Equity & Diversity

Most American Indians Receive English-Only Instruction

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 30, 2010 2 min read
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Most Native American and Alaska Native students receive their instruction entirely in English, says a report released today by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study found that at least 87 percent of such students in grades 4 and 8 received instruction in core subjects only in English.

But at Bureau of Indian Education schools, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Native American students are less likely to be taught only in English. At those schools, attended by about 10 percent of the country’s Native American students, 46 percent of Native American 4th graders and 49 percent of 8th graders reported receiving instruction only in English.

Although not much teaching in Native American languages is going on in the schools in Indian country, some children may still hear their native languages spoken by teachers, a principal, or other staff in the school. But the federal study found that’s not the case with many Native American or Alaska Native students. Seventy-seven percent of 4th graders and 82 percent of 8th graders said that people at their school “never” or “hardly ever” speak their native languages.

I wrote about the study, which looked at academic achievement of Native American students and cultural aspects of their education, in a story published this morning.

The study found that Native American students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remained flat from 2005 to 2009. In my reporting for that article, I interviewed Charlie Rose, the Education Department’s general counsel, who has been participating in consultations with tribes across the country on how to improve education for Native American children.

He said that many tribe members are pushing for the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to give a higher priority to the preservation of Native American languages and culture than has been true with the No Child Left Behind Act.

The report had a chart that contained some interesting information about what percentage of Native Americans or Alaska Natives who take the NAEP reading test are English-language learners (on page 23 of Part I of the report). The proportions of Native Americans taking the test who are ELLs vary greatly between states.

For example, on average, 8 percent of Native American 4th graders who took the reading test in 2009 were ELLs. In Washington state, only 1 percent of Native Americans who took that test were ELLs while in New Mexico, 34 percent were. I’m not sure what’s behind the wide variance in those statistics between states, but I think it’s worth noting.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.