Article Review: A Major Challenge for the Educational System by Mackay & Myles (1995)

My search for an article relevant to my personal teaching situation was concluded when I struck upon the article by Ron Mackay and Lawrence Myles (1989) dealing with the issues surrounding Aboriginal retention and dropout. I have taught in an isolated Inuit community for a number of years and I am convinced that the biggest problems facing the schools of the north are student lack of attendance and high dropout rates. Even more distressing is the increase of non-attenders and poor attenders in the younger grades. Already, many of our primary students are missing enough time to place them seriously behind in the education.

Our staff is frustrated and at a lost for why the attendance problems are increasing. We cannot understand why high school students are not attracted to our community high school, which was recently expanded to Grade 12. Along with the core courses, we offer many elective courses like band and string music, visual arts, Inuit language, physical education, career and technology studies. We see these additions to the program as positive and will encourage students to come.

In their article, Mackay & Myles (1989) present their findings of a survey looking into the causes of failure or dropout among the Aboriginal youths in Ontario schools and the reasons for success amongst the same students. By reading this research article, I look for answers. Mackay & Myles (1989) manage to provide important causes of failure in the process of educating Aboriginal students and more importantly, they reveal a balance of causes for success as well. Throughout this article review, the term Aboriginal is synonymous with Native. The titles, Aboriginal and Native refer to those people who are indigenous to the area: First Nations and Inuit peoples. All those people who have other ancestral backgrounds are termed non-Native. The Inuit word, "Qallunait" refers to English speaking people from the south.

The article begins by stating that the current model of Canadian education is based on the expectation that all students will graduate from high school. The expectation is placed upon our Aboriginal students more and more by their own people as the First Nations and Inuit fight for their place in modern society. The article reveals the limitations of quantitative research to explain the phenomena of dropouts and retention. Many statistics are hard to obtain; some records are primarily kept the support the management and disbursement of public funds rather than to monitor student progress (Mackay & Myles, 1989). When analyzing the records that are available, it can be found that the retention rate is inconsistent with recorded findings. Thus, it is necessary to go beyond quantitative research methods to student the dropout phenomena (Mackay & Myles, 1989).

Mackay & Myles (1989) develop an inventory of forty-two factors believed to be closely associated with or to contribute to dropping out. This inventory is based on a review of literature and information from dropouts, parents, counsellors and educators. This inventory is provided in the appendix of the article. Mackay & Myles (1989) design a questionnaire using the forty-two factors built into a Likert Scale. The questionnaire is used to frame open-ended, in-depth interview to collect data from 310 informants from Native and non-Native communities in Ontario. The interviews include Native and non-Native educators as well as on-reserve and off-reserves dropouts and parents.

Mackay & Myles (1989) point out that earlier research on dropouts cite socioeconomic factors, like educational background and income, to be a main cause of dropout. Many of these factors lay beyond the locus of control of the school system. Now, however, more recent research has explores the effect of school culture and climate on the rate of dropout. The results of research by Mackay & Myles (1989) do not attempt to place blame neither the school nor the home community. It does however, explore the conflicting perspectives on the problem as seen by parents, Native and non-Native educators and the dropouts themselves.

To explore these perspectives, Mackay & Myles (1989) ask informants to reveal the degree to which they felt a particular factor contributed to the decision to leave school. The responses are used to focus an open-ended interview encouraging the informants to expand on their answers. As with any qualitative study, Mackay & Myles (1989) had to deal with many variables which often entangled with other the crucial factors. In order to get to the root of the problem, Mackay & Myles (1989) focus on three issues identified by most informants. They looked at how these are seen through the eyes of each of the stakeholders: Native and non-Native educators, dropouts, and parents. The three key issues are identified as:

1. language skills

2. parental support

3. home-school communication

The language skills issues is explored using the Likert item phrase, "I has difficulty with English Language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) in class" Mackay & Myles, 1989, appendix). Mackay & Myles (1989) find agreement by most Native and non-Native educators that poor language skills are a factor in the dropout situation. Notably, the data reveals a deficient in English language skills in all dropouts regardless of their ethnic background. In their research, Mackay & Myles (1989) found that some educators believe that the dropout problem for Native students is attributed to a lack of instruction in the elementary grades. Others link the problem to socioeconomic facts like parents’ lack of education, scant reading materials at home, television, and poor libraries on the reservations. In the latter case, it appears that some educators believe that the problem lies with parents whereas parents often feel that the educational system bears the full responsibility. In my experience, I see a sense of frustration by both educators and parents who want the best for the student.

The article states that educators cite the concern that many students use non-standard English out of school (Mackay & Myles, 1989). Some Native students have very little exposure to academic English. In my own teaching, I can recall an instance during an English class when a young Grade 10 Inuit teenager asked me to teach him to talk like a Qallunait (a southern, English speaking, non-Native). He said in all seriousness, "Teach us to talk like you - big words and all." In my experience, I find our students do not hear language spoken at a high level; this is true for both English and Inuktitut languages. Thus, students find themselves almost illiterate in both languages rather than becoming bilingual. This observation relates closely to the third concern of educators noted by Mackay & Myles (1989).

Mackay & Myles (1989) learn that educators observe that dropout students have English as their second weaker language; unfortunately, many English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) programs are developed for recent immigrants rather than for Native students. Native students have different needs that are not being met by ESL programs; this leads to further discomfort with English. Many students with such difficulties fall into avoidance behaviours like skipping classes and not submitting homework, which ultimately result in dropout.

The second key issue revealed by research by Mackay & Myles (1989) is parental support. The Likert items phrased for this topic were: "My parents didn't have much interest in how well or badly I did at school" and " My parents didn’t encourage me to stay on at school" (Mackay & Myles, 1989, appendix). Educators judged parental support by looking at parent participation at schools events. Both Native and non-Native educators saw that many parents are uncomfortable coming into the school. This may because: it is an unfamiliar system, an alien world; they area ambivalent to the school as an institution; or they have been discouraged by non-Native staff to be a partner in education (Mackay & Myles, 1989). With respect to northern parents of students who are in boarding schools, Mackay & Myles (1989) found that there is virtually no contact between educators and northern parents; this is due to physical barriers which limit opportunities for direct student support.

Again, the reader of this article by Mackay & Myles (1989) may feel that educators are laying the fault of the dropout situation at the feet of the parents. In reaction to these findings, I feel that the parents have been unfairly judged by educators. I feel that parents have to be given opportunities to become involved in the school. This has to be a conscious effort by the school to invite parents and elders into the partnership of education. I think that when parents see the value of schools and education, they will encourage their children to stay in school. In a sense, educators must be willing to put forth the effort to ‘sell’ the idea of school to parents who have seen schools as a negative institution in the past.

The third key issues deals with the extent that home-school communication impacts the dropout rate. The Likert items were phrased as "The parents and the teachers of Native students didn't talk to each other enough" and "There was too little communication between the school and their home communities" (Mackay & Myles, 1989, appendix). It is notable that the majority of all respondents believe that the home-school communication is inadequate in quantity and quality. In some cases, there were not only psychological distances between the school and home but also geographical distances. Distance is compounded with the fact that some Native homes do not telephones; this is a problem in my Inuit community as well. In addition, many of the parents in our community do not speak English so some non-Native staff feel awkward making telephone connections.

As noted by Mackay & Myles (1989), some parents only receive negative communication from the school when things go wrong; thus schools must be sure to make positive communication a priority to ensure positive experience between parents and educators. The research revealed that there was a lack of willingness on behalf of both the school and home to rectify this issue (Mackay & Myles, 1989). In my community, the teachers live right alongside the local people. Even with this close proximity, I have seen a distrust of the school from the community. As a staff, we are forever thinking of ways to involve the parents and elders in the school, ever to the point of paying elders to participate. Even so parents often indicate to us that they do not understand the system and that their ways are foreign to ours, which in some cases is true. Clearly, successful school-community communication is the basis for forming positive support for the school by parents and students.

In the second section of the article, Mackay & Myles (1989) are concerned with the factors that contribute to higher graduation rates. As a teacher of the first graduating class in Taloyoak history, this area interests me greatly. As stated earlier, we have recently expanded our school to Grade 12 and students are finally able to graduate high school without having to move out of their home community. By reading this section, I am able to evaluate my own situation and see where improvement could be made to ensure success. Mackay & Myles, (1989) examine the conditions as they apply to the First Nations, the school board, and the school itself. In my case, the Inuit community parallels the First Nation Band.

Mackay & Myles (1989) show that bands with a higher graduation rate are those who value education and who see an increased number of band graduates contributing to the strategic plan of the band. This is true also in my community with the looming of Nunavut on the horizon. The new territory is to be controlled primarily by Inuit people and therefore more Inuit need to be educated in order to retain power.

Mackay & Myles (1989) find that bands that value education have higher graduation rates. These bands have created three educational roles:

Native trustee - as a liaison between the board and the education committee;

Band Education Committee - meets regularly about school issues

Band Education Counsellor - some responsibilities include promotion of ceremonies, attendance officer, and support of students at risk

With the creation of three roles, the rates of graduating students in Bands have increased (Mackay & Myles, 1989). This information is useful for bands hoping to improve their graduation rates.

The school board is also instrumental in determining the rate of graduates. School boards with high graduation rates recognize Native people as real clients of education. They value and respect the Band’s trustee, education committee and education counsellor. School boards must be able to successfully communicate to the Band about Native issues and students (Mackay & Myles, 1989).

Finally, the school itself impacts the rate of graduation. Schools with a high number of graduates have principals who promote and encourage Native student councils, recruit Native teachers and assistants, and build solid working relationships with the schools and the Band (Mackay & Myles, 1989).

When reading the article by Mackay & Myles (1989), I realize the importance to have the willingness of all parties to work together, sharing power and making commitments for the betterment of the students. All parties must meet the challenges. Parents, schools, boards and Bands or communities have to understand each other in order to solve the difficult problem of dropouts. Even though the findings of the research by Mackay & Myles (1989) reveals many problems and barriers to the dilemma of youth dropout, it did not provide immediate answers to the attendance problem associated with early school leavers. It did, however, confirm my observations of the dropout situation. This article by Mackay & Myles (1989) raises valid issues for communities who are looking to expand their elementary education to senior high levels.


Mackay, R. & Myles, L. (1989). A major challenge for the educational system: Aboriginal retention and dropout. In Battiste, M. & Barman, J. (1995). First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press. pp. 157 - 178.