Student Achievement

GAO: Student Achievement Lagging At Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 07, 2001 4 min read
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Student achievement at schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as measured by scores on standardized tests is considerably lower than that of public schools, according to a report by the federal General Accounting Office.

At the same time, achievement at Department of Defense schools, which, like BIA schools, are financed and operated almost entirely by the federal government, is higher than that of public schools, the report says.

Read “BIA and DOD Schools: Student Achievement and Other Characteristics Often Differ From Public Schools,” from the General Accounting Office. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The findings are a “rather compelling wake-up call” for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Barry E. Piatt, the communications director for U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan.

Mr. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, serves on the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee and is one of four senators who requested the study by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Mr. Dorgan “asked the GAO to compare the schools and thought there were probably differences, and that funding was probably the explanation for those differences,” Mr. Piatt said.

But in fact, the GAO report shows the per- pupil spending at BIA schools is generally higher than that of public schools and DOD schools.

“There are some very real differences in the outcomes of BIA schools and DOD schools,” Mr. Piatt added. “The wake-up call is there is a problem, and it’s not what you think it is. The BIA needs to find out what that something is.”

The GAO report notes that the two sets of federally run schools serve very different kinds of students and families. BIA schools, for example, have a much higher proportion of students with special needs than do DOD schools. BIA schools also tend to have a higher percentage of students from poor families than do DOD schools.

Facilities Woes

The request for the report grew out of “a concern about the performance of Indian students and what kinds of opportunities the federally funded school system is providing,” said Marnie S. Shaul, the director of the GAO study.

She said the profile of DOD schools that accompanies the description of BIA schools is meant to provide a backdrop to the report’s focus on whether “we are providing a quality education for Indian students.”

The BIA runs 171 schools, primarily located in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The schools serve 47,000 students—fewer than 10 percent of all American Indian students enrolled in K-12 schools in the United States. About two-thirds of the schools are operated by Indian tribes or tribal organizations under grants or contracts with the BIA.

In addition to examining low student achievement at BIA schools, the GAO study gives considerable attention to deficiencies in the quality and safety of some BIA school buildings.

More than 60 percent of the administrators of BIA schools responding to a GAO survey reported having at least one building in inadequate condition, while only about 25 percent of administrators at public schools reported the same problem in a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

The GAO report estimates that the backlog of deferred maintenance and repair work on BIA school facilities would cost nearly $1 billion to address.

“There’s no excuse for that anymore,” said Lorna K. Babby, an Oglala Sioux and a staff lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. “The facilities have to be brought up to standard.”

Congress last month approved $292 million in the Interior Department’s budget to replace six BIA schools and make repairs on others.

Management Issues

Robert K. Chiago, a program manager for the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., said the GAO report was generally on target but should have paid more attention to how the management of BIA schools affects student achievement.

“It’s an administrative mess,” said Mr. Chiago, a Navajo who recently served as a superintendent of BIA schools for several tribes in the Phoenix area.

He contends that BIA schools are “micromanaged by Congress.”

In addition, the fact that every school has its own school board—a practice intended to increase participation by American Indians in the schools—creates extra administrative work that many public schools don’t have, he said.

Wayne Holm, an education specialist for the Navajo tribe in Window Rock, Ariz., questioned whether it was productive for the GAO to compare BIA schools with public schools. BIA schools, he said, often are located in the remotest parts of Indian reservations.

Typically, the students they enroll have less knowledge of mainstream culture and lower academic and language skills than do even many Indian students who attend public schools, he added.

“A head-to-head match on bureau schools and public schools doesn’t say a whole lot,” Mr. Holm said. “There’s no use beating the bureau over the head for taking the students no one else will. And there’s no use in public schools’ feeling smug. All schools need to do better.”

Bill A. Mehojah, the director of Indian education programs for the BIA, doesn’t disagree with the report’s findings, but said that other factors play into Indian students’ achievement.

“We believe Indian children do not do as well on standardized tests primarily because of language and the rural conditions in which they live,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as GAO: Student Achievement Lagging At Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools


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