Teach For Canada can only make things worse

Have you heard of Teach For Canada? It’s a new project spearheaded by Nova Scotian Kyle Hill, a Rhodes scholar and business consultant; and Vancouver-born Adam Goldenberg, former speechwriter for Michael Ignatieff and fellow at Yale law school.

aboriginal-education

Initiatives to improve education in Aboriginal communities must be led by Aboriginal people themselves.

Hill and Goldenberg want to address “educational inequality” in Canada, i.e. “[f]unding gaps, infrastructure deficiencies, and rapid teacher turnover” in rural and Aboriginal communities. Their solution? A program that would send university graduates (from any degree program) to work as schoolteachers for two years in these communities. Hill and Goldenberg hope to attract “some of Canada’s top graduates – our country’s future leaders” to their program, who would take their places in classrooms following a summer-long training period.

Teach for Canada takes its name from Teach for America (TFA), the U.S. program which for the past 23 years has sent bright-eyed young college grads into some of America’s toughest inner-city schools; schools where students tend to score lower than average on standardized tests and thus ostensibly need a dose of extra energy to succeed.

TFA, though, has become a lightning rod for controversy in the climate of the “education reform” wars in the U.S. Just maybe, critics note, sending people with no experience in education except a short summer training program into some of the U.S.’s toughest, most down-and-out neighbourhoods is not such a great idea, especially if these young, relatively inexpensive teachers take the place of more experienced teachers during a round of layoffs.

While a minority of TFA corps members go on to work in education beyond their two-year commitment, others quit the program before its end. Some corps members and alumni have raised grave concerns about the quality of their training program and (lack of a) support network, particularly with respect to TFA’s “diversity training” sessions (the majority of TFA corps members are white while 90% of their students are black or brown). Recently some anti-TFA campaigns have appeared at major American universities, and in Pittsburgh parents and teachers lobbied succesfully to keep TFA out of their schools.

(The Onion has an humorous take on Teach for America here.)

Perhaps most importantly, TFA enjoys a cozy relationship with the corporate-driven “education reform” movement, which advocates standardization, privatization, “school choice,” charter schools and merit pay as solutions to what ails inner-city schools. These deep-pocketed “reformers” oppose teacher unions, painting them as the root of all problems in education, and tend to ignore or downplay un-glamorous but important structural issues like poverty and racism.

What about Teach for Canada? The nascent program (let’s call it TFC) appears to be walking an awkward line between using the “Teach for” name while distancing itself from TFA’s controversies. On its FAQ page TFC insists it is not “just Teach for America in Canada,” drawing distinctions between TFA’s work in the inner city – in most major Canadian cities many young teachers struggle to find full-time work – and its own focus on rural and Aboriginal communities. TFC also notes its training program lasts “an entire summer,” compared to TFA’s five weeks.

But, as Alberta teacher Joe Bower points out, these are “differences without distinctions.” The main thrust of TFC and TFA – sending inexperienced but inexpensive teachers into the toughest classrooms – is the same. Bower also points out that while TFC purports to address a problem with teacher supply in rural and Aboriginal communities, the real problem in these communities is teacher attrition. For a variety of reasons, in their first few years teachers quit the profession in inordinately large numbers:

The Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Research tells us that one of the major causes of early-career teacher attrition is inadequate pre-service preparation (which traditionally has been a greater concern in the US than in Canada) and difficult working conditions (particularly in under resourced schools) and professional isolation. Canada doesn’t necessarily have a teacher shortage problem — we have a teacher leakage problem. Because of systemic problems, anywhere between 25-50% of teachers leave inside of before five years on the job.

Perhaps even more importantly, Bower points out that TFC co-founder Kyle Hill’s employer, the Boston Consulting Group, is a firm with its fingers in school corporatization initiatives all over the U.S.

Besides Hill and Goldenberg the other two members of TFC’s four-person board of directors are a lawyer and a consultant for Brookmere Management Group, a firm which advises companies involved in the “energy and mining sectors.”

Noticeably absent from the board is anyone with any expertise in the field of education. None of the directors has ever been a teacher, nor has any degree from a faculty of education. Hill and co-director Christie Kneteman list “volunteer” summer teaching on their resumes, in Jamaica/Ukraine and Ghana respectively. (This is as if someone volunteered for a summer helping to build homes in Africa and then decided they were qualified to run a municipal infrastructure department.)

TFC’s desire to work in Aboriginal communities is of particular concern. Of course it’s true, as TFC notes, that there are deep inequalities between education on reserves and in urban centres in Canada. However, the idea that a solution for this is to parachute inexperienced, mostly non-Indigenous people into schools in these communities ignores the fact that Aboriginal communities have been leading the fight for decades to take their children’s education into their own hands. Following years of localized advocacy, the first major, nation-wide policy statement came in 1973 when, in response to Canada’s unthinkably destructive residential school policy, the National Indian Brotherhood (precursor to the Assembly of First Nations) released Indian Control of Indian Education, a document which demanded local control and culturally appropriate education for Aboriginal children. Since then the AFN along with other Aboriginal leaders have consistently lobbied the federal government for implementation of the policy, today updated as First Nations Control of First Nations Education.

Governments have responded to Aboriginal people’s demands for control over education with inertia and paternalism. Per-student funding for students on reserve remains lower than for students in provincial schools; a gap which is increasing according to AFN. The federal government’s recent First Nations Education Act has been panned by Aboriginal organizations along with other education professionals for not allocating sufficient funding to allow for meaningful local control over education. “Indigenous communities as a whole simply do not have the internal resources to create an entire system of private schooling in order to rectify the horrendous gap that has always existed between native and non-native student outcomes,” says Métis writer Chelsea Vowel. “Canada stands clearly guilty of discriminating against indigenous peoples by allowing this situation to continue.”

It’s hard to see Teach for Canada as anything but a continuation of these paternalistic, colonial attitudes. Indigenous scholars like Marie Battiste have spent careers working for the development of culturally appropriate Indigenous education in a modern context. Aboriginal-run programs like Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey in Nova Scotia have seen considerable success at raising graduation rates*. Yet TFC seems to think that it – not equitable funding, not Aboriginal control over education – is what is needed to fix educational inequities.

Teach For Canada’s directors are slick marketers and apparently well-connected – a recent Globe and Mail article reported that its launch, held at the offices of an influential corporate law firm in Toronto, was attended by Peter Mansbridge and Indigo CEO Heather Reisman.

Slick marketing isn’t what’s needed to fix educational inequities in Canada, however. That requires adequate funding, a commitment to Aboriginal-led education, and the addressing of structural issues like racism, poverty and inequality.

*Update – January 4th, 2014: Paul Bennett, who disagrees with the essence of this post but agrees that TFC probably should not work in Aboriginal communities, made an important point about graduation rates in the comments below that is worth mentioning here: “The MK [Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey] is showing promise and potential for improving retention rates. With regard to the MK Annual Report for 20i2, I would caution you against crowing about the graduation rates. Grade 12 completion rates of 75% represent progress but they should not be presented as ‘graduation rates.’ The actual graduation rates are considerably lower, measured in the conventional fashion from Grade 9 or 10 to Grade 12 exit.”

About Ben Sichel


Ben Sichel teaches Spanish and social studies, including Mi’kmaq Studies 10 and African Canadian Studies 11, at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He has a Master’s degree focusing on anti-racist education, equity and diversity from Mount Saint Vincent University. He is also the Dartmouth Local representative for the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. A strong advocate for equitable, high-quality, diversified education, Ben believes teacher unions have the power to make a difference in students' and parents' lives. Follow him on Twitter: @bsichel

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post! It echoes a lot of concerned I articulated here:

    http://queryingteachforcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/2/

  2. Ben Sichel /

    So it does! Thanks for the link. I’d only seen posts by Joe Bower and Alex Usher (http://higheredstrategy.com/teach-for-canada-attack-of-the-kielberger-colonialists/) on the topic. Glad to see others are echoing the same concerns.

  3. Teach for Canada sounds like an exciting addition to the rather predictable Canadian education landscape. Given the significant differences between Canada and the U.S. in the education sector, I’m skeptical about the potential for a Teach for America educational revival in Canada. After reading your indictment, however, I’m now having second thoughts. It must be a threat (to the staus quo) to warrant such an over-the-top reaction.

    Simona Chiose, Education Editor at the Globe and Mail, was not so quick to condemn T4C and on Nov 1, 2013 offered a much more balanced assessment:

    “Kyle Hill, one of the co-founders of a new organization called Teach For Canada, thinks idealistic young grads are just the leaders (students in disadvantaged school communities) need. And he’s trying to sell them on two-year placements in remote communities.

    They will have mentors, and a crash course the summer before they get into schools. But as Mr. Hill, a Rhodes scholar who is now a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group says, “The most important training will come in the classroom, as it does for any teacher.”

    If his project sounds familiar, it’s because it borrows heavily from Teach For America, which was founded in 1989 and has sent almost 30,000 college graduates and professionals to teach inner-city kids.

    In Canada, the problem is most severe outside of cities. Unemployment rates for teachers in urban centres may be high, but native and rural communities struggle to attract and retain new grads, as a recent report from TD Economics points out.”

    Here’s the full story: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/new-organization-aims-to-pick-up-government-slack-on-educational-inequalities/article15215245/

    What’s wrong with opening up the profession to talented newcomers?

    With so many young Canadians on substitute teacher lists (including 1,700 in your own Board), I think there’s a bigger issue here. Teachers in remote communities are in short supply — and the Faculties of Education are pushing to extend the B.Ed. program from 1 to 2 or 3 years. The NSTU, as you well know, is wedded to LIFO rules and turns a deaf ear to calls for reform. That’s moving in the wrong direction.

    Faculties of education are always being challenged to justify their existence. Former American education deans have broken ranks and endorsed Teach for America. Thousands of TFA recruits are now working in America’s toughest inner city schools and that should not be overlooked or degraded in an effort to sustain the status quo.

    Let’s take a more constructive approach: Perhaps we should establish a Canadian pilot project involving 200 new B.Ed’s and 200 T4C’s employed in comparable schools and then assess their teaching effectiveness after 1, 2 and 5 years. That would be a much sounder and responsible response.

  4. Ben Sichel /

    Thanks for writing, Paul; I usually take it as a good sign when you disagree with me. I’m not at all surprised that you support TFC. In the U.S. those who, like you, support the regime of obsessive testing, charter schools and merit pay also support TFA. Of course, as you point out, some TFA teachers are doing a good job despite the odds. Criticism is of those who run these programs, not those who step up to the plate.

    You press on with the tired idea that teacher unions oppose “reform” because they tend to oppose your type of reform. Given a choice between the corporate-driven so-called reform by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and co. and the status quo, I’ll take the status quo, please. Give me real reform that addresses systemic racism, adopts education that doesn’t base itself on PISA scores and teaches kids to be good human beings instead of cogs in the system and I’ll jump on the reform bandwagon.

    Of course there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people with energy to take up teaching. What is wrong is the idea that there is any substitute for adequate funding, Aboriginal control and long-term commitment in Aboriginal communities. I notice you haven’t even attempted to respond to the main arguments in the piece and instead rely on tired, generalized platitudes about “talented newcomers” as though these are absent in existing teachers.

    Tell you what: if Aboriginal community leaders, and those who have spent their lives fighting for equitable and appropriate education in these communities welcome corps of TFC’ers, I’ll be glad to follow their lead in doing so.

  5. I’ve been careful to stay clear of the Teach for Canada position on First Nations education. If I were to be advising them, which I’m not, I would recommend a different approach to improving First Nation education.

    After studying the First Nations Education Act for the past six months, I would tend to agree with you that Marie Battiste, Jonathan Anuik, and the Holistic Learning Framework should be central to reform efforts.Our objective should be to support self-determination and to empower the Mi’kmaw people educators themselves. In this case, I’m leery of “do-gooders” coming in as saviours. It smacks of the “Peace Corps” to me.

    The MK is showing promise and potential for improving retention rates. With regard to the MK Annual Report for 20i2, I would caution you against crowing about the graduation rates. Grade 12 completion rates of 75% represent progress but they should not be presented as “graduation rates.” The actual graduation rates are considerably lower, measured in the conventional fashion from Grade 9 or 10 to Grade 12 exit.

    Simply put, I tend to agree with you on the wisdom of Teach for Canada focusing on FN students on reserves. I can see T4C being of real benefit in inner city schools, especially in our larger cities and in some N.S. rural communities, such as Yarmouth and Shelburne Counties, where there is a critical shortage of properly qualified Math teachers. This would, of course, require the NSTU to open the system up to such creative solutions.

  6. Teach for Canada is already succeeding in stirring up public discussion.

    Here’s a fascinating report on what Teach for American veterans actually say about the program:

    http://linkis.com/businessinsider.com/2pw2

    It seems to be turning over a few stones in American inner city schools. One third of TFA alumni (over 10,000 teachers) are still teaching and a majority are engaged in education reform at some level across the United States.

    If this is so, can it be all bad?

  7. Ben Sichel /

    I’m glad to hear your stance on Aboriginal education, Paul. Why don’t you write to the TFC folks to let them know what you think? Perhaps it might help to hear it from your side of the corporate ed-reform political spectrum.

    Do a bit more homework on TFC and you’ll see their marketing is geared toward work in Aboriginal communities, as in this ad:

    http://us1.campaign-archive2.com/?u=2fd9d3952711d468ce2317c2c&id=5700503396

    Your suggestion that TFC should work in Canadian inner cities is folly, as even the TFCers themselves seem to realize. You mention in one breath that there are 1700 teachers on the sub list but in the next that TFCers should go there. How does studying specifically to become a teacher disqualify you from being among the “best and brightest”?

    Also I might add that it’s…curious to hear you say that Shelburne and Yarmouth lack qualified teachers, so the solution is…to send more unqualified teachers into those classrooms? The bottom line is that more qualified teachers are needed to make class sizes reasonable in all subjects, not just math.

    • Saladin Hussein /

      I’m glad to hear you are willing to leave your cushy union job in Dartmouth to go to Shelburne and Yarmouth Ben. Despite the odds, you are a qualified teacher.

  8. Saladin Hussein /

    It always makes me smile to read about white people (Ben Sichel) talk about systemic racism, since most of the racism that Canada has historically grappled with emanates from white people – head tax, Komagata Maru, etc. I’m just reading Lawrence Hill’s book ‘Black Berry, Sweet Juice’. Fascinating stuff. It’s always a bit bittersweet to hear from benevolent kindly white people like Ben talking about racism, especially in the context of Aboriginals in Canada.

    It wasn’t blacks or Asians that forced Aboriginals into residential schools. (Spoiler: It was the white man.) But maybe we should just call that the status quo.

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  1. Labour News Update – 5 January 2014 | rankandfile.ca - [...] Teach for Canada can only make things worse Ben Sichel, Voices in Canadian Education January 2, 2014 [...]

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