Native Americans Said To Lack Clout To Improve Their Children's Schools

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By Peter West

Although the majority of Indian tribal leaders consider education to be one of their highest priorities, efforts to improve schooling are hampered because Native Americans seldom have any political or bureaucratic influence in their children's schools, a new survey suggests.

"In most instances, Indian children attend schools which are underfunded, controlled by non-Indians, staffed predominantly by Anglo teachers, and evidence little Native American content in the curriculum," according to "Indian Education From the Tribal Perspective: A Survey of American Indian Tribal Leaders."

The survey was conducted last March by Robert N. Wells Jr., the Munsil Professor of Government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

Perhaps the first such effort of its kind, the survey is also an unusual barometer of Indian opinion in light of recent developments in Indian education at the national level.

The U.S. Education Department's "Indian Nations at Risk" Task Force, for example, recently met to hammer out a final version of its report, which is due to be issued this spring.

Meanwhile, planning continues for the White House Conference on Indian Education, scheduled for the fall.

Mr. Wells's most recent survey is part of his ongoing investigation into Indian attitudes toward education.

The surveys reflect the strong institutional interest in Indian education at St. Lawrence University, which is located in Upstate New York near the Mohawk Reservation.

The university has been instrumental in coordinating the Mohawks' precollegiate and postsecondary programs, which have raised educational levels on the reservation considerably above the norm for Indian reservations.

One intriguing finding is that 92 percent of all Indian students attend local public schools rather than those operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

That finding leads Mr. Wells to conclude that efforts to improve educational opportunity for Indians nationwide must place less emphasis on the federal role in Indian education and focus more on the relationship between the tribes and local officials in states with sizable populations of Native Americans.

"If you're trying to develop a coherent national policy, you're going to have to deal with 36 state education departments, which seems to me to be a tremendous task," he said.

Dropout Rate Cited

Mr. Wells bases his conclusions on the results of a survey that he mailed to 511 tribal leaders, including tribal education officials, in March 1990. A total of 227 leaders (44 percent) responded.

In large measure, the findings indicate that many of the problems identified by leaders as plaguing Native American students are ones that have also been cited as priorities for action by such federal officials as John W. Tippeconnic, the head of the Education Department's office of Indian education.

The problem of a high dropout rate is one such concern, Mr. Wells said. Tribal leaders who responded to the survey believe that fully one half of all Indian students drop out of high school.

Approximately one-quarter of the respondents indicated that "lack of motivation and no incentives" are the primary obstacles to academic achievement.

>But, Mr. Wells said, a more encouraging finding is that more than 6 percent of the respondents also indicated that their schools have a graduation rate of 75 percent.

"It is to this group we must look to seek answers" to the dropout problem, he concluded.

Native Teachers Lacking

Similarly, the survey found that there is a severe lack of Native American teachers.

Responses to the survey indicate that 48 percent of the schools that Native children attend have no Indian teachers.

In addition, 66 percent of the schools serving Indian children have 10 or fewer Native teachers.

"This should be a matter of high priority in any blueprint for Indian education reform," Mr. Wells wrote.

And while it is important for all minority children to have a classroom role model, it is particularly crucial for Indian children, who, Mr. Wells said, frequently have never had Indian teachers.

Black students historically have been more likely to encounter black teachers, he noted, because "one of the roles of the predominantly black colleges was to provide teachers for black schools."

There is no such parallel for Indian students, he added.

Mr. Wells recommended that postsecondary institutions make efforts to recruit adults in Indian com munities--who have ties to Indian children and frequently are eager to learn--as teacher candidates.

Mr. Tippeconnic of the Education Department has suggested a similar recruitment proposal. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

Few Decisionmakers

The survey also suggests that efforts to improve educational opportunity for Indians ultimately are thwarted by the small numbers of Native Americans in decisionmaking positions, Mr. Wells said.

Indeed, he added, little headway has been made in improving Indian education since the late 1960's.

He noted that while 66 percent of those surveyed said that tribal members were represented on the boards of schools their children attend, Indian board members continue to be in the minority, even in districts where their children constitute a majority of the student body.

Mr. Wells, who was asked to contribute to the "Indian Nations at Risk" report but declined because of other commitments, said that he is concerned that the federal report will ignore the key role of state education agencies in assisting Indian students.

He suggested that the task force should take as a successful model the partnerships forged between state and federal officials to improve science and mathematics education in reponse to the launch of sputnik by the Soviet Union in the late 950's.

"I think you need something on that order of cooperation," he said.

Vol. 10, Issue 23

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