Equity & Diversity

Native American Students Flag Holes in Instruction

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 25, 2008 3 min read
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Fewer than a third of children who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native say that they know “a lot” about their tribe or group, according to a study on the teaching of Native American culture and language released today by a branch of the U.S. Department of Education.

A significant number of children who are classified as American Indian or Alaska Native by their schools—26 percent of 4th graders and 17 percent of 8th graders—don’t even consider themselves to have those identities, the Institute of Education Sciences study found.

Native American communities in the United States have experienced tremendous loss of their traditional languages. The study indicates that little is happening in schools, and many homes, to bring those languages back.

Thirty-nine percent of 4th graders and 40 percent of 8th graders who consider themselves to be Native Americans receive no exposure to a language other than English at home, and 3 percent or less of such students have teachers who report frequently using a Native American or Alaska Native language to teach core subjects.

“The National Indian Education Study 2007: Part II” is based on 21,000 responses to a survey of 4th and 8th grade Native American students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007. It gives a detailed description of the exposure that such children have to the language of their tribe or group and the frequency with which information about their tribe or group’s history or traditions is taught to them in school.

The first part of the report, released in May, found that the average reading scores for Native American 4th graders and 8th graders stayed the same from 2005 to 2007. The same was true for mathematics scores of those students. (“Native Americans’ Reading,” May 21, 2008.)

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Volunteer Nellie Curley works with Sky Yazzie, 6, right, on a math game at the Navajo Language Immersion School, where children are taught in English and in Navajo.
Volunteer Nellie Curley works with Sky Yazzie, 6, right, on a math game at the Navajo Language Immersion School, where children are taught in English and in Navajo.
Christopher Powers/Education Week
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Both parts of the report were authorized under a 2004 executive order by President Bush requiring the education department to study the educational progress of Native American students. In 2001, then-President Clinton issued a similar executive order.

‘Sense of Frustration’

One researcher who specializes in the education of Native Americans was disappointed that the report released today doesn’t identify strategies or best practices shown to improve the education of such students.

“A descriptive study like this doesn’t get at the kinds of things that are really going to make a difference,” said William G. Demmert Jr., a professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., who is a member of the Oglala Sioux and Alaska Tlingit tribes, explaining that the study duplicates information that has already been provided by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

“I feel a sense of frustration in that we really aren’t focusing on the issues or the direction presented by the two executive orders,” he said.

Mr. Demmert is participating in a research study looking at how the infusion of Native language and culture into the curriculum of six schools serving Native American students is affecting student achievement. Among the peoples involved in the study are the Navajo of Arizona, Blackfeet of Montana, and Yupik of Alaska.

Information from the report offers some insight into why some Native American children may not know much about their own people.

Eleven percent of teachers of 4th graders and 25 percent of teachers of 8th graders who are Native American said they “never” integrate Native culture and history into their curriculum. About half of administrators—45 percent of those responding about the experiences of 4th graders and 51 percent of those responding about the experiences of 8th graders—said they “never” ask community representatives to share traditions and culture with students and staff members at their schools.

Mr. Demmert said the tendency of schools not to expose Native Americans to their people’s language and culture mirrors the mistaken beliefs—long communicated to the Native community—“that maintaining the language would prevent them from developing their English skills.”

Research shows that the opposite is true, he said, noting that knowing one’s native language well helps one to learn additional languages.

Also, Mr. Demmert said, educators communicated the belief that it was harder to participate in “the larger society” if one kept his or her own culture, which Mr. Demmert said is also false.

“It takes a long time to turn those around,” he said.

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