Indian kids deserve a fair chance

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Jul 19 19:02:30 UTC 2008

Gilbert: Indian kids deserve a fair chance
Posted: July 18, 2008
by: Willard Gilbert

For all the worthy debate over the relative merits of the No Child
Left Behind Act, let's not lose sight of the goal on which we can
agree: to better educate and prepare our nation's students. A recent
study by the Center on Education Policy documented improvements in
American Indian and Alaska Native students' reading and math
achievement since NCLB was enacted in 2002. From the perspective of
this educator, such results reinforce the importance of NCLB as a
significant source of data to better understand student progress, but
a work in progress in terms of achieving equality for all high school
students in the U.S.

The inequities and indignities that darken the history of public
school treatment of American Indians and Alaska Natives are a national
tragedy. Even though the CEP report indicates recent improvements,
findings specific to Native students were presented with caution.
Challenges in data reporting of American Indian, Alaska Native and
Native Hawaiian students muddy the projection of their success and
cloud the stark reality of the dismal graduation rates that afflict
our young people.

Fewer than half of all American Indian students graduated from high
school during the 2003 - 04 school year, compared to more than
three-quarters of white students. And American Indian and Alaska
Native students who stay in school read below grade level at rates
higher than their white peers. What awaits these students who don't
achieve in school and don't graduate? All too often the answer is
poverty, incarceration, suicide, teen birth or substance abuse.

By and large, our neighborhood schools are not serving American Indian
and Alaska Native students academically or culturally. We must demand
policy changes that prepare schools to support and nurture tomorrow's
leaders. A reauthorized NCLB should include requirements for teaching
that takes culture into account, improving teacher quality and
reporting of data in such a way that we can make meaningful
comparisons among and across subgroups. The next CEP report should
paint a clearer picture of success for American Indian and Alaska
Native students.

Students excel in the classroom when content area, Native language and
culture intersect. For example, the Native Science Connections
Research Project at Northern Arizona University, which is funded by
the National Science Foundation, successfully integrates Native
language, culture and traditions into schools' science elementary
curriculum. Ongoing analysis reveals increased student mastery of
science and math concepts, deeper levels of student engagement in
science and math, and increased student achievement in math and
science. In a Navajo immersion school, Tse'hootsooi Dine' Bi'olta',
third- and fifth-graders are performing at higher levels than their
peers in the state reading, writing and math assessments. These types
of innovative solutions should be encouraged and adequately resourced.

The quality of teachers also affects the success of American Indian
and Alaska Native students. From the small numbers of teachers who
represent similar cultural backgrounds as their students to an
inability to recruit subject-matter trained teachers for schools in
remote or isolated communities, students are paying the price.

Finally, the way in which data are reported by high schools confounds
efforts to improve student achievement. Without a requirement by NCLB
to disaggregate data by ethnic subgroup, the progress or lack thereof
made by American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students
will continue to be overlooked, rendering an inaccurate perception of
the reality. Unless educators and school officials have the capacity
to hone in on problem areas, how can they be expected to address them?
It's like planning in the dark.

American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students deserve a
fair chance to succeed. With NCLB reauthorization that requires
culturally based teaching, teacher quality and data disaggregation, we
can provide our students with that opportunity.

Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, Hopi, is the board president of the
National Indian Education Association. NIEA is a member of the
Campaign for High School Equity, a civil rights coalition that strives
for education policy that prepares all students to be successful in
work and life.
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