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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 22, Number 2, October 2009 

A different look at the problem of Aboriginal student achievement

By Debra McIntyre

It is no secret that our Aboriginal students trail behind their non-Aboriginal peers in school achievement. The grim facts show up in standardized test scores, school completion rates and overall emotional satisfaction. (Aboriginal Report 2003–04 —2007–08 How are we doing? Typically, a lot of blame gets tossed about. The more liberal excuses tend to blame the conditions of poverty. I have heard other teachers suggest poor parenting is involved. Some complain about an essential lack of inner motivation. We even blame the media for promoting “gangsta” lifestyles over scholarly pursuits. I would like to offer a radically different perspective. What if the problem is really a symptom of something that nobody wants to talk about; what if our educational system was inherently racist?

I realize what I have said sounds vaguely blasphemous. Nobody gets into the teaching profession from a position of hatred. We all teach because we love children, knowledge, and the good things in life. Racism represents everything that teaching is not.

Yet teaching positions tend to be filled by white Canadians who have unconscious cultural assumptions about how the world operates. I am suggesting that some of those assumptions may be harmful to some of the children entrusted into our care.

Colour/ethnicity does not matter

I have heard people defend themselves against the charge of participating in a racist system by emphasizing that they do not see the colour or ethnicity of their students. In the eyes of those teachers, all students are alike. However commendable such an ideal may be, it denies the realities our students face in their daily life. Ask Aboriginal people if they have experienced racism, and if that experience has left a legacy. The terrible stories you will collect from ordinary people underline the idea that though colour ought not to matter—in reality it matters a great deal. Ignoring the issue does not correct it.

White culture is normal

If you ask a white person what it means to be white, you will either get a perplexed answer (huh?) or a vague and brief description (Scottish-English Canadian for example). Yet, if you ask someone of Aboriginal descent what it means to be a First Nations member, you will likely provoke a much more interesting response. Social scientists who have studied this phenomenon have concluded that white culture is seen by many parties as normative—the way things are. The result is that white Canadians, by and large, are oblivious to how cultural assumptions shape understanding and behaviour. One of the most damaging assumptions is the myth of meritocracy.

The myth of meritocracy

The myth of meritocracy basically says that anyone can achieve anything—provided they are willing to work hard—great news if you’re doing well, less if you’re struggling. The ugly side of the meritocracy myth is that it suggests that people also earn failure. The white middle-class assumption is that hard work will ultimately lead to success for all people. This assumption could be considered fair if everyone began life with similar circumstances; unfortunately, there are many random variables that can affect a person’s success. I would like to suggest that diligence is not the only key or even the key means to success. Luck plays a significant role.

Internal locus of control

Another cultural assumption white teachers may bring into a classroom is the idea that an individual is the master of her or his destiny. The philosopher Alain de Botton has questioned our society’s assumption that having an internal locus of control is normal or even psychologically sound. He noted that in medieval society if you met someone who was at the bottom of the social heap you would likely describe them as being an “unfortunate.” Today, that person would be described as a “loser.” In the middle ages, fortune or luck was recognized as a variable that led to or against success. Today’s society is much more competitive and perhaps less humane. One wonders if our society’s epidemic of depression is connected to this belief in taking personal responsibility for success and failure.

What does this mean for teachers and students?

The BCTF policy on Aboriginal education is a comprehensive resource for ideas and specifics about how to be culturally inclusive. However, since systems are made of parts, my hope is that more teachers will reconsider their personal role in maintaining a system that clearly does not allow for the success of some of our students. Perhaps the first step is to admit to the invisible elephant of systemic racism. If we can agree that our system of education does not meet the needs of Aboriginal students then perhaps the next step is to use diversity training opportunities when considering our professional development needs. If we truly care about all of our students then business as usual cannot continue; we must adapt to our students instead of continuing to insist that they adapt to us.

Debra McIntyre taught in northern BC and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in counselling.