their children’s assessments. These tests will be administered by professionals who are independent from the schools and the private tutors. The costs may be a hardship for some parents, but there is nothing preventing private foundations and public interest groups from helping them pay.

This voucher system not only returns considerable power to parents but it also ensures teachers have incentives to increase the time their students spend on literacy and numeracy. Moreover, teachers will have incentives to assess their students, talk with the parents, and provide effective and immediate remedial programs to those students who are falling behind. In addition, teachers and principals will be unlikely to tolerate students who waste valuable instructional time.

In turn, school administrators will be more careful in hiring and retaining teachers. It also won’t be as easy to shuffle incompetent teachers from grade to grade or from school to school in the so-called “turkey trot.”

Finally, principals will encourage their best teachers to teach the most difficult students. No longer will excellent teachers be able to bargain with administrators to obtain the best classes, leaving the most difficult students for inexperienced colleagues.

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at St. John’s College, the University of Manitoba. He co-authored What’s Wrong with our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

Rodney is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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By Rodney Clifton

Rodney A. Clifton is Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Manitoba, where he has been teaching since 1979. He was born in Jasper, Alberta, and he taught at Memorial University for six years before moving to Manitoba. Dr. Clifton has a B.Ed. and a M.Ed. from the University of Alberta, a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education from the University of Toronto, and a Fil.Dir. in Comparative Education from the University of Stockholm. Over the last 30 years, he has published more than ninety research articles and five books and monographs. Dr. Clifton has won a number of research awards: the Spencer Fellowship from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement; the R.W.B. Jackson Research Award from the Canadian Educational Researchers' Association; and both the Edward Sheffield Award and the Distinguished Research Award from the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

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