Task Force To Propose New Indian-Education Post

By Peter West — September 04, 1991 7 min read
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July 1990 and March 1991.

The recommendation is one of an exhaustive list of suggestions for improving Indian education included in a draft report produced by the department’s Indian Nations At Risk Task Force.

The list of potential remedies for the shortcomings of Indian education are aimed not only at the federal government, but also at state and local officials as well as parents and educators.

The task force, appointed last year by then-Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, is expected to release the document in final form within the month. A recent draft of the 80-page report, entitled “Indian Nations At Risk: The First 500 Years,” was obtained by Education Week.

While it notes that many Native American children succeed in school, the report argues that the educational system is successfully teaching too few such children at a “critical stage” in Indian history. Among dozens of recommendations, it urges the adoption of a educational “bill of rights” for Indian students.

Separate reports issued last month by the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office sharply criticized the quality of education being provided by Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and said that management failings had led to ‘life threatening’ safety conditions at some of those schools.

Commitments Ignored?

While the Indian Nations At Risk panel is purely an advisory body, its report is expected to have a significant influence in flaming the terms of debate for an upcoming White House conference on Indian education.

Many of the recommendations contained in the draft report-including a suggestion that the government establish a national research and school-improvement center for Native American education-focus on federal policy.

But the document also stresses that, contrary to public perceptions, the majority of Indian students attend public schools under the jurisdiction of state and local governments.

And it further argues that states have used the “special relationship,”

based on treaties, that has existed between the federal government and Indian and Alaskan Native groups for more than a century “as an excuse for not honoring their responsibilities to American Natives as citizens.”

Over the past year, the 14-member task force has held a series of national and regional meetings and public hearings to obtain the views of Indian and non-Indian parents and educators about how to ensure greater educational opportunity for the approximately 500,000 Native American students.

Former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and former Commissioner of Education William G. Demmert Jr. of Alaska, who is now a visiting professor of education at Stanford University, served as co-chairmen of the panel.

The task force argues that the primary challenge facing Indian communities is “to retain distinct cultural identity while preparing members for success in a world of rapidly changing technology and multiple cultures.”

The report observes that Indian students are under pressure to succeed as almost never before, even as, in many cases, the social fabric of tribal society is unraveling.

‘Crucial Stage’

Indians and Alaskan natives, it argues, “are at a crucial stage as the indigenous peoples of the United States” whose “resolve to retain and continue the development of their original languages and cultures has weakened.”

The loss of ability in native languages, the report continues, has been accelerated by federal and state policies “that discourage their use in the classroom.”

It also charges that, in many instances, “educational systems have failed in their responsibility to tribes” because they have not sufficiently developed the intellectual and academic skills of Native American children.

"[T]hese are the very skills Native individuals and communities must develop ... in order to survive and become self-sufficient in an increasingly competitive world,” the task force writes.

Still, the report points out, while the educational opportunities for Indian youths are often bleak, many do succeed in spanning the gap between traditional native culture and contemporary academic success.

Indian students’ scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, for example, “are higher than for most other minority groups,” the report notes.

The document also contains numerous examples of successful Indian-education programs in areas of the country as diverse as Canten, N.Y., near the Mohawk reservation, and Santa Fe, N.M.

High Dropout Rates

Even so, according to the task force, in some areas as many as 50 percent to 60 percent of Native American students leave school without graduating.

The causes of high dropout rates are varied, the report argues, and include an “an unfriendly school culture that fails to promote appropriate academic social, cultural, and spiritual development.”

Indian students also face such obstacles to success as curricula derived from a “purely Western European perspective,” “low expectations and relegation to low-ability tracks,” and “teachers with inadequate skills and training to teach Native children effectively,” the report contends.

And, because many Indian students have lost the ability to speak their native languages, it says, they effectively also have lost “the wisdom of the older generations.”

A Strategic Framework

While the report places great emphasis on the duty of government at every level to ensure adequate education, it also argues that tribal communities must take an active role in fostering their children’s academic success.

“The location of authority and responsibility for the education of Native students is important,” it states. “It must rest in the hands of parents and communities served by schools.”

The document contains a “strategic framework"to guide the implementation of the reforms it suggests. The framework contains the following elements:

  • Developing comprehensive local education plans that focus federal, state, local, and tribal resources to achieve education goals.
  • Developing partnerships among schools, parents, universities, business and industry, and health and social-service agencies to develop the local education plans.
  • Identifying four “national priorities” for Indian education: the development of parent-based early-childhood-education programs; the promotion of the use of tribal languages and culture as the responsibility of schools; the training of Native American teachers; and the strengthening of two-year tribal and B.I.A. colleges to prepare students for higher education.
  • Fostering understanding of the relationships between tribes and all levels of government.
  • Creating educational-accountability mechanisms at all levels of government.

Bill of Rights

The draft report also includes a proposed “Indian Student Bill of Rights” that enumerates the educational opportunities to which it says every Indian child should be entitled. The provision was included at the suggestion of Mr. Bell. (‘See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

The proposal lists safeguards deemed vital to the education of Indian students, including: “guarantees of a safe and psychologically comfortable” school environment; a “linguistic and cultural environment... that offers student opportunities to maintain and develop a firm knowledge base"; an “intellectually challenging program” within schools; a “stimulating early-childhood educational environment"; and equity in school programs and facilities.

A report released Aug. 15 by the Interior Department’s inspector general, meanwhile, indicates that Indian students at some B.I.A. schools are not being assured the safe education the task force proposes to guarantee.

The bureau has failed to correct millions of dollars worth of “life threatening safety deficiencies, code violations, and hazardous health conditions” in its schools and dormitories, the study found. The findings are based on a nine-month review of B.I.A. schools conducted between July 1990 and March 1991.

The report concludes that, while deficiencies in the schools had previously been documented by a B.I.A. management task force, a lack of accountability within the bureau is responsible for allowing employees and students to “live and work in buildings ... classified as unsafe and unsanitary.”

The deterioration will not be checked, the report argues, until managers and officials in the field are held “individually” responsible for correcting health hazards.

In another report, issued earlier last month, the inspector general also found that “the B.I.A. is not providing the kind of quality education opportunity needed by Indian children.” That study found that only two B .I .A. schools were performing at the national median on standardized tests.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as Task Force To Propose New Indian-Education Post


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