Indian Schools Struggling With Federal Mandates

By Sean Cavanagh — September 21, 2004 6 min read
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When the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law more than two years ago, it provided Bureau of Indian Affairs schools with a strong degree of leeway in coping with some of the federal statute’s toughest provisions and penalties.

Yet despite the latitude provided to them under the law, BIA schools face a daunting task in meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates, administrators and tribal leaders say—particularly the requirement that all students be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014.

Schools overseen by the federal bureau are not required to offer students the right to transfer out of schools repeatedly labeled as needing improvement, as is the case with those in traditional, district-run systems. Nor are BIA-financed schools obliged to offer tutoring to struggling students, a provision of the law that has worried administrators in many rural school districts nationwide.

In addition, tribes and boards that oversee BIA-financed schools can apply to the federal government for waivers that allow them to set their own definitions of “adequate yearly progress,” different from those used by the states in which they are located.

Those provisions, according to federal officials and Native American leaders familiar with them, reflect the unique status of the bureau, an arm of the Department of the Interior, and its schools. Today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees 185 schools serving 48,000 students in 23 states.

The bureau’s responsibility is to help provide education services to American Indian tribes, many of which are federally recognized as sovereign governments and have varying degrees of involvement in the day-to-day operations of their schools.

State and local leaders representing rural districts across the country have raised concerns about the law’s impact. But even in comparison with those districts, BIA systems face challenges that still stand out.

One hundred percent of the bureau’s schools receive federal Title I aid, which flows to schools with high percentages of students from poor families. Those schools operate under a hodgepodge of administrative oversight; some are controlled directly by the bureau, while others are guided primarily by tribal governments and school boards.

Many Indian students begin school with a limited English vocabulary, having heard a combination of that language and native tribal dialects at home. It follows that American Indian and Alaska Native students lag well behind other ethnic groups in reading, in addition to mathematics, a disparity evident from the earliest grades.

“All of us believe our children can learn,” said Roger C. Bordeaux, the superintendent of the Tiospa Zina Tribal School, a BIA facility in northeastern South Dakota. “The difficulty we face is the ensuring that 100 percent of our students should be proficient, based on somebody else’s standards.”

The 51st State

The No Child Left Behind Act essentially treats the BIA as a 51st state, requiring the Interior Department to establish its own definition of adequate yearly progress for bureau schools by taking into account their “unique circumstances.”

But the language of the federal education law also gives tribal entities, such as councils or school boards, the right to set their own, independent standards for adequate yearly progress, as long as they are approved by the Interior Department.

BIA schools that do not set their own standards must follow the definition established by the Interior Department, the law states. In February, the department issued proposed regulations that would have those BIA schools adhere to the definitions of adequate yearly progress developed by the states in which they are located—rather than having the bureau develop a single, overarching definition that would apply to all schools across the country.

The Interior Department will consider public comments before issuing final regulations.

Some BIA school administrators, such as Deborah Bordeaux, say the bureau should have developed its own definition of adequate yearly progress. “We’re not being allowed to choose [the state’s definition], we’re being forced to choose it,” said Ms. Bordeaux, the principal at the Loneman School, a BIA-financed facility on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “Here we are, beginning the 2005 school year, and we still don’t have anything to judge our students on.”

But Theresa Rosier, the counselor to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs within the Interior Department, said that many BIA school officials had asked her agency to follow state definitions, because those tribes have already been using state curriculum and assessments, anyway.

Both the bureau and the Education Department also harbored doubts about whether the BIA could produce a uniform, statistically reliable way of measuring adequate progress across all of the bureau’s schools, given that the schools used different sets of standardized tests, according to the language of the proposed regulations. Many of the assessments used by BIA schools did not meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, those proposed regulations say.

The decision to exempt BIA schools from the school-choice and supplemental-services provisions of the law, meanwhile, was based partly on the view that changing schools was simply not a realistic option for many students in the geographically isolated areas served by the BIA, Ms. Rosier said.

Choosing a Standard

Many Indian tribes are likely to choose the standards for adequate yearly progress established by their home states, rather than trying to craft their own, said Carmen C. Taylor, the executive director of the National Indian School Board Association, in Polson, Mont. While the federal education law requires the Interior Department to provide technical assistance to tribes to develop their own standards, many tribes lack the expertise to fulfill that mission, she said.

Some tribal officials, however, are preparing to go their own way. Late last month, Mr. Bordeaux, of the Tiospa Zina school, and representatives of 11 other BIA schools across South Dakota conducted a videoconference in which they discussed plans to develop their own yearly-progress definitions. Those school leaders are preparing to ask the Interior Department for help in crafting content standards and assessments, Mr. Bordeaux said.

Some BIA school officials were reluctant to adopt state definitions of yearly progress, Mr. Bordeaux said, because they saw those states’ curricula and tests as culturally biased. Others worried that following state definitions would mean “giving up their sovereignty,” he added.

Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy secretary of education, acknowledged that BIA schools have “a long mountain to climb in terms of accountability” under the No Child Left Behind Act. “They’re having a tough time with it,” he said.

But Mr. Hickok, one of the department’s most visible spokesmen for the education law, said he believed that despite the special freedom provided to the BIA’s schools, the net impact on them would be the same as for traditional public school districts. Both systems would be held to more comparable, rigorous standards for improving student performance than ever before, he predicted.

“What you’ve had is a legacy of several different systems,” Mr. Hickok said in an interview last month. The law’s mandate for the BIA “moves [its schools] closer toward a general level of accountability running throughout all,” he said. Despite “some variability,” he added, “I think it’s closer to a more uniform system than we’ve ever had in the past.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Indian Schools Struggling With Federal Mandates


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