Q&A: TFA’s New Director for Native American Achievement

By Mary Schulken — September 16, 2010 6 min read
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The new director of the Native Achievement Initiative for Teach for America says the education of Native American students would benefit from public policies that help recruit talent and provide access to data in order to better tailor student learning.

“While we don’t take official stances on policy matters ... we [Teach for America] see tremendous value in our country investing in the recruitment of more outstanding teachers into high-need classrooms,” said Robert Cook, a former teacher and principal who started in his new role in August.

The Rural Education blog talked with Cook, of South Dakota, about his first few weeks on the job as well as the needs of Native American students, his challenges and what he hopes to accomplish. His answers have been edited only for brevity.

Q. What is Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative?

A. Teach For America began addressing the Native achievement gap in 2001 with the launch of our New Mexico region, and subsequent presence in Hawaii and South Dakota. Last year, we launched a Native Achievement Initiative, which seeks to recruit more talented teachers for school systems that don’t have access to sufficient human capital and increase the number of Teach For America alumni who have the knowledge of Native issues to lead long-term education reform.

Q. Why have you chosen to spend your career in rural schools, in particular in schools with Native American populations?

A. As a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, I feel a deep sense of pride in my American Indian heritage. My calling has always been to serve students on our reservation or in economically underserved communities. I have spent the last 20 years working in American Indian education, first as a teacher, and most recently as a principal on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Now, I am honored to lead Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative, which was launched last year to advance strategies that address the educational disparities that affect Native students. My new role at Teach For America enables me to continue to serve Native student populations in rural schools on a broader scale, and I’m excited about this new challenge.

Q. What is your interest in this new role and what do you hope to accomplish?

A. I was drawn to Teach For America because I believe deeply in their mission to ensure that every child in our country receive a high-quality education—regardless of where they grow up and the additional challenges of poverty their community might face. Through Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative, by 2015 we have the opportunity to help make a profound impact on the lives of 56,000 Native children per year.

Q. Why is Teach for America focusing on Native Achievement?

A. Native children are perhaps the most underserved children in our nation today. Approximately 49 percent of Native students graduate from high school and only 11 percent receive a college degree, compared to the national average of 86 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
Teach For America launched the Native Achievement Initiative to address this inequity and scale up our commitment to Native American and Native Hawaiians. The initiative has a triple benefit of impacting thousands of at-risk Native students, infusing thousands of leaders into school systems that don’t have access to sufficient human capital, and creating an alumni force with the credibility and knowledge of Native issues to build long-term education reform.

Q. What do you see as the primary challenges facing Native American schools? How do they differ from other small, rural schools in the nation?

A. Based on my experience as an educator and school leader on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I believe that schools serving predominantly Native student populations face unique challenges that, in large part, stem from historical relationships of distrust between tribes and government.
While I believe some of these struggles still exist, I think we’re seeing real progress in the way our country approaches education for students in Native communities. In South Dakota, for example, Native leaders helped develop the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top competition, including innovative ideas for improving struggling schools in Native communities.

Q. What strategies do you see as most effective for recruiting and keeping top teachers and principals to Native American schools?

A. Our goal is to recruit thousands of talented young leaders to teach in Native-serving school systems that lack sufficient human capital. In doing so, we seek to create a network of individuals with the credibility and knowledge of Native issues to foster long-term education reform.
Teach For America recently redeveloped our Native recruitment strategy to focus more heavily on building key relationships with Native community leaders to help us identify talented individuals who might be strong candidates for Teach For America. After just one year of implementing this new strategy, the percentage of Native individuals who joined Teach For America has nearly doubled. This signals to us a remarkable opportunity as we continue to place greater emphasis on recruiting talented Native individuals.

Q. What national education policies would help with that? What national education policies make it more difficult?

A. While we don’t take official stances on policy matters, Teach For America believes the key to helping more Native children succeed is to place excellent teachers in every classroom. As such, we see tremendous value in our country investing in the recruitment of more outstanding teachers into high-need classrooms—particularly for rural Native communities whose schools are struggling to meet the needs of their students.
Additionally, as a data-driven organization, we think it is critical for teachers to have access to their students’ data so that they can learn and improve as educators. We support policies that make it possible for teachers to access such data to help drive and tailor their classroom instruction.

Q. How difficult do you think it will be to get recruits from other places and with differing backgrounds to come to Native American schools? How long will they stay?

A. At Teach For America, we’re seeing a remarkable desire among recent college graduates across the country to join our mission to end educational inequity and make an impact in the lives of at-risk students. Our incoming corps of 4,500 exceptional college graduates—the largest and most-selective in our 20-year history—was chosen from a record pool of 46,000 applicants, and 12 percent were accepted.
Of our more than 20,000 Teach For America alumni, two-thirds remain in education, and teaching is the most common profession among them. This is particularly interesting because only one in six of our corps members intended to enter the field before joining Teach For America.

Q. Based on your own experience, what would you tell recruits to Teach for America about how to be successful?

A. Based on my experience as a teacher, principal, and advocate for educational improvement in Native communities coupled with what Teach For America has learned over the last 20 years about what makes a teacher truly transformative, I will encourage corps members to set ambitious, measurable goals for student achievement, invest their students and families in these goals, and plan purposefully to ensure they meet these big goals.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.