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Culturally Unresponsive: The Manitoba Education Review and Colonial Perspectives

Introduction

In 2018, the Conservative government of Manitoba launched an independent review of the provincial education system. According to the commission tasked with conducting the review, its aims are “about improving student outcomes, ensuring long-term sustainability and enhancing public confidence in Manitoba’s K to 12 education system” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c). In early 2019, the commission organized a series of consultations where it received feedback from the public via meetings, written responses, and online surveys. Despite early criticisms that Indigenous voices were not being effectively consulted (Hendricks, 2019), documentation from the commission indicates that being culturally responsive is a guiding principle. To emphasize its commitment to being culturally responsive, the commission stated that the review “will respect diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, la francophonie and newcomers, and value the critical relationships between language and culture” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019, p. 20, emphasis theirs). This paper will analyze documents published by the commission and the consultation process itself. It will reveal perspectives that contradict culturally responsive practices, with particular focus on Indigenous communities in Manitoba. Although the Manitoba Education Review claims to be culturally responsive, I posit this theory is compromised as evidenced by the colonial and deficit perspectives that run counter to culturally responsive practices.

Theoretical Framework

To better interrogate how the review’s documentation contradicts culturally responsive practices, it is necessary to define the theory of culturally responsive teaching. This essay will draw primarily from the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay, two leading academics in this field. Ladson-Billings first called for a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy in response to the failure of the American school system to meet the needs of African-American students. Breaking away from explanations of cultural deficits or disadvantages, she called for “a theoretical model that not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 469). By encouraging such critical perspectives, cultural relevant pedagogy is oriented towards challenging systemic inequities and the current status quo.

This social justice orientation is also found in Geneva Gay’s work on culturally responsive teaching. She emphasizes that culturally responsive teaching is empowering, transformative, and ultimately emancipatory for students, as it aims to challenge the status quo of the education system (2010). Importantly, culturally responsive teaching is validating as it “acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum” (Gay, 2010, p. 31). According to Gay (2010), in culturally responsive teaching, students’ disparate experiences should be connected, such as connections between home and school experiences, as well as between academics and students’ lived contexts. Gay (2010) also stresses the dynamic and changing nature of culture in students’ lives, noting culture is influenced by a variety of mitigating variables beyond race or ethnicity alone.

These theories are intended to improve the education system for marginalized students, which makes culturally responsive and relevant teaching important for Indigenous students in Manitoba. However, Christine E. Sleeter has asserted that teachers aiming to use culturally responsive practices often end up applying them in simplistic and limited ways. This includes focusing on learning about culture rather than teaching using culturally responsive practices or essentializing culture as a homogenous concept rather than understanding a group’s culture as dynamic, varied, and changing (Sleeter, 2012). Most importantly for the purposes of this essay, in simplifying culturally responsive practices, teachers end up “maintaining silence about the conditions of racism and other forms of oppression that underlie achievement gaps and alienation from school, assuming that attending to culture alone will bring about equity” (Sleeter, 2012, p. 571). Real culturally relevant or responsive pedagogy requires challenging inequities, valuing marginalized students’ lived experiences, and emphasizing student achievement over deficits. The Manitoba Education Review fails to embody these principles.

While claiming to be culturally responsive, the Manitoba Education Review evidences other perspectives that are at odds with culturally responsive practices. Firstly, deficit perspectives refer to the negative perceptions of marginalized students that culturally responsive pedagogy aims to counter. Deficit thinking involves “concentrating on what ethnically, racially, and culturally different students don’t have and can’t do” (Gay, 2010, p. 13) instead of valuing their strengths. This essay will examine how the Manitoba Education Review exhibits deficit perspectives of certain students. Secondly, the review demonstrates colonial perspectives that are rooted in an oppressive system that aims to assimilate or eliminate Indigenous peoples. Within an education context, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández describe “the settler colonial curricular project of replacement, which aims to vanish Indigenous peoples and replace them with settlers, who see themselves as the rightful claimants to land, and indeed, as indigenous” (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2013, p. 73), which they emphasize is an ongoing project. This blatant disrespect for Indigenous peoples and their ways of life contradicts culturally responsive pedagogy, as will be discussed later. This essay will draw on critical discourse analysis to analyze how deficit and colonial perspectives are found in the Manitoba Education Review documentation and how these contradict culturally responsive pedagogy.

Deficit Perspectives in the Manitoba Education Review

One of the Manitoba Education Review’s main aims is to improve student outcomes. The review is focused on five main areas: long-term vision, student learning, teaching, accountability for student learning, governance, and funding, which were outlined in the Public Consultation Discussion Paper (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c), the primary document investigated in this essay. Early in this document, the commission explicitly connects how students are performing with a variety of data relating to provincial assessments, pan-Canadian and international assessments, grade nine credit attainment, and high school graduation rates. In particular, it focuses on areas of concern, asserting “there are still persistent trends that indicate little or no improvement over time” (2019c, p. 7). It is unsurprising that the commission would choose to focus on test scores and achievement data, as the provincial government views these statistics as a meaningful way of comparing schools (Froese, 2018). Criticisms exist of how this type of data-driven approach does not benefit marginalized students, which I will discuss later. Notably, this orientation betrays a deficit view of the Manitoban education system and obfuscates other significant questions that could be asked. As Eisner asserted when discussing test scores “as we focus on standards, rubrics, and measurements, the deeper problems of schooling go unattended” (Eisner, 2001, p. 299). A compelling deeper problem is the issue of educational equity, which could have been a key focus of the review. If culturally relevant teaching means critiquing societal inequities (Ladson-Billings, 1995), then a culturally responsive review should prominently feature a similar critique. Instead, the documentation indicates that “education equity and fairness for all” is one area of six “you may wish to consider” (2019c, p. 9) in the long-term vision section, and then proceeds to fixate on equitable funding formulas instead. Equity is not a central concern in the document.

The review’s lack of concern with equity is clear in the accountability and student learning section, where a deficit perspective is present. The review indicates:

Research shows, for example, that when parents read to their children, it makes a difference in their literacy acquisition. But school systems cannot depend on this, as the time, skills and availability of parents vary. Parents may respond differently, based on their resources, skills or levels of comfort, with what schools ask of them. Schools therefore have a key role to address the inequities that socio-economic status and other factors place on students (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c, p. 12, emphasis added).

In saying that socio-economic status place inequities on students, the commission blames the students’ status for lack of literacy acquisition. In effect, it is taking a deficit perspective, by fixating on what students lack, while not acknowledging that greater systemic factors also play a key role. While the review asserts that schools should address inequities, the phrasing enables the commission to dodge greater responsibility for addressing systemic factors like poverty. Culturally responsive practices would involve critiquing systemic inequities more explicitly.

Also problematic is the deficit perspectives of parents who are unable to assist their children. As Gay states, “simply blaming students, their socioeconomic background, a lack of interest in and of motivation for learning, and poor parental participation in the educational process is not very helpful. The question of “why” continues to be unanswered” (Gay, 2010, p. 17). The commission does not choose to investigate this question or suggest that an investigation is necessary, instead asserting that schools must take over. It does later suggest “home-school communication about student learning” (2019c, p. 13) is one of eight areas that “may” be worth considering. However, this suggestion is not phrased in a way that would promote strong partnerships between parents and schools. By taking a deficit approach when considering parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the Manitoba Education Review fails to consider how to better involve these families and is not being culturally responsive.

Finally, the Manitoba Education Review is grounded in deficit thinking in relation to conceptions of diversity. When describing the diversity in the province’s student population, the commission indicates that “schools and classrooms across the province welcome students from the full socio-economic spectrum – from privilege to poverty; those with exceptional needs – gifted or challenged; from stable homes and those who move in and out of foster care; and students who have experienced disrupted learning or trauma on their journey to becoming a new Canadian” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c, p. 4). In this quote, diversity is dichotomized into spectrums of good to bad: privilege to poverty, gifted to challenged, and stable home to foster care. As a result, students who do not fall into the “good” side of the spectrum are considered to be disadvantaged, emphasizing an underlying deficit perspective. This is an overly simplistic view of Manitoba’s students, as it completely ignores other forms of diversity that do not fall so neatly into a dichotomized spectrum. As Gay states “how some ethnically and culturally diverse individuals customarily engage in intellectual processing, self-presentation, and task performance is different from the processes used in school” (Gay, 2010, p. 12). These differences cannot be so easily categorized. While a culturally responsive approach would interrogate how to change school processes, the documentation remains silent on this topic.

Colonialism and the Manitoba Education Review

The deficit perspectives apparent in the Manitoba Education Review documentation, also play a key role in colonialism, another underlying discourse that is expressed in the review. Colonial perspectives in the education context seek to perpetuate oppressive structures that view white settlers as central and Indigenous peoples as deficient. Culturally responsive teaching counters these oppressive structures. However, some researchers have criticized culturally responsive pedagogy and how it is frequently applied by white teachers with the narrow aim of increasing student achievement. In approaching culturally responsive pedagogy as a checklist of items to accomplish, white teachers fail to evaluate their own involvement in colonial practices (Pirbhai-Illich, Pete, & Martin, 2017). As I will examine, the education review commission accomplishes a similar feat by claiming to be culturally responsive, while relying on colonial perspectives.

A prime focus in the Public Consultation Discussion Paper is Indigenous achievement. The commission mentions concerns about the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students three times. It should be stated that other achievement gaps do exist in Manitoba. For instance, the commission mentions that “a high degree of variability in student achievement is observed when data is analyzed geographically” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c, p. 7). However, no further details are provided as to which geographic regions are involved, so the focus remains on Indigenous achievement. The commission focuses in particular on graduation rates, noting that disaggregated data shows that “fewer than 50 per cent of Indigenous students graduate high school within four years of entering Grade 9” (2019c, p. 8). While the review does not specify which other achievement gaps are present, data from the Manitoba Education website indicate that substantial gaps exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student achievement for mid-grade assessments for grade seven number sense, grade eight reading comprehension and expository writing, grade three numeracy and reading, and attainment of math and language arts credits in grade nine (Manitoba Education, n.d.). The commission identifies these gaps as “the most important educational challenge Manitoba is facing today” and further states “the historical, moral and economic imperatives to close this gap are critical” (2019c, p. 8). At face value, these statements are supportive of improving Indigenous achievement.

The provided data in the Discussion Paper is somewhat limited. Only one concrete example of an achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is provided. The other gaps are kept vague in the Discussion Paper, although presumably are being considered by the commissioners during their deliberations. However, as the Discussion Paper was meant to inform the public and lead to meaningful public feedback, greater detail would be useful. Moreover, Indigenous students are treated as a single entity. Gay makes the point that “no ethnic group is culturally or intellectually monolithic” and as a result disaggregated achievement data is essential in a culturally responsive setting (2010, p. 18). While the data is disaggregated according to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, breakdowns according to other demographic categories could be useful for Indigenous, non-Indigenous, EAL students and other groups. Examples could include data that is disaggregated according to more specific geographic regions, as well as more data relating to students in foster care or students living in poverty. These factors are not provided.

While the data provided is limited, there are also significant criticisms of a predominantly data driven approach to improving Indigenous achievement. The Canadian Council on Learning (2007), an organization dedicated to providing data to help drive decisions about learning, is particularly critical of how success is defined for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learning. It indicates that research on Indigenous learning is generally focused on educational deficits, rather than strengths. It is centered on the formal school setting, which does not consider experiential learning or other traditional ways of knowing that take place outside of school. Moreover, “indicators focus on years of schooling and performance on standardized assessments. They do not reflect the purpose or nature of holistic learning—engaging the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional dimensions—for First Nations, Inuit and Métis” (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007, p. 2). The Canadian Council on Learning emphasizes that Aboriginal learning should be holistic, experiential, and communal, something that is not measurable according to the commission’s data driven approach. As a result, when the commission asks “How are Manitoba’s K to 12 students performing?” (2019c, p. 2), its answers privilege a Western approach to achievement and learning, and ignore more culturally responsive interpretations.

In centering Western perspectives and marginalizing Indigenous points of view, the Manitoba Education Review is operating from a colonial mindset. This outlook is further emphasized in the focus area on funding, where it identifies “Indigenous education and students who are underachieving” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c, p. 15) as one item in a bulleted list of topics to consider. By grouping these two topics together, it conflates Indigenous education with underachieving students, which reveals a deficit focus. As well, it suggests that Indigenous education is primarily being valued as a means of improving student achievement, which in the commission’s view means improving test scores and graduation rates. However, Marie Battiste (2009), an Indigenous author and teacher, would argue that Indigenous education goes beyond this limited definition of achievement. In her vision, integrating Indigenous knowledge in the curriculum would allow society to find new means of solving contemporary problems. Indigenous knowledge allows us to “ground our interrelationships with each other – all things, animate and inanimate; to honour the land, the animals, the ecology that gives all of us sustenance; to honour our relationships with one another and respect our diversities” (Battiste, 2009, p. 17). Battiste further states that Indigenous knowledge requires educators to unlearn racism and Eurocentric perspectives and to commit to equity. This alternative culturally responsive vision of Indigenous education and achievement is not exemplified in the Manitoba Education Review documentation, which is instead rooted in colonial definitions of achievement.

While authentic integration of Indigenous knowledges into curriculum would necessitate increased focused on equity, this topic is nearly absent in the Manitoba Education Review documentation. Equity is mentioned a few times, but limited connection is made to the education system being inequitable. In the Funding section, it asks “What actions are required to ensure that the education system is sustainable and provides equitable learning opportunities for all children and youth?” (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019c, p. 15). The question’s connection with how to fund the education system means the focus on equity is secondary to the issue of how to pay for it. However, with a system that is rooted in colonialism, issues of equity could be given more prominence. Pirbhai-Illich, Pete and Martin note that “there is also a need to move the focus away from abnormality and individualism and to refocus on the perpetrators – on white peoples and whiteness and their need to change, to disrupt their colonial patterns of behaviour and to disrupt systems and structures that continue to harm” (2017, p. 11, emphasis theirs). A culturally responsive review would tackle these difficult topics, for instance asking teachers, especially white teachers, to consider their own practices in relation to a colonial system. Instead, the documentation spends more time focusing on professional standards and teacher accountability. Likewise, a culturally responsive review that is dedicated to equity could prominently feature a commitment “to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012, p. 1). The Manitoba Education Review could offer an opportunity to evaluate Manitoban schools’ progress towards the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. However, Truth and Reconciliation is never mentioned as a topic to consider in the Manitoba Education Review documentation. A culturally responsive review would centre this topic and would more explicitly focus on issues of equity and power imbalances in the education system, disrupting colonial perspectives instead of supporting them.

Barriers to Participation in the Consultation Process

A reason issues of equity are not featured more prominently in the Manitoba Education Review documentation is that the system is rooted in democratic colonialism. Wotherspoon defines democratic colonialism as “legislation, discourses and practices in which rights for indigenous people (associated with both citizenship and indigenous status) and opportunities for equitable participation in Canadian society exist alongside mechanisms that marginalize, exclude or pose indigenous people as outsiders relative to dominant societal norms and practices” (Wotherspoon, 2014, p. 328). He notes that Indigenous people are frequently viewed as objects, rather than active participants in Canadian educational reform processes, and that federal Indigenous education reform movements have been criticized for limited transparency and consultation. Similar criticisms can be levelled at the Manitoba Education Review.

First of all, the composition of the commission should be analyzed for how effectively it gives voice to local Indigenous experts in education and culture. Of the nine commissioners, two identify as Indigenous. One is Terry Brown, who was chair of the Aboriginal chamber of commerce and has strong ties to the business community. The other is Jill Quilty, a lawyer from Newfoundland who has background in literacy education and who only served on the commission for the first five months. None of the other commissioners’ racial or ethnic backgrounds are mentioned, although they present as white (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019b; “Province Announces Commission Members Who Will Review Education System,” 2019). A culturally responsive process should include Indigenous members in the commission, as this review does. However, if the review is truly interested in considering Indigenous perspectives, greater priority should be given to local Indigenous voices who have experience with Indigenous education in Manitoba or to Indigenous Elders from local communities. None of the commissioners have Indigenous education listed as a specialty, nor are identified as Indigenous Elders (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019b). As well, while the commission has invited a consultant with expertise on school board reorganization, no media coverage has indicated that similar measures have been taken to consult experts in Indigenous education or culture (The Canadian Press, 2019). According to available public documents, local Indigenous experts on Indigenous education and culture have not been granted a voice at the ground floor of the commission.

Democratic colonialism can also be noted in how the consultation process was organized. I attended the first pubic consultation session on April 24, 2019, at the Caboto Centre in Winnipeg. The session started with breakout discussions on predetermined topics, based on feedback received from online registration forms, although participants were able to propose and discuss additional topics at the meeting. None of the original topics dealt with Indigenous education, although it was added after the fact, along with tables discussing kids in care, poverty, and inclusion. During the question period, the commissioners were urged by participants to add sessions in the city centre. The concern was the selected locations and times were inaccessible by bus and would restrict accessibility for many Indigenous people living in the core of the city (personal communication, April 24, 2019). While the commissioners were initially dismissive about adding another session (C. Manness, personal communication, April 24, 2019), a public meeting was eventually added in the North End of the city (Wasyliw, 2019). This is was an appropriate choice, but the situation reveals a lack of consideration for including Indigenous voices. By selecting locations and times that would produce barriers for participation for Indigenous communities, the commission was privileging settler perspectives. This is apparent with the initial choice of discussion topics that do not include Indigenous education or culture, nor truth and reconciliation. While participants did add some relevant topics, stronger participation from Indigenous communities would invite different feedback from the settler perspectives that were being privileged. Greater attention to making the meeting venues more accessible would make the process more culturally responsive.

The public consultation model itself can also be criticized. In a news article, Elder Barbara Nepinak, an Ojibwe member of Pine Creek First Nation, indicated a greater need for the commission to reach out to the Indigenous community. She noted that proper protocol required that knowledge keepers be asked directly to participate (Hendricks, 2019). With this protocol in mind, expecting Indigenous Elders to independently come to a public consultation meeting is not a respectful way to engage with Indigenous communities, nor likely an effective means of promoting meaningful feedback, particularly for a commission that does not appear to have any Indigenous Elders as members. This ineffectiveness is further supported by the briefs the commission solicited from the public. Sixty-two briefs were submitted from a variety of organizations, school divisions and individuals, and some were granted a public hearing. Only five briefs touched on truth and reconciliation, Indigenous perspectives, or issues of equity in substantive ways. Of those, only one brief offered insights from Indigenous organizations, a combined effort from the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and Neeginan College and the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Council Education Committee (Manitoba’s Commission on Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, 2019a). They were not invited to present at the public hearings. While the public consultation process looks open to everyone, the selected locations and structure of the process itself facilitates settler feedback, while shutting out Indigenous participation. It clearly illustrates the democratic colonialism that is rife in the process, which contradicts the review’s aim to be culturally responsive.

Conclusion

The Manitoba Education Review claims to be culturally responsive, but this assertion is undercut by a series of omissions. Absent are substantive discussions of how to improve equity or challenge systemic inequities. A multifaceted and nuanced conception of diversity is not included, nor are Indigenous definitions of learning and achievement. While the consultation process appears to be open to everyone, measures to effectively include local Indigenous communities have been limited. Instead perspectives grounded in deficit and colonial thinking have been tightly integrated into the process, leading to a series of assumptions that will impact the commission’s work moving forward. The commission will release its report in February of 2020. We do not yet know what it will contain, but we can safely assume it will not be culturally responsive.

References

Written by Ellen Bees
December 2019

Ellen Bees

Ellen Bees

I am a middle school teacher with a passion for sustainability and human rights. Opinions are my own.

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