All means all: Reforming the funding formula is critical to success of First Nation learners

By Neil Debassige of LearnFirst Consulting
Special to FNWSC

The First Nations With Schools Collective’s community engagement strategy has embarked on a front-line mission to identify how the current federal funding model imposes constraints on First Nation education systems.  

Educators, community members and political leaders from participating First Nations are identifying the issues that jeopardize educational prosperity in their communities and using this information to inform the development of a new funding formula.  

Each community has a unique set of difficulties that can help inform the bigger picture in terms of education funding for First Nations at large.  The educators, caregivers and stakeholders are contributing to the development of this new funding model by asking the questions from the front line, where answers matter most and where changes in student achievement are felt first.

We have been compiling feedback from communities in the following categories: 

  1. Instruction: Both classroom instruction and land-based education.
  2. Off First Nation Students: Issues faced by learners who attend high school outside of their community. 
  3. Special Education: Additional supports required for students with additional needs. 
  4. Leadership, Governance and Administration: Includes in-school leadership principal, office support and ‘school board’ functions such as finance, HR, IT support, curriculum development and governance. 
  5. School Operations, Maintenance and Renewal: Includes daily operation of the school (cleaning, heating, insurance, etc.) as well as regular maintenance and more substantive renewal and student transportation.

The community feedback is encompassed in the FNWSC proposed funding formula.

Reforming the funding is critical to success of First Nation learners.

The approach to reforming the First Nations’ Education funding model is not a new concept for Indigenous leadership. The need to reform the funding model has never been more necessary for future success of First Nation learners.  

The critical nature of First Nation education based on the current success rate data for First Nation learners is at an all-time high. The 2015-16 cohort (4-year) graduation rate for provincial students in Ontario was 79.6% compared to 47.1% for First Nation students. (Sekaly, 2021)

*See Gabriel Sekaly’s blog for more 

There are some common themes emerging from both sides of the discussion table that are supported by the research of educational gurus like Michael Fullan, the global leadership director for New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. To further support the research Fullan and associates, Dr. Doug Willms, president of the Fredricton-based Learning Bar research institute, has identified several ‘binding constraints’ that he says contribute to societies’ under-achievement in educational outcomes. 

Among the many barriers to success for First Nation learners are systemic racism and inadequate funding, which both impact the education systems in communities.  

Reforming the funding model for First Nation education programming requires that binding constraints be addressed.

*See Gerry Kerr’s blog on closing the Achievement Gap

150 years of inadequate federal funding

Critical to reforming how First Nation funding formulas generate an end result (a per pupil amount) is reforming the relationship between the parties responsible for determining the formula. 

Oftentimes, the intergovernmental relationship between the federal government and the sovereign First Nation governments is fragile due to factors like historical lack of funding and previously fractured negotiations.

In some cases this has caused a further delay in developing a funding strategy that would allow First Nation communities to bridge the learning gap that has resulted from 150 years of inadequate federal funding and education policy.

*Look for Gabriel Haythornwaite’s blog on this topic on this website, Thursday, June 10

All means ALL

In 2010, Fullan published the Big Ideas Behind Whole System Reform that identified some universal points for further discussion: 

1. All children can learn 

2. A small number of key priorities 

3. Resolute leadership 

4. Collective capacity 

5. Strategies with precision 

6. Intelligent accountability 


All means all: This type of thinking is resonating with what Indigenous leaders and educators have been stating for some time – that given the same opportunity, First Nation learners will achieve.

A case for action: What’s needed now to improve education outcomes for First Nations students

Leslee White-Eye and former Ontario Deputy Education Minister Gabriel Sékaly get real about First nations education in strategycorp podcast

By Jennifer O’Brien for FNWSC

As part of its goal to see First Nations attain full jurisdiction and control of on-reserve First Nation schooling, the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC) has been working with StrategyCorp Institute, which provides advisory services on government relations.

In May, StrategyCorp published a report on the “achievement gap” between First Nations and non-First Nations students in Canada, with three recommendations on what the federal government should do to address the inequities and improve outcomes for First Nation students now.

That report — which addresses the education-related trauma and ongoing detrimental effects of colonialism and Canada’s residential schooling system on First Nations — supports a 1972 finding of the Assembly of First Nations, that the cornerstone of education success is First Nation control of First Nation education.

StrategyCorp recommendations to the Government of Canada

Podcast discusses challenges and what’s needed now

To unpack the challenges and what’s needed from the federal government to achieve equity for students in First Nation communities, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator, Leslee White-Eye, joined senior advisor (and former Ontario deputy minister of education in Ontario) Gabriel Sékaly on on StrategyCorp’s podcast Intended Consequences

During the podcast, moderated by the firm’s Mitchell Davidson, they covered issues that are critical to the work of the FNWSC.  Please check out this important conversation and share with people in your network. 

Only have a few minutes? Keep reading to see excerpts of what Leslee and Gabriel had to say about some critical issues facing First Nations education and what is needed to improve outcomes for students.


A history of racism: Why communities need more than parity to achieve equity: 

Gabriel: Equal funding with provincial systems will never be enough to overcome the history of systemic shortcomings and racism that was built into the education systems in terms of on-reserve education. [What’s needed is] parity plus plus, but it’s equitable outcomes.

Historically there has been a disincentive for education. Not that long ago, if a First Nation citizen went to university… they weren’t counted on the rolls of the First Nation. So the government was saying, ‘if you get an education, we’re going to cut you off.’ That is the legacy we are working with to overcome these huge inequities in education(For more on the impact of colonial policies, such as the residential school system, on First Nation education, see the report)

The control of the funding should be in the hands of individual First Nations. A fly-in community may require additional funding to attract teachers to be there. Whereas a community in Southwestern Ontario may not. That to me is very important. How we define that and how the outcome-based approach . . . is put together

On new relationships and the urgent need for new (out of the box) policy:

Leslee: Civil servants that work within the federal government need to come with the expertise to sit down at a table to talk about the comparable types of things that any education system needs. Policy led by the federal government sets the stage and parameters, they create the box.

But the box that the First Nation education leaders are dealing with doesn’t include things like:

  • school capital,
  • curriculum development,
  • data management infrastructure systems. 

It’s more than turning the lights on and running classrooms in a First Nation school

On how the funding formula can be addressed: 

Gabriel: A lot of [funding] formulas that exist in Canada or around the world are input-based. So many dollars per teacher or per textbook. It’s really not focused on outcome, on ‘What do we want our student to achieve?’ And that’s what we need to move to: ‘What does it take to achieve this outcome that is defined by the First Nation.’

People in the First Nation system are doing a damn fine good job with what they have, but much more is needed. It is a difficult situation

One student’s story shows why one formula doesn’t work for all First Nations

Gabriel: One of the first times I went up to Sioux Lookout. . . I met this [student], the senior class representative and he was from a community way up North. He told me how many different places he lived before coming to Sioux Lookout because there was nothing else. . . I can’t imagine myself at 13 or 14 moving away from family, from everything you’ve ever known to continue your education. That’s what we are asking a lot of First Nation children to do and they need the supports. They need the supports on reserve, they need the supports when they continue their education. 

Leslee: Gabe just described a whole number of communities that live remotely, that are fly-in. When you try to apply a Grants For Student Needs model …. you already know it’s not going to work. We’re facing not only an approach that is similar to the approaches they’ve always taken — which is they lead and define the box and you decide whether you’re going to join in. 

It’s so incremental. You get one per-cent, two per-cent change over three, four or five years. The types of changes we need to be doing in our communities at the community level, we could be doing those now if the incremental way of doing things is dropped. 

Ontario’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN) funding model is largely based on student enrollment numbers and meant to cover operating costs, which can include teacher salaries. It does not include capital or infrastructure costs.

Leslee: What is taken for granted in the application of the Grants for Student Needs model on First Nation funding formulas is that the Canadian system for education has taken well over 170 years to develop. Ontario only just got into its own curriculum development in the last 35-40 years… It’s taken Canada that long to get to a space where they have a shared data infrastructure — a system with which to collect data for the Ministry of Education — and make solid program decisions. (First Nations) need those resources to develop those basic elements of any education system, and yet we keep getting pulled into the discussion around the delivery of programming within a school… ‘how many pencils do you need, how much paper do you need,’… That’s administering a school, that’s not running a system.  

We need large scale flexible deliberation spaces with the federal government to get to the bottom line with resources that are going to make the change needed within one or two years.

On barriers to Funding Parity Plus, introduced in 1972 by the Assembly of First Nations:  

 
Leslee: Lack of political will, lack of funding and a mechanism that’s so outdated in an approach that Indigenous Services Canada and the Crown Indigenous Relations Department [and Northern Affairs Canada] hasn’t been able to overcome. The bureaucracy they’ve over there created does not know how to create the legislative decision-making space, or it’s the will of decision makers in terms of cabinet, to get at the funding needed to make these types of decisions. Ultimately, it comes down to how you interpret section 35 of the Constitution. 

On what it will take to move the conversation forward: First Nation control of First Nation education

Leslee: The Collective has always situated jurisdiction as a key component of these discussions. We completely understand and know how to articulate what our education system should look like. 

Now, the matter is to sit down with the federal government and get at the negotiations to get to the resources that are needed. Just as the same resources are received by mainstream public systems all across Canada. We don’t have that kind of comparable amount of funding for the duties that the Ministry of Education undertakes, and the school boards undertake and the principals and classrooms undertake in our community. 

On what else it will take to move the conversation forward: New policies

Gabriel: We need allies and we need the political will to do it. 

The federal government is set in a certain box, which is a program box where everything has to be controlled by Ottawa. It takes a lot to permeate a whole organization. ‘We’ve always done it that way,’… that’s not an answer, there are better ways to think about other things. It’s an inertia in terms of bureaucracy because they are set in a certain mindset and can’t get out of it. 

Think about how many communities have boil water advisories. If this happened outside a First Nation reserve, there would be action. Yet there is inaction and it’s like 25 years for some communities. There are over 600 First Nations in Canada and an enormous amount of energy that as a country we can all work together to make our society more equal and better and we’re not doing it. That frustrates me. 

Leslee: The [First Nation education directors] are just incredible leaders that have led and are leading in isolation — in a single position running the entire education system for their communities, which usually runs anywhere from early years all the way to adult learning to post-secondary. That’s far beyond what a typical school board director and would do with no additional staff. All of these leaders are working really hard to create the environment for exceptional decisions to be made with very limited resources. 

What the federal government needs to do… is to really get at the (human resources) piece that exists in communities, that we can access if given the funding we need to create really robust strong education departments that have a policy advisor, program instructional consultants,  immersion coordinators skilled in their craft. These are things school boards take for granted and these are things that are not funded at the local First Nation community level.

And yet we’re told the government cares about land based learning and cares about culture identity and history, but all of that has to be built on the ground nand that takes curriculum developers. It’s that kind of conversation the FNWSC is going to go wholeheartedly into with willing participants and partners. We hope the federal government can commit to those conversations.  


‘The time is ticking’  

Gabe: The time is ticking. We can’t wait 10 years. How many Indigenous languages have been lost worldwide? You have to preserve that…

The political level needs to say to the public service, ‘You get this done…  If there are roadblocks at the bureaucratic level at the federal government because they can’t get out of their box, it has to be at the higher level where the minister and the minister’s staff say ‘This is important. . . we don’t want the old ways. We want it done by this timeline.’

That works. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. 

A case for action

Leslee: If you want to solve a lot of social challenges facing Indigenous people in Canada, you’re going to do it by education. It’s a far better investment and use of public funds to invest in something that’s going to prevent incarceration rates, mental health crises, drug addiction, the representation of Indigenous people in the courts. . . the list goes on and on. 

The same investment put into the Canadian education system over decades should be put into First Nation schooling education systems.

We can do it together between the First Nation governments and the federal government. 

We’ve got the skills and know how to do it and the Collective is an example of that. Everyone on this team is well-versed in the work of education. We’ve got the  answers, we just need to get to a table that get to the places where there is some commitment of substantial resources that are stable and predictable.

How to close the achievement gap

By Gerry Kerr, Chignecto Consulting Group
Special to the FNWSC

The term “achievement gap” refers to any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students.  

For the purposes of a Funding Parity discussion — which FNWSC has been engaged in — the First Nation achievement gap is defined as the difference in achievement outcomes between students attending First Nations schools and students attending schools in the provincial system.   

To put it simply, First Nation students are less likely to graduate high school than non-First Nation students. And that’s completely preventable. 

Let’s be clear: The achievement gap is not caused by First Nation students having less inherent capacity to succeed than their provincial counterparts.  It is not an intellectual or ability-to-learn gap.

It is the result of an education system that has been chronically underfunded and underserviced.  

That needs to change in order to close the gap. Programming must be provided that recognizes and challenges the intellectual capacity of First Nation students, and does not assume they aren’t capable of meeting provincially equivalent educational norms.

Disparities in test scores don’t tell the whole story

The most widely used measure to determine an achievement gap is disparities in test scores. 

Standardized tests, tend to be the most discussed, scrutinized, and reported measure of achievement gaps in provincial systems. In Ontario, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)  assessments  of reading, writing and mathematics​ are administered to all Grade 3, 6, 9 and 10 students.  

And Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) now requires First Nations to report any results of learning assessments as a condition of their funding agreements. 

However, the EQAO test results are not aggregated beyond the community level.

The achievement gap… is not an intellectual or ability-to-learn gap. It is the result of an education system that has been chronically underfunded and underserviced.  

Gerry Kerr, Chignecto Consulting Group

Other studies have also highlighted the persistent achievement gap including graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment rates, post-secondary completion rates, course grades, and higher dropout and absenteeism rates.

Despite restrictions in available testing data, there is significant evidence — including that completed by the federal government’s Office of the Auditor General,— that the achievement gap is so significant that closing it will take many years and significant supplementary funding. 

‘An incomprehensible failure’

The federal government’s inability to help improve life for Indigenous people in Canada, including education, was termed an “incomprehensible failure,” by the former auditor general, Michael Ferguson.  

His predecessor Sheila Fraser estimated that without additional funding it would take  30 years for First Nation education systems to reach provincial achievement equivalency.

In many First Nation communities, students graduating from Grade 8 are heading into high school at a reading level that is three years behind most of their peers coming out of Ontario’s public school system. The same goes for numeracy. 

Because so many of the issues that cause the achievement gap will continue to be factors impacting academic outcomes — even if others, such as poverty and housing are addressed — achievement gap funding will be required until all these factors are addressed.   

It is recognized that not all activities that need to be addressed in closing the achievement gap require additional resources.  

It is also understood that each community has specific challenges and opportunities to address the achievement gap and will require  a specific strategy to address these.  

Having said that, significant additional resources are required by First Nation communities if the achievement gap is to be addressed in First Nation schools.  The incremental amount required is a much higher percentage over base funding currently posed by federal policy makers. 

First Nations Work to Reclaim Data Sovereignty

As a collective, 8 First Nations draw on each other’s common view of success and work to build a data infrastructure blueprint 

March 23, 2021

By Dr. Ashley Sisco, Jana George, & Alisha Fowler, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services Inc. – Special to the FNWSC

First Nations have always had their own ways of gathering, protecting and using their knowledge and information. However, Canada has continuously ignored First Nations sovereignty.

Education data sovereignty is not an exception. 

Data sovereignty is defined as the right to manage information in accordance with a community’s unique laws, customs and culturally-relevant practices. Data is key to self-determination because it provides evidence to influence decision-making.

Canada’s education system determines educational success and funding based on indicators such as attendance, grades, standardized tests and graduation rates. These indicators reinforce European values and undermine Indigenous worldviews. Yet, First Nations are forced to conform to these indicators in education. Funding shortages have prevented First Nations from consistently collecting the data that connects learning outcomes to community goals. 

The First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC)— a group of eight First Nations in Ontario working together to advance shared goals in lifelong learning — is asserting data sovereignty through redefining how First Nations’ lifelong learning is measured. 

For FNWSC First Nations, the purpose of education is to support individuals, family and community members in reaching their full potential, based on their individual goals. Member First Nations share common educational goals, impacts and measures, which differ from Canada. However, due to chronic federal funding shortfalls, they have not had the capacity to collect data using their own lifelong learning measures and build the comprehensive data systems comparable to provincial data systems. 

Our firm, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services (SISCO), has been honoured to support the FNWSC First Nations in developing their data sovereignty capacity. Through this pilot project, the FNWSC is building on conventional student achievement measures by adding community-defined goals and indicators. The purpose of this work is for the FNWSC First Nations to be able to measure and support their learning journeys, as well as advocate for federal funding in a meaningful way for their communities. 

Throughout this process, our team experienced a few “aha moments” that gave us important insight into FNWSC community values and visions for learning. 

  1. FNWSC member First Nations define lifelong learning as an ongoing process that supports individuals in developing strengths, realizing their potentials and contributing to their communities. This is in contrast to the Canadian system, which is designed to train students to support the economy. 
  1. For FNWSC First Nations, learning occurs from pre-birth to post-death, not solely confined to a period of someone’s life (e.g. Kindergarten to Grade 12). It is not confined to the classroom but happens everywhere, especially in the community.
  2. Education is all around us. It is what an individual learns from every experience in daily life. FNWSC First Nations currently collect data by areas like social services, economic development, and health separately from education because funding authorities require it this way. What we learned is that in order to understand lifelong learning this data should be collected and considered together as indicators of success. 

First Nations need both adequate funding for and control over First Nations education. 

If Canada is serious about reconciliation, it must respect First Nations jurisdiction to define and measure lifelong learning and uphold federal funding obligations for First Nations education.

As a next step, Canada must make space at intergovernmental tables for First Nations as sovereign Nations with self-governments of equal decision-making power.