Tribal Representatives Complain of Little Help on NCLB Flexibility

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 09, 2008 4 min read
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American Indian tribal representatives told members of Congress last week that the federal government has been ineffective in helping them to create alternative definitions for adequate yearly progress at Bureau of Indian Education schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, although the law permits them to do so.

Their complaints came at a Sept. 9 congressional hearing that included the release of a new U.S. Government Accountability Office report saying that the federal government has not informed tribes well of the process to establish alternatives nor been responsive to their requests for assistance.

The latest report, which follows up on findings in a GAO report released in June, also says the government has begun to rectify the problem by starting to meet with tribes last fall.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, operates 174 schools in 23 states, with a total enrollment of 48,000.

Just under a third of the BIE schools made adequate yearly progress goals under the No Child Left Behind law in the 2006-07 school year, according to the GAO report released today.

See Also

For a collection of stories about efforts to preserve Native languages in schools, read Preserving the Mother Tongue.

The Navajo Nation, the Miccosukee Tribe in Florida, and a tribal consortium in South Dakota, called the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, are in the early stages of producing their own culturally relevant academic standards and assessments to be used for accountability under the federal education law.

The alternatives developed by these tribal groups are expected to be implemented in schools that together enroll about 44 percent of the BIE students.

Theodore Hamilton, the executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, testified that he was frustrated by the lack of support from federal officials.

“We generally did not receive any correspondence from the Bureau other than letters telling us they did not have to help us,” he said.

The federal government has had “a rocky start” in working with tribes to come up with alternatives, Cornelia Ashby, the director of education, workforce, and income security issues for the GAO, said at today’s hearing before a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“The tribal groups needed to know what they had to do. They didn’t get what they needed,” Ms. Ashby said, but she added that “things have improved.”

Still of great concern to her, said Ms. Ashby, is the fact that two Bureau of Indian Education schools in California have been left outside of the NCLB accountability loop because California has not permitted the schools to use its state assessments. The state cites test security concerns.

Some State Agreements

Ms. Ashby added that the BIE has signed memoranda of understanding for access to state tests with only 12 of the 23 states where its 174 schools are located.

State officials who aren’t bound by formal agreements could change their minds about making tests available to BIE schools. “That’s a major problem,” she said.

Stanley R. Holder, the chief of the BIE’s division of performance and accountability, testified that bureau staff members have responded to requests from the three tribal groups in the process of creating alternative accountability systems.

As matters stand now, almost all BIE schools are using the definitions for adequate yearly progress from the states where they are located.

Mr. Holder said in his testimony that “poverty, loss of family, [and] isolated communities” are among the challenges in improving American Indian academic achievement.

But Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, a member of the Hopi tribe and the president of the Washington-based National Indian Education Association, testified that a lack of culturally appropriate assessments for Native Americans could be part of the problem.

“One test doesn’t fit all,” he said. He suggested that “portfolio assessments,” in which students show a sample of their work, might be more suitable for American Indians.

Mr. Hamilton said it concerns him that the federal government seems to “treat Native Americans as the 51st state—that all Native American tribes are the same.”

In fact, he said, “there are hundreds of sovereignties out there.” Mr. Hamilton, who is married to an Oglala Sioux woman and lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, called on federal lawmakers and officials to respect the differences between tribes.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, which held the hearing, stressed that federal officials working with tribes must respect the sovereignty of tribes and treat American Indian governments as they would the government of France or other countries.

He added that “all of us have a moral obligation to help develop Indian education in this country. ... When we can spend billions and trillions of dollars on other things, we can invest in the education of people from whom we took many things. We took much land.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Tribal Representatives Complain of Little Help on NCLB Flexibility


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