School Reform Requires Local Involvement

May 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 17-4: Reforming Our Schools, Native Style, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Elementary and secondary schools often fail to adequately educate American Indian children. Statistically, K-12 Indian students have the highest dropout rates and the lowest achievement rates in the nation. In Montana, for example, American Indian students drop out of grades 7 and 8 at a rate more than 12 times that of non-Indian students.

It has not always been so. As Richard B. Williams points out in this issue, tribally-controlled schools in the early 1800s produced graduates with high literacy rates in English and in their Native languages, higher in some cases than their non-Indian neighbors.

When the U.S. government took over Indian education later in the 19th century, children were ripped from their parents’ arms and taken to boarding schools, separated from their families sometimes for years at a time.

The government and mission schools were designed to immerse Indian children in the American mainstream culture — “Kill the Indian in him and save the man” — in the words of Carlisle Indian School Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt.

Ever since that time, many Indian students have dropped out or failed, not from a lack of intellect but for a myriad of other reasons discussed in previous issues of Tribal College Journal, including high teacher turnover, poverty, dysfunctional families, class-biased and culturally biased testing, and hostile classrooms.

The racism that motivated these actions years ago persists today. We know of several tribal schools created in recent decades because Indian students could not withstand being called “prairie niggers” at border town schools. Studies show that teachers often have lower expectations of Indian students.

As early as elementary school, some Indian students feel they must choose between education and their heritage. Too many textbooks still portray Indians as savage obstacles to civilization, and the continued use of Indians as mascots reinforces this attitude.

This is not the time for finger pointing, however. The failures of Indian education concern everyone – parents, teachers, and the tribal colleges and universities that must provide remedial courses to bring the high school graduates up to college level. Every inadequately educated student, no matter her color or ethnicity, diminishes our nation’s ability to compete.

The present federal administration has chosen the No Child Left Behind law as the answer. Educators agree that schools should be accountable and should improve their performance. We want our students to be successful. The question is who gets to define “successful”? Should standardized, biased tests be the only criteria?

This issue of the Tribal College Journal focuses on some of the other solutions. Indian educators are finding ways to utilize, and in some cases co-opt, existing laws and regulations to improve education for Indians.

In Alaska, Native educators took advantage of the state standards movement to put their own mark on education. The Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative devised a set of culturally based standards to supplement the state standards, according to the article in this issue by Paul Boyer, Ph.D.

These cultural standards have been endorsed by the Alaska Board of Education and are actually being used in school districts. By emphasizing the importance of place and tying curriculum to the local community, they make the lessons more interesting to everyone.

In Montana, the state constitution mandates that all students learn about the American Indian tribes in the state. After years of work, Indian legislators and educators succeeded in getting funding to implement this mandate, which is similar to a 1989 Wisconsin law that requires incorporating Wisconsin Indian history, treaties, and tribal sovereignty into the public school curriculum.

Their work has the potential to transform the classroom atmosphere, reducing some non-Indian students’ and teachers’ ignorance, and in the process, perhaps, reducing racism as well. Until administrators, educators, and communities fully realize the relevance of Indian history, culture, and language in the education of Indian students, the academic achievement gap is likely to persist.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995. For more information, see the following issues of TCJ: Teacher Education, Vol. 11, N.2; Racism in the Classroom, Vol. 8, N.4; and Traditional Assiniboine Family Values, Vol. 11, N.1.

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