The colonial history of American Indian education begins 138 years ago with the creation of boarding schools. With colonization, many communities were first intentionally displaced to reservations. Children were taken from their families put into federally-funded schools. These first “Indian Schools” were meant to start a process of “assimilation” (supposedly a kinder alternative to genocide). This educational objective was to eradicate Indigenous culture, summed up in this slogan: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Students in these schools were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing any aspects of traditional life. When Native parents didn’t send their children away, government agents were authorized to arrest them or withhold food, which for most families meant starvation. Traditional spiritual teachings and ceremonies were declared illegal up until the 1990s, meaning multiple generations were deprived of their own cultural education. In the 1950s the BIA sponsored relocation legislation which forced many Indigenous people into cities for vocational training and job placement in the mainstream economy. Much of Indigenous cultural identity is tied to “place,” including land and community, so the impact of relocation took an additional toll on Indigenous culture and community health. Elders are the keepers of cultural knowledge, spirituality, and traditional language, and so separating younger generations from their parents resulted in linguistic/cultural loss as well as profound social consequences. A 2012 study conducted by Walls and Whitbeck also found significant evidence to suggest that relocation and assimilation experiences, resulted in higher rates of depressive symptoms and substance abuse. Additionally, this study also concluded that the children and grandchildren of displaced/assimilated Indigenous people exhibited a higher tendency towards depression and substance abuse themselves, in additional to a higher tendency towards “delinquency” (which included dropping out of school).
Although the majority (approximately 92%) of “counted” Native students attend regular public schools, a significant number (approximately 8%) attend schools operated or funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) or by individual tribes. These “statistical” Natives are 50% more likely to attend rural schools than are their non-Native peers, and approximately one-third of them attend a majority-Native school. The first challenge for Indigenous students comes when staying in school doesn’t seem worth it. Many Indigenous communities are often faced with the realities of rural poverty, so even getting the school can be a challenge. In interviews conducted across the past 50 years, many student interviewees stated that isolation from school/difficulty with transportation was a factor in their decision to drop out. Many students also stated that the need to work to support family or to provide childcare relatives impacted their decision to drop out. Indigenous people have the highest rates of poverty in the country, and Indigenous youth can’t be blamed for choosing to support their families. Native students disproportionately attend virtual schools, which have been shown in recent studies to put students behind in math and reading, compared to traditional public schools.
In traditional public schools, many students report issues with the curriculum as an alienating factor. One study even found that 87% of the references to American Indians in the various state academic standards, concern events that happened before 1900. “Native students are often only shown small and very specific reflections of themselves in school – usually lesson plans around the ‘Thanksgiving story,’ or ‘Indian pride’ in the context of a school mascot. These reflections are so wrong, so totally off base, that our students disengage from learning,” says Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association. The mainstream curriculum trivializes and stereotypes Indigenous cultures, and often teachers rely too heavily on textbooks that ignore Indigenous experiences. Also known as bias by omission, this is a racist practice in education that sends the message that Indigenous people and their culture are academically irrelevant. No wonder students feel their time is wasted in school.
Inappropriate curriculum is also an issue when it comes to literacy. Vernacular varies with different communities, and in many cases Indigenous students do not grow up exposed to the conventions of academic English. “Most American Indian students are expected to respond to literature and other school materials in ways that have not been modeled to them”. When it comes to passing standardized tests, many students suffer from lacking the proper tools to understand and engage with the material. Native and other minority students are least likely to receive active teaching strategies, as they are often pushed to low track classes, which ultimately means that they receive even less personalized help with academic difficulties. Failing out of school for some students often simply comes down to being inadequately prepared in lessons, yet they are forced to take the blame themselves.
In addition to this disadvantage, Indigenous students are often set back by their experiences with discipline. According to a 2015 report by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Native students are disciplined at roughly two times the rate of their white peers. And though they represent approximately 1% of American students, they account for 2% of all school arrests and 3% of all incidents referred by school staff to law enforcement, according to 2014 data collected by the National Congress of American Indians. Frequent suspensions or expulsions have also been shown to lead to gaps in learning. By the time Indigenous students reach their senior year, only 10 percent are proficient in math, according to the results compiled for the year 2015 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fewer Native students report that “discipline is fair,” that “the teaching is good,” that “teachers are interested in students,” and that “teachers really listen to me’ than other racial or ethnic group. Students who have dropped out cited not being able to identify with what is going on in the classroom, teachers not explaining what needed to be done, teachers going too fast, and insufficient time to complete class assignments and exams. They also cited feeling defeated because teachers didn’t seem to understand them.
Ultimately, when educators fail to connect with Indigenous students, the consequences are both academic and psychological. The suicide rate among Native teens is 1.5 times higher than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control; and it’s likely that negative experiences in school could be either a cause or an effect of depressive/suicidal thoughts. Some students reported feeling threatened or ashamed to be identified as an Indian in schools with few Indians. Students with prominent Indigenous features or names also reported experiencing bullying and harassment. Many of the problems faced by students such as drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of poor self concept. Cultural mismatch between home and school often starts a cycle of failure for Native students.”When schools neglect or demean Native cultures and present curricular materials that are biased or not culturally relevant, Indigenous students are “robbed” of their cultural pride and personal identities’
Native students may be better served if we focus on promoting the strategies that have been proven most effective in helping them succeed, rather than diagnosing them “chronically disadvantaged.” Indigenous students are not responsible for many of the challenges they face in education, and it is up to policy makers, administrators, and teachers to do their part as authority figures in the education system. The Meriam Report in 1928 called for “more Indigenous teachers, and the incorporation of tribal languages and cultures in schools”. This report was “a forerunner in the idea that incorporating culturally-based education was a necessary component of a school’s culture if Native American students were to succeed academically as students and play a meaningful role as citizens”. Almost 100 years later, the research is still consistent with that theory. Recent studies have shown that Indigenous students’ likelihood of staying in school is increased by proficiency in students’ Native language as well as in English, as well as the incorporation of traditional values and beliefs in their learning environment. “A primary ingredient of American Indian student success is the ability to live successfully in both the American Indian culture and the majority culture”. Successfully negotiating these “two worlds” requires students to “code switch,” but also requires teachers who have developed respect and understanding for both “sides” of their students’ learning. Studies indicate that teachers who serve Native students most effectively are informal, caring and warm, show respect for the students (while having high expectations), are knowledgeable of the subject matter, and understanding about the culture of students.
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