‘No Child’ Law Poses Challenges To Indians

By Sean Cavanagh — May 05, 2004 7 min read
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Young people growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota are accustomed to living in two worlds. From early childhood, it’s common for tribal elders to address them in the Lakota language, while parents, friends, and the voices of television and popular culture speak to them in English.

But when those students enroll in school, many turn out to be familiar with both languages, without being completely fluent in either one.

That linguistic hurdle is just one of the challenges confronting educators of American Indians as they cope with the No Child Left Behind Act, which among its other mandates requires schools to test students in English proficiency and make adequate yearly progress. The law calls for all students to be proficient by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

In states such as South Dakota, Montana, and Utah, schools with predominantly Indian populations face major hurdles in complying with the law, educators say. Some of their difficulties mirror those of rural, non-Indian schools across the country. But others are rooted in the particular needs of the Native American student populations those schools serve.

“We have to look at, ‘What level are the kids at when we get them?’” said Margo Heinert, the superintendent of the Shannon County school district, a state-run K-8 system on the Pine Ridge reservation. “I don’t know what the answers are.”

The needs of Indian students are drawing renewed scrutiny in Washington. President Bush was expected to sign an executive order late last week emphasizing the White House’s commitment to helping Indian schools meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The president was also to call for a task force from several government agencies overseeing Native American issues to explore ways of boosting achievement among Indian students, a senior administration official said.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up about 1 percent of the total public school enrollment in the United States, or roughly 500,000 students. About 90 percent of those students attend traditional public schools, and 10 percent go to schools run by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Both the BIA and traditional public school systems are required to follow the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law. School officials from both sectors say they must cope with the law’s demands as they grapple with socioeconomic barriers that have plagued Native American communities for years.

History of Struggle

In the 1,200-student Shannon school system, where at least 95 percent of the student population is Lakota Sioux, Ms. Heinert believes her students are making academic strides, particularly between 4th and 8th grades—just not fast enough to meet the No Child Left Behind law’s deadlines.

Sometimes that progress is difficult to track. Ms. Heinert says her students are much more transient than the general public school populations; switching between BIA and state-run schools is common. Two years ago, her district administered a state test to 96 6th-grade students. This school year, of 94 8th graders who took the equivalent assessment, only 34 were members of that original 6th-grade class.

“If we get them, and keep them, we’ll do something for them,” Ms. Heinert said of her students. “But our communities are really close, and we have a lot of students change schools.”

Indian students have a long history of struggling on standardized tests, said Sandra J. Fox, a now-retired BIA education official. That weakness can be traced partly to their lack of knowledge of English. Non- Indian students typically enter kindergarten with a working knowledge of 20,000 words in English, estimates Ms. Fox, who has studied student testing. For Indian students, the vocabulary list at that age usually hovers around 3,000 words.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to test students with limited English proficiency in grades K-12, and, beginning in 3rd grade, in English and mathematics. States can craft native-language versions of their English-language assessments. But that is not a feasible option for many states.

South Dakota, for instance, tests students for limited English proficiency as early as kindergarten. But it would be unrealistic for the state to craft a test for each of the state’s myriad Native American dialects, said Diane R. Lowery, the state’s coordinator for the federal Title I program and the No Child Left Behind Act.

Along with those testing requirements, many Indian schools face a tough climb in meeting the law’s mandate that all teachers in core academic subjects be “highly qualified” by the end of school year 2005-06.

In the 3,000-student San Juan school district in southeastern Utah, about 60 percent of the students are Indians of Navajo or Ute descent. The district has a staff of 220 teachers, between 50 and 70 of whom do not meet the highly qualified threshold, said Superintendent Douglas Wright. He’s not sure how soon many of them will eventually meet that mandate.

“It’s not feasible at all for us,” Mr. Wright said.

Some school districts are trying to fill teaching jobs by cultivating their own instructors. The Shannon County district is partnering with Oglala Dakota College, in Kyle, S.D., in a federally funded effort that allows teachers’ aides to take courses and pursue bachelor’s degrees in education.

So far, school districts with large American Indian enrollments have had limited success in luring Indians into the teaching profession. Less than 1 percent of teachers in BIA and state-run, predominantly Indian public schools are Native American, according to federal estimates.

Keeping the Culture

Indian communities’ geographic isolation poses other challenges. San Juan district officials worry about the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates that schools failing to make adequate yearly progress on tests for two consecutive years offer transfers to better public schools and, after three years, free tutoring.

The San Juan district is a five-hour drive from regional hubs such as Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, N.M. To date, private companies offering supplemental services have been reluctant to serve the district because of its isolated location, Mr. Wright said.

Some officials at Indian schools also worry about the federal law’s call for “scientifically based” research in shaping school curriculum and practices. Many educators are convinced that the most effective way of improving performance among American Indian students is by integrating native culture and language into classroom teaching.

But most of those methods have not undergone the same level of research scrutiny as those used with non-Indian populations, leading Indian educators to worry that some will wither away, Ms. Fox said.

“We believe you can help a child learn more if you tie it to culture and language,” said Ms. Fox, who worked on the state compliance plan that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was required to submit, along with every state, to the U.S. Department of Education under the No Child Left Behind law. “We’re trying to build the culture right into the curriculum.”

Victoria L. Vasques, the director of the Education Department’s office of Indian education, acknowledged the concerns of Indian school officials, but said the federal law gives educators plenty of room to incorporate Indian cultural traditions into the classroom.

“Our job is not to undo those unique programs,” Ms. Vasques said. “The federal government is not going to dictate what [they] should or should not do. The state is in control. The BIA is in control. The message that we’re not flexible is wrong.”

John W. Tippeconnic, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University who has studied Indian education, said he hoped tests and school curriculum materials could be tailored to meet the needs of Indian students. But he credited federal officials for drafting the No Child Left Behind Act in a way that requires disaggregated data on the performance of racial and ethnic groups—including Indians—a step he believes will make states and districts more accountable for their performance.

The challenges facing Indian schools under the No Child Left Behind Act recently drew the attention of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who wrote to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee calling for a hearing on the issue.

In his April 16 letter, Mr. Daschle criticized both the Education Department and the BIA, accusing those agencies of offering unclear and inconsistent guidance on complying with the law.

Ms. Vasques, however, said her office has responded promptly and thoroughly to the concerns of district officials. BIA officials did not respond to requests for comment on Mr. Daschle’s letter.

She also noted that the needs of Indian students are receiving attention on several fronts. Last month, South Dakota officials staged a summit of state, national, and tribal leaders on Native American education, including the demands placed on schools by the No Child Left Behind Act. Ms. Vasques also pointed to President Bush’s executive order on Indian schools, and saw momentum building.

“I’m optimistic,” Ms. Vasques said. “Any child can learn, given the opportunity … We don’t want [Indian] kids not to be tested, not to be counted.”

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