Last month the Globe and Mail reported the launch of an organization called ‘Teach for Canada’ whose aim was to recruit new university grads to “fix Canada’s education gaps”. They intend to begin this mission by focusing on First Nations schools.
To understand what the arrival of Teach for Canada (TFC) could potentially mean for First Nations schools and for their provincial counterparts, it is essential to look at Teach for America (TFA) the organization TFC is modelled after.
Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine provides a useful framework to understand what TFA has meant for the US education system. The book observes the tendency of corporate interests to exploit moments of popular crisis in order to advance various anti-social profit-driven reforms.
In this case the crisis is the chronically poor state of America’s under-funded inner city schools. The solution proposed by TFA, a non-profit supported by the likes of the Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart) is to recruit recent graduates from bachelors programs not related to teaching, give them five weeks of intense training and then send them into America’s ‘failing’ inner city schools in order to help ‘close the achievement gaps’ related to race and class. TFA presents itself as a kind of Peace Corps experience to help fix America’s troubled schools.
However, a growing number of critics including many Teach for America alumni have been speaking out about the fallacy of the organization’s claims. To begin with a growing body of research is confirming the somewhat predictable outcome of sending under-qualified teachers into America’s most needy schools: achievement gaps widening not getting smaller. TFA is also increasingly being accused of being an agent of privatization of the US education system, working to undermine teachers unions in the public system and providing a reserve army of staff for the rapidly growing number of semi-private charter schools.
Just as colonial ventures of the past were justified with the ostensibly humanistic goal “to serve your captives’ need”, Teach for Canada (TFC) has found its own “sullen people” to save. After citing a series of alarming statistics on the low graduation rates in First Nations communities, TFC’s website presents the project as a solution to apparent teacher shortages in rural, remote and Aboriginal communities. More than that, it states that its goal is to “start and sustain a conversation about the challenge of education inequality in Canada”.
So while frequent mention is made of gaps in achievement in First Nations schools, no mention whatsoever is made of the gaps in funding that have produced these gaps in achievement. One recent study comparing the funding for First Nations schools with that received by public schools in the province of Saskatchewan found that First Nations schools received 40 to 50 percent less funding.
Although federally funded First Nations schools may be TFC’s first target, they are also planning to make their way into the schools of several provinces. An application submitted by TFC to the student-run consulting service Public Good Initiative outlines the organizations plans to lobby provincial governments to gain access to their schools.
Should there be any doubt that TFC like its American counterpart plans to offer itself to provincial governments as a tool to undermine teachers unions and to staff the growing number of semi-private schools in Canada, one need only look to the resume of one of its two founders Kyle Hill. Kyle Hill is a strategy consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, an organization with a clear agenda linked to corporate education reform. In several US states BCG has been behind efforts to: close public schools and open semi-private charters; eliminate collective bargaining rights; introduce merit-pay schemes; heavily promote online learning. Kyle Hill appears to be BCG’s man to open up the Canadian education ‘market’.
The fact that TFC has arrived just as Harper has tabled his First Nations Education Act is worrisome to say the least. Tellingly this legislation has been buried in the Conservative government’s Economic Action Plan. It has already sparked protest, with some Ontario chiefs referring to the legislation as “colonial”. The act seems to entrench in law the principles of the Harper government’s First Nations Student Success Program which has been criticized as a carbon copy of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ reform making school funding contingent on success rates as measured by standardized tests.
By tying school funding to success rates in First Nations schools the Harper government has created the perfect conditions for TFC, with its rhetoric about closing the achievement gaps of struggling schools. While this may help TFC to get its foot in the door of Canada’s education system, it will certainly not help First Nations schools to be ‘saved’ by a bunch under-qualified university grads calling themselves teachers.