The Good(?) and Bad of Boarding Schools

That education changes lives is not a novel insight. Determining the size of these changes, however, is quite a difficult task. Therefore, finding evidence, even from a most unlikely source is useful. In a recent article, Donna Feir (2015) documents how education –forced Indian boarding school education– can affect long-run adult outcomes such as employment and indigenous language fluency. Her findings underscore the power of school curriculum on long-term labor market outcomes, community-connections and indigenous identity.

Feir investigates the historical boarding school period (1920-1969) in Canada. The federal government adopted a policy that aimed to assimilate First nations children along social, educational and religious lines. Federal laws mandated that Indian children attend these Indian boarding schools – often over the objection of parents (similar experiences occurred in American Indian and Australian Aborigine communities as well). Truth and Reconciliation hearings in both Canada and Australia have documented the abuse, neglect and deprivation inflicted on generations of indigenous children within these educational institutions.

In her work, Feir seeks to understand the long-term economic and social effect of Indian boarding school attendance. Due to the detailed nature of Canadian Census Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS), Feir identifies individuals in the data who attended Indian boarding schools as children. By the year 1991 all of these children were adults and were between the ages of 20-65. She compares adult outcomes (using appropriate statistical methods) for the boarding school attendees to other First Nations individuals that did not attend boarding schools as children.

Feir shows that boarding school attendance results in highly favorable labor market outcomes. In the table below, she finds that attending an Indian boarding school increases high school graduation by 38% for that group of attendees. The reliance on government assistance (such as welfare-type social programs), shown in the next row, is reduced by 42% for this same group. Finally, attending a boarding school increased the relative employment level of attendees by 30% in adulthood.

Long Run Outcome

Relative Change in Size to Overall

High School Graduation Rate

+38%

On Government Assistance?

-42%

Currently Employed?

+30%

At first glance, the benefits of attending Indian boarding schools would appear to be a desirable outcome from a broader societal perspective: those who attended forced schooling were more likely to graduate high school, less likely to rely on government social welfare programs, and more likely to be employed. The costs, however, are quite large from a First Nations community and individual perspective. There is well-documented evidence of abuse, deprivation and death due to the harsh treatment and neglect of indigenous children in these boarding schools. For those who survived, there are continued costs. Feir notes, for instance, that all of the positive labor force and educational attainment results disappear for children who attended the Indian boarding schools during the era of extreme physical and sexual abuse.

Additionally, Feir investigates how boarding schools affect community connections and indigenous identity. Attending a boarding school reduces the likelihood that the tribal member will reside in their native community by 33% and reduces the likelihood of that same person participating in traditional cultural activities by 53%. Feir’s study reveals devastating effects on Native languages; attending an Indian boarding school reduces the likelihood of speaking one’s aboriginal language by 26%. All of these outcomes indicate a substantial negative effect on the cultural and social capital for aboriginal people in Canada.

Variable

Relative Change in Size to Overall

Reside in Aboriginal Community?

-33%

Participate in Traditional Activities?

-53%

Speaks Aboriginal Language?

-27%

While these results are not necessarily surprising given the existing qualitative research on Indian boarding schools, these results are the first to indicate the size of these effects; they are surprisingly large. On average First Nations individuals that attended the Indian boarding schools as children became more integrated into the labor force and less integrated into their First Nations communities as adults. The forced boarding school program accomplished its stated goal of assimilating First Nations children.

These findings are quite disheartening for the generations that were subjected to the Indian boarding school system. The evidence, however, provides a compelling argument for envisioning a different kind of schooling purpose and curriculum for the future. Policy-makers and tribal leaders must take note of the influential role that education curriculum plays in tribal nation-building. The curriculum of the past was meant to assimilate indigenous youth; the curriculum of today (and the future) can depart from those assimilationist goals to revitalize healthy, economically thriving Native communities and nations. Tribal leaders should support indigenous educators and community members who are reclaiming their languages, histories and cultural traditions. Integrating tribal knowledge into education curriculum can lead to strong native nations and an empowered citizenry as the evidence from this most unlikely source suggests.

Randall Akee (Native Hawaiian) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy and American Indian Studies at UCLA. Dr. Akee completed his doctorate at Harvard University. He also spent several years working for the State of Hawaii Office of Hawaiian Affairs Economic Development Division. He has conducted research on several American Indian reservations, Canadian First Nations, and Pacific Island nations in addition to working in various Native Hawaiian communities.

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The Good(?) and Bad of Boarding Schools

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