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Cavazos Issues Call for National Study Of Problems Plaguing Indian Students

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By Peter West

Washington--Charging that the education-reform movement has "yet to make a dent in the worrisome state of Indian education," Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos last week called for a national study of the problems plaguing Native American students.

Addressing the 21st annual conference of the National Indian Education Association, Mr. Cavazos called for the formation of a task force of Native American citizens and educators to produce a study he dubbed ''Indian Nations at Risk."

He said the proposed study would resemble "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 landmark study of American education that is credited with sparking a host of school reforms.

A spokesman for Mr. Cavazos was unable last week to provide any details about how the study would be funded or how the task force would be appointed.

The Secretary also called for a "federally directed information-gathering campaign" on Indian education, schools, and students.

"Frankly," he said in his Oct. 8 speech in Anchorage, "one of the biggest problems facing us today in Indian education is that there is much we do not know."

'Fallen Between the Cracks'

Mr. Cavazos said several reform tactics currently being pursued in the public schools would benefit Indian students.

For example, he said, school choice--one of the Bush Administration's educational priorities--is a "perfect fit" for improving the public schools off the reservations that serve the majority of Indian stu4dents. Students at those schools would also benefit from an emphasis on school-based management, he added.

But, he said, the national study he has proposed is necessary to help determine "what types of educational practices work best" for Indians.

"Native American youngsters have fallen between the cracks of our educational system with tragic consequences," Secretary Cavazos said.

As evidence, he cited figures showing that 11 percent of Indian sophomores at public and private schools were enrolled in special-education programs, compared with 9 percent of black students and 7 percent of Hispanic students.

Also, he said, while there are many estimates of the Indian dropout rate, "we have yet to establish an accurate figure."

Mr. Cavazos said his proposed study should focus on three broad topics: the Indian dropout rate, government programs affecting Indian education, and successful model programs that could be emulated nationwide.

"[We] do not know where to find successful Native Americans once they graduate," Mr. Cavazos said. Nor "do we have a complete overview of what types of educational styles there are among the tribally, culturally, and linguistically diverse Indian communities."

'Lack of Progress'

The Secretary's initiative comes at a time when federal, state, and local policymakers are focusing newattention on the educational difficulties faced by Native Americans.

For example:

  • A Congressional conference committee this month expressed its concern over "the lack of progress in meeting education standards" in schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The conferees, in a report on the Interior Department's fiscal 1990 appropriations bill, called on the bia to report to the Congress by Nov. 1 on conditions in the schools.

A staff member for the appropriations subcommittee on the Interior said inaction at the Interior Department may have prompted the strongly worded language.

"We asked for this over a year ago, and we're still waiting," the staff member said.

  • The Congress has included $500,000 in the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government appropriations bill to plan a White House Conference on Indian Education. The conference, under previously approved legislation, must be held before September 1991.

Mr. Cavazos said in his speech that information gathered by the "Indian Nations at Risk" study could be "instrumental" in helping set an agenda for the conference.

  • In testimony before the Senate's Select Committee on Investigations this summer, Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. called education "the number-one priority of the department as far as Indian Country is concerned."

In his speech, Mr. Cavazos said he and Mr. Lujan agree that their departments must work together "to address the needs in Indian education."

  • The Select Committee on Investigations is expected to release a report this fall on conditions on Indian reservations.

The committee earlier this year heard lengthy testimony about the prevalence of child abuse in bia schools.

In a related development, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is poised to issue a report on the status of Native American postsecondary education.

'The Forgotten Minority'

The report, entitled "Tribal Colleges--Shaping the Future of Native Americans," is expected to be issued next month, according to Robert Hochstein, a spokesman for the foundation.

Although the report focuses on higher education, it will examine several issues of interest to precollegiate educators, including teacher preparation.

Robert N. Wells Jr., the Munsil professor of government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., has already identified some of the barriers to educational achievement among Indians at the postsecondary level.

Mr. Wells late last year sent surveys to 79 colleges and universities where Indian students constitute at least 4 percent of the enrollment. "The Forgotten Minority: Native Americans in Higher Education," his study of the 33 schools that responded to the survey, concluded that most postsecondary institutions "did not have a good data base on Native American student performance and outcomes."

However, he said, responses indicated that the presence of a Native American counselor to act as an ombudsman for Indian students was important to their academic success.

Also important to the students' success were summer "bridge programs" designed to ease high-school students into campus life.

'Inadequate Preparation'

His study also indicated that most of the college dropout rate of almost 75 percent among Indian students can be explained by four factors: inadequate preparation, problems adjusting to the college environment, personal and family problems, and financial difficulties.

"Most of the public schools the Indian students come out of are not the strong public schools," Mr. Wells said. "They're coming out of small rural schools or inner-city schools."

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