There are a lot of explanations out there for why Canada’s First Nations students are still so far behind. With on-reserve graduation rates hovering around 30 per cent, according to the Assembly of First Nations, Aboriginals are less than half as likely as other Canadians to crown their teenage years with a high school degree. Many say the crux of the problem is chronic underfunding of First Nations schools—rooted in a federal funding formula that dates back to the 1980s. Others admonish lousy on-reserve teaching and poor communication with provincial schools. Still more find blame in dated technology, or ethnically biased curriculum, or cultural attitudes on reserves that undervalue formal education.
But while the ideological debate rages, some First Nations have taken matters into their own hands. Their solution: pay students to go school. Honey Powless, of Ontario’s Six Nations, graduated in 2007 and recalls cashing in every semester at Hagersville Secondary. Her school’s incentive scheme operated on a sliding scale; First Nations students were rewarded different amounts of money, depending on how good their attendance was. “Kids were really looking at that,” she says. “It really helped us through.” The 19-year-old says she usually earned the maximum payment: $150 a semester—money she spent on her cellphone bill.
Other native communities across Canada have developed their own formulas. Ontario’s Pwi-Di-Goo-Zing Ne-Yaa-Zhing First Nation gives $500 to the high school student with the best attendance record. The Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba offers $50 a month to anyone with perfect attendance. The Seventh Generation Club, an organization in B.C., rewards First Nations students who attend at least 95 per cent of their classes.
And across the board, the reports are the same: payoffs work. Chief David Harper of Garden Hill, for example, was moved to start his program in 2004 after learning that only one student on his reserve had an untarnished attendance record. Feeling desperate, he offered anyone who achieved a year of perfect attendance $1,000. He expected, at most, a dozen “100 per-centers.” By 2006, he had 46. “So we had to come up with $46,000,” he explained. “But, you know, it was worth it.”
Schools like Harper’s have their pick of models to draw on. Countries like Ecuador and the Philippines use “conditional cash transfer programs” to reward poor families that send their children to school regularly. In Australia, a government pilot links some Aboriginal families’ welfare payments to children’s attendance. Closer to home, Chicago students were lured to school with iPods and computers—while their parents were entered into draws to win free groceries, or even rent payments, when their kids attended class.
Many of Canada’s First Nations focus solely on attendance. “It’s not just those who are getting the big marks,” says Holly Charyna, who ran the Ontario Temagami First Nation’s incentive plan. “Because then it’s always slanted to those who are the big brains.” And many offer incremental awards, throughout a student’s years of schooling, instead of a one-time prize at graduation. Perhaps most importantly, the schemes aren’t part of provincial or federal programs, but fruits of independent, community-level initiative. The Temagami First Nation, for example, funds its program with money from Casino Rama revenues. In Garden Hill, a partnership with Perimeter Aviation provides the funds.
Tom Loveless, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, has tracked the issue of incentives. He cautions that while many schools report positive results, their claims are based on anecdotal evidence. “Schools say: yes, we implemented this policy and our attendance improved,” he says. “But these are not scientific studies.” Indeed, despite laudatory reports from school officials, incentive schemes don’t always translate into higher graduation rates. Deneen Montour, native adviser for Ontario’s Grand Erie District School Board, admits that her board’s pass rate has been relatively stagnant in recent years. And Holly Charyna estimates that, despite generous incentives, the Temagami First Nation is only in tune with the national average when it comes to First Nations drop-out rates.
There are also philosophical critiques, the most popular being that putting a price tag on school destroys a child’s love of learning. Critics also charge that it amounts to bribing kids to do what they should be doing anyway. But Canada’s reality is that about 70 per cent of on-reserve First Nations students never complete high school. That merits attention, and, indeed, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has pledged a whopping $268 million over five years toward First Nations education. Perhaps now, more of this money will end up directly in students’ pockets.