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News/North editorial: The TEP of the iceberg

An infographic distributed by the Department of Education looks more like a dog's breakfast than a sober reckoning of the NWT's education system. The last thing Northern students need right now is spin. image courtesy of GNWT

There was much squinting by members of the News/North editorial board last week.
On screen was a pdf circulated by the GNWT's Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) as a summary of the findings of a recent evaluation of its JK-12 school system.

It's wearing army green but there is nothing military to the organization of information presented to the observer. In fact, it's so misleading as to tempt the reader to infer an intent to obscure.

An infographic distributed by the Department of Education looks more like a dog's breakfast than a sober reckoning of the NWT's education system. The last thing Northern students need right now is spin.
image courtesy of GNWT

To wit. The largest numbers in the statistical smorgasbord are almost dead centre under a literal depiction of a backpack filled with fun figures: "80 (to) 90 % course completion," referring to the results of individual classes in all high school grades. Crammed into the lower right corner (if the 80-90 was a mountain, this would be in its shadow) is data that comes much closer to the reality on the ground: 33%, the dismal high school graduation rate in small communities, itself buried below the much better rates for Yellowknife, 73 per cent, and the regional hubs, which are clipping along at 83 per cent.

Even smaller, a bar graph revealing that as few as 44 per cent of Grade 12 students in small communities are passing standardized English language arts exams, a key metric.

The timing of the release of the five-year update on education renewal in the NWT coupled with the top gear spin at play makes it difficult to view the whole thing as anything but an attempt to take back control of the news cycle and paper over the damning Auditor General's report on education tabled in the legislative assembly a day earlier. Unfortunately for NWT students and their parents, actually for all of us, political spin only serves politicians and the spin doctors working for them.

No matter the font size of the numbers, what becomes clear after spending some time with the document (or better, the full report, which is available on the ECE website) is that not all Northern students, 8,700 of them in 49 schools, are the same.

This isn't completely lost on the GNWT. The second half of the ECE infographic has more meat on the bone, including a passage acknowledging that a new approach and perhaps a change to the budget to shift resources toward small community schools is what's needed.

News/North would add that the yawning gap between learners in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith and the rest of the NWT illustrates the need to put the recruitment of Indigenous language teachers on the front burner. So spending some of that repurposed funding on a reboot of the long dormant Teacher Education Program (TEP) program for the 2020s – specifically, one that focuses on getting as much Indigenous culture into the classroom as early in a child's life as possible – could be a made-in-the-North solution to our education equation.

Here's a slapdash history lesson. Inuit teaching assistants, seen as valuable not just in a teaching capacity but as a link to the children and adults in the community, started to appear in NWT (what would now be called Nunavut) classrooms in the 1950s. That program morphed into what became the TEP with an initial intake of 15 students in Yellowknife in 1968, according to Heather E. McGregor's book Inuit Education and Schools in the Eastern Arctic. By 1972, there were 80 classroom assistants across the territory.

"It would still take a significant amount of work to change the system into something that was seen and felt by Inuit to reflect them," McGregor wrote on page 97. "Nonetheless, putting classrooms in the hands of Inuit teachers, and providing a link between schools and parents and students, was extremely important in making education more responsive to their needs."

The GNWT spent $15.1 million on education renewal initiatives over the last five years and the Auditor General had not many kind words to say anyway, observing that in some cases, student outcomes were actually worse than where they were in 2010, the last time the AG dug into NWT education.

It's worth noting, as McGregor did, that the first middle school curriculum developed in the NWT, the Green Book published in 1973, called on teachers to invite local cultural specialists into the classroom:

"The involvement of Northern people in the classroom program is a vital necessity," it reads. "The type of curriculum as outlined herein will not be effective without drawing upon the talents of settlement resource people."

The fix for the NWT's education system is not just about dollars and cents, but like so many other areas, going back to the grassroots and removing barriers to community members being part of the solution still appears to be the best way forward.