American Indian Education
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Family, Community, and School Impacts on American Indian and Alaska Native Students' SuccessA literature review prepared under contract from Westat as part of U.S. Government's American Indian/Alaska Native Education Research Initiative1 and presented at the 32nd Annual National Indian Education Association Annual Convention on 10/29/01
©2001 Jon Reyhner2,
The major student outcome confronting people interested in Indian education is the low average academic achievement test scores of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students [The "achievement gap" in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act]. Associated with that disappointing outcome is the highest school dropout rate of any ethnic minority group (National Center for Education Statistics, 1994), relatively high rates of alcohol abuse (Bowker, 1993), and even suicide (Lester, 1997). However, even though problems abound, there are also many AI/AN children that either because of their schooling or in spite of it are successful in life.
This paper examines research, especially recent research, on Indian education with a focus on the impact of community, family, and schools on the academic success of AI/AN students. It is organized into 12 parts. The first part briefly describes the most recent comprehensive research reviews, the second part examines briefly three general overviews of AI/AN education that attempt to synthesize the research on teaching AI/AN students. The third section examines research on the influence of traditional cultures on Native students' academic success. The fourth section looks at research on cultural differences and conflict between Native communities and schools in terms of how they affect students' educational success. The fifth section discusses how anti-school oppositional identities can be developed in students by some teachers and schools. The sixth section looks at ways that community control of schools and the "indiginization" of curriculum and instruction can mitigate the formation of oppositional identities and improve Native student success. The seventh section examines recent research on community attitudes towards schooling. The eighth section specifically looks at Native students and what type of curriculum and instruction for them is supported by research. The ninth section looks at what Native and non-Native teachers have learned from their experiences teaching Native students. The tenth section examines research on the role of AI/AN teachers in Native schools. The eleventh section looks at research on the effects of local control of schools on student success, and the final section summarizes the research presented and makes recommendations for more research.
The amount of research done over the years on AI/AN students attempting to determine why they either fail or succeed academically is extensive and is much more than can be adequately covered in a single paper, even when weaker studies are ignored. Anyone interested in the subject should start with the last two major literature reviews that were published by Donna Deyhle and Karen Swisher in 1997 and K. Tsianiana Lomawaima in 1995.
Deyhle and Swisher (1997) provided for the American Educational Research Association the most recent comprehensive review. They looked at 60 years of educational research on AI/AN education and pointed out the poor quality of much of the research. They found that research before the 1960s tended to measure AI/AN students using yardsticks, especially intelligence and achievement tests, largely designed for "white" mainstream Euro-Americans. The result was that Indian students were reported to be suffering from cultural and intellectual deficits, in other words they were considered less "civilized" and less intelligent than white Americans were. However, in the National Study of Indian Education, the Goodenough Draw-A-Man [IQ] Test was given to 867 Indian and Eskimo children ages 6 to 8.5 from 25 schools. Their scores were "well above the national average for Caucasians" (Fuchs & Havighurst, 1972, p. 120).
Deyhle and Swisher concluded that educational research has often followed a blame-the-victim approach that "has tended to buttress the assimilatory model by locating deficiencies in Indian students and families" (p. 116). They found that researchers generally ignored the effects of discrimination and echoed the then popular idea that cultural assimilation into mainstream White America was the solution to the "Indian problem" in general and low academic achievement of Indian students in particular. This approach was exemplified by the motto "Tradition is the Enemy of Progress" of a Southwestern boarding school that Wilcomb Washburn (1971, p. 218), director of the American Studies Program at the Smithsonian, recalled seeing in 1952.
Lomawaima (1995) in the Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education provides a second important article overviewing the literature on Indian education with a special regard to U.S. government Indian policy. She concluded that recent research has tended to be either over-generalized, ignoring the diversity among indigenous Americans, or too specific to one particular tribe. Her review echoed many of the same findings as Swisher and Deyhle.
The relatively few books attempting a comprehensive overview of Indian education and that are currently being used as textbooks for Indian education classes are another source of reviews of research on AI/AN education. All three of the books discussed below document their recommended approaches to Native education with cited research. In Jon Reyhner's Teaching American Indian Students (1992a) the chapter authors generally concluded that Indian students can improve their academic performance through educational approaches that are less assimilationist and that use curriculum and teaching methodologies that build on what Native students learn in their homes and communities.
Robert W. Rhodes (1994) in Nurturing Learning in Native American Students looked at research on holistic and community-centered approaches to learning and concluded that Native students are most successful when they can be active learners and teachers act as facilitators and coaches. He urges educators to take a "bottom up" approach to education that begins with them studying their students and the homes and community from which they come. He begins with a very brief history of Indian education and then reviews research on how, why, what, and from whom American Indian students learn, including research on brain dominance, learning styles, whole language, testing, motivation, and discipline.
Hap Gilliland's (1999) Teaching the Native American is in its fourth edition. Gilliland and his contributing authors focus on culturally relevant education that recognizes students' background experiences and emphasizes among other things cooperative learning, promoting self esteem, and high expectations.
All three of the above books reflect an anti-assimilationist point of view, but they are either written by non-Natives or have many non-Native contributors and can appear targeted towards training non-Natives to teach Native students rather than directly at Native students seeking to become teachers. In contrast Karen Swisher and John Tippeconnic (1999) edited a collection of essays in Next Steps: Research and Practice to Advance Indian Education with all Native contributors. The Next Step essays also focus on changing the deficit and assimilationist mentality that the contributors see as having dominated and disadvantaged Indian education in the past.
One of the most important topics for research on AI/AN education, given the history of assimilationist past practice, is to look at the issue of whether traditional Native cultures have a negative affect on Native students academic performance as was the thinking throughout most, but not all, of the history of Indian/white contact (Reyhner & Eder, 1989). As indicated in the previously cited reviews by Deyhle and Swisher and Lomawaima and recent general books on Indian education, the dominant trend in recent research on Indian education does not support assimilationist practices.
One recent study that documents that the retention of traditional cultural traits does not hurt students' chances for academic success is by Angela Willeto (1999). She reviewed past research and presents findings drawn from a random sample of 451 Navajo high school students from 11 different Navajo Nation schools. She examined the effects of students' orientation towards traditional Navajo culture as measured by participation in Navajo ritual activities and cultural conventions as well as Navajo language use. She found that students who participated in Navajo traditional activities and spoke the Navajo language did as well academically in school as those who were more assimilated and participated less, and she found no support "for the argument that traditionalism had a negative effect on academic success of Navajo young people" (p. 13). Her findings confirmed previous studies with similar results, including Rindone (1988) and Platero et al. (1986) [see also Brandt (1992) for a summary of the Platero study].
A recent small scale study by Coggins, Williams, & Radin (1997) of 19 Ojibwa families measured traditional orientation by looking at eight characteristics that their literature review identified as core values of a majority of American Indians. These values were sharing, other-centered, harmony with nature, non-interference (in the lives of other people, including one's children), patience, circular time, non-confrontive, and broad view of family (extended families). Coggins et al. concluded, "the overall picture presented [by their research] is encouraging for those who have argued the importance of maintaining cultural identity among American Indians" (p. 13). Jim Cummins (1996, 2000), reviewing the literature on minority education, found that students with a strong sense of cultural and personal identity were more likely to have academic success.
Cleary and Peacock (1998) in a study that interviewed 60 teachers of Indian students found that these interviews largely confirmed the conclusion that traditional culture has a positive role, rather than a negative or no role, in developing academically successful Indian students. They summed up the view of one of the teachers they interviewed as, "The key to producing successful American Indian students in our modern educational system . . . is to first ground these students in their American Indian belief and value systems" (p. 101). Richard Littlebear (1999), president of Dull Knife Memorial College, argues,
The comprehensive National Study of American Indian Education completed in 1971 and reported in To Live on This Earth: American Indian Education by Estelle Fuchs and Robert J. Havighurst (1972) found that,
Alan Peshkin (1997) of Stanford University tackled the question of why American Indian students' academic achievement is below national averages, even in Indian-controlled schools with a high proportion of Indian teachers. Over a period of three years he completed a "thick" ethnographic study of a boarding school serving New Mexico's Pueblo Indians. In doing background research he found that American Indians planning to attend college have the lowest ACT scores, and once in college they have the highest dropout rate of any New Mexico ethnic group: 75% of Indian students who go to college leave in their first year.
Peshkin's school meets State of New Mexico accreditation standards, and the goal of the school is to prepare students for college. But academic success is limited. Students participate with sustained effort and enthusiasm in basketball, but "regrettably, I saw no academic counterpart to this stellar athletic performance" (p. 5). He observed that,
To explain why these students did not enthusiastically embrace education, Peshkin enlarges on the cultural discontinuity (two worlds) theory of academic failure (see e.g., Henze & Vanett, 1993) and provides evidence from students, parents, and teachers to support that theory. He argues that the "student malaise" originates from an ambivalent attitude of the Pueblo Indians towards schooling. Based on over 400 years of contact with European colonists, the Pueblos have good reason to be suspicious of anything "white." Schools--even Indian-controlled ones with Indian administrators and Indian teachers--are basically alien "white" institutions as far as Pueblo culture is concerned.
The New Mexican Pueblos, under cultural attack from all the forces of the majority society, are very concerned with cultural survival. Pueblo culture emphasizes fitting into the group and participating in the life of the village?"standing in" versus "standing out"--in contrast to the individualism found outside the Pueblo. "Schooling is necessary to become competent in the very world that Pueblo people perceive as rejecting them" (p. 107); school is a place of "becoming white" (p. 117). According to Peshkin, "imbued with the ideal of harmony in their community life, Pueblo parents send their children to schools that promote cultural jangle" (p. 117). The sounds within the school are not especially discordant. The conflict is between what the Pueblo communities teach their young and what the schools teach, and this discordance goes far beyond just the teaching of Pueblo languages in the home and English in schools.
The United States used schools to try to assimilate Pueblo children into the dominant culture and worked to get them to either actively forget their Pueblo religion, language, and culture or just ignored their existence. Today, we would call this a "subtractive" or "submersion" educational process (Cummins, 1996). Thus while education is ostensibly supported by parents, "because the school is fundamentally an ambiguous institution [an Indian controlled school with an essentially non-Indian curriculum], ambivalence runs deep" (p. 112). Ambivalence is a poor motivator of academic success.
The Pueblo Indians have generally resisted literacy in their own languages as something "white," unlike some other tribes that have actively promoted a written form of their language. This resistance by the Pueblos and some other indigenous peoples has probably been strengthened because the initial proponents of native language literacy were missionaries who used reading and writing to more quickly introduce Indians to the Bible, catechisms, hymns, and other materials in their own language in order to hasten assimilation and conversion to Christianity.
A recent in-depth small scale study of six Ute children transitioning between a Ute Reservation Head Start classroom and a town kindergarten classroom, Cheryl Clay (1998) found that the students suffered "academic disorientation" because of the differences between the two (p. 152), and she reported that activities that introduced students to the mainstream classroom helped students transition successfully. She concluded,
John Ogbu (1995) finds evidence that for American Indians and other groups that he classifies as "involuntary minorities," school learning tends to be equated with the learning of the culture and language of white Americans. In other words, learning the cultural and language frames of reference of their "enemy" or "oppressors" (p. 587). According to Ogbu (1983), minority status is determined by power relationships that subordinate the minority group, that may or may not be a numerical minority, under a dominant group. The reality, or even the perception, of continuous long term discrimination can lead to the development of an oppositional identity to the point where "what is depicted as the culture of native peoples represents the absolute opposite of what is though of as "Western" culture--it is the Whiteman's shadow" (Simard, 1990, p. 333, italics in the original). So if schools are for whites, they are not for Indians by definition. Mick Fedullo (1992) in his book Light of the Feather: Pathways Through Contemporary Indian America illustrates an extreme case of this cultural conflict with a quote from an Apache elder who stated that students' parents had,
Well, a lot of those kids came to believe that their teachers were the evil ones, and so anything that had to do with "education" was also evil--like books. Those kids came back to the reservation, got married, and had their own kids. And now they don't want anything to do with the white man's education. The only reason they send their kids to school is because it's the law. But they tell their kids not to take school seriously. So, to them, printed stuff is white-man stuff. (p. 117)
A racist attitude existed. Navajo children were told that their culture and lifeways were inferior, and they were made to feel they could never be as good as white people. This pressure to assimilate, along with the physical, social, psychological, and economic destruction of the tribes following the Indian wars of the 1800s combined to bring the Navajo people to their knees.
My father suffered terribly from these events and conditions. He had been a straight-A student and was sent away to one of the best prep schools in the state. He wanted to be like the rich white children who surround him there, but the differences were too apparent. (p. 86)
Recent research on American Indian dropouts also illustrates how students give up on school because they do not perceive their teachers as caring and do not see that what they are learning as relevant to their lives. Donna Deyhle (1992) quotes an American Indian student,
Edward Tennant (1993, 1994) developed an "'Eye of Awareness:' Life Values Across Cultures" curriculum for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska that also helped develop students' language skills. Tennant's goal was to make both teachers and students more aware of the cultural conflict they dealt with in their daily lives and to provide support for dealing in a healthy way with that conflict. Tennant's curriculum is an attempt to bridge the perception that Deyhle (1992, p. 32) found among Navajo and Ute students that "the only path to 'success' for Indians was to become non-Indian," a path that many students rejected. Given Deyhle's findings that students did not see education as relevant to their lives and did not trust teachers and that some openly hated "whites" and many exhibited dysfunctional behavior (sometimes only from the school's point of view), more research needs to be done on what types of curriculum can help heal the damage done by the past history of Indian-white relations. As Deyhle and others point out, both the perception and reality of continued economic inequalities and racism both within and bordering the Indian communities must be attacked and corrected in order to build trust and diminish the oppositional behavior in students that hurts their academic achievement.
Daniel McLaughlin (1992) in When Literacy Empowers: Navajo Language in Print provides an in-depth critical ethnography of literacy in a Navajo community and its community-controlled school based on observations done over two years. Unlike the Pueblo school that Peshkin studied, this Navajo school taught and maintained Navajo literacy in grades K-12. McLaughlin argues that the "indiginization" of the community's Lutheran church and community school through the use of Navajo literacy that he observed allowed those institutions to become less alien and allowed Navajos to take on important power roles in them. He found that "self-determination and self-understanding suffuse vernacular literacy practices at the church and the school" (p. 60). He concluded that,
The community school studied by McLaughlin reduced the cultural conflict between the community and school with a model K-12 Navajo-English bilingual/biliterate/bicultural/bicognitive education program that introduced English in kindergarten but taught reading and writing in Navajo as well and continued the use of Navajo literacy right up through high school (Reyhner, 1989). McLaughlin notes that "an immediate effect of Navajo instruction has been to place Navajos in positions of academic authority" (1992, pp. 16-17) as teachers and school administrators. In control of their own schools, Navajos could expand the environments for Navajo literacy, including requiring high school graduation speeches to be written and presented in both Navajo and English.
While English was used in the community to interact with the off-reservation society, Navajo, including reading and writing, was used for personal fulfillment. The teaching of Navajo language and culture in the school helped bridge the gap between the community and the otherwise "white" school that is so evident in Peshkin's (1997) study. The inclusion of Navajo in the curriculum did not hurt these students' academic performance; on English language achievement tests they outperformed Navajo students in surrounding schools who received all their instruction in English (Reyhner 1989; Rosier & Holm, 1980).
While the community that McLaughlin studied was fairly supportive of Navajo literacy instruction and the Navajo tribe mandated Navajo instruction in all reservation schools in 1984, there is still some ambivalence among Navajos about having their language, history, and culture taught in schools based on past experience (Batchelder, 2000). However, as indigenous peoples take more control over their schools, they tend to want those schools to reflect their communities more. Ten essays collected by Stephen May (1999a) focus on how indigenous peoples worldwide are working to take control schools in their communities in order to end assimilationist schooling that denies the value of their languages and cultures and so indigenous learners can in the words of David Corson (1999, p. 10) "become active participants in shaping their own education." Corson cites the influence of Paulo Freire in regard to adult indigenous education that saw "literacy work as a way of giving voice to the oppressed to talk about 'generative themes' that they chose themselves from their own experiences," giving "the learners more control over their own curriculum" (p. 10).
May (1999b) discusses the differences between nation state political democracy and what Joshua Fishman (1991) has termed "cultural democracy." He writes, "if there has been a point of greatest resistance to the recognition of separate minority rights and entitlements, it has probably been in the area of language and culture" because a common language and culture has been central to political nationalism (p. 48). May points to the "phenomenal success" of the Maori "language nests" in New Zealand as a model for indigenous community-based education. These grass roots efforts that immerse Maori students in their language and culture have expanded over the last two decades from their pre-school base through elementary and secondary education into Maori language university-level teacher-education programs. Arohia Durie (1999) of the Department of Maori and Multicultural Education of Massey University College of Education describes how Maori efforts have changed education from a " subordinating " to an "empowering" process, and she describes assimilationist education as education for "cultural surrender." An interchange of visits between the United States and New Zealand has led to the establishment of language nests and immersion classrooms in the United States (Wilson, 1999; Fillerup, 2000).
Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie (1999) describe efforts by Navajos at Rough Rock and Rock Point, Hualapais at Peach Springs, Native Alaskan teacher leaders, Karuks in Northern California, and Native Hawaiians to indigenize their schools. As community efforts, community-based education is generally well received locally by community members, especially parents and students. Small, often isolated, groups of indigenous peoples such as McCarty and Watahomigie describe are at a disadvantage when attempting to wrest control of educational institutions from populous and powerful dominant groups. However, the contributors to May's (1999a) book document how these indigenous groups can learn from each other and work together. Their cooperation can give them the strength needed to persevere in their quest for culturally and linguistically appropriate education for their children.
Catherine Matthews and Walter Smith (1994) carried out a ten-week experimental study. One group of Indian students in grades 4-8 in nine Bureau of Indian Affairs schools received 33 hours of instruction with Native American related teaching materials that included Native American related science materials and profiles of Native Americans who use science in their daily lives. The control group received science instruction without Native American related content. In the pretest of the 203 students that participated in the study, "49% said they did not know about any Native American scientists" and generally the researchers found they "knew shockingly little about issues of major impact to Native Americans," including knowledge that alcohol is a depressant (p. 369). Matthews and Smith concluded from their study that "Native American related materials seem to have a positive effect on the attitude and achievement of Native American elementary school students, although the mechanism of that effect remains unclear" (p. 378). The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) promotes culturally relevant science instruction for American Indian students and works to provide mentors for students interested in studying science and mathematics. Their efforts appear to be successful, but more well designed research could add valuable insight into what type of activities lead to students embarking on science and mathematics careers.
While some researchers such as Peshkin (1997) find evidence of ambivalent support for schools by Native community members, there is a body of support for education in Indian country. The largest study ever done of Indian education was the National Study of American Indian Education completed in 1971 and reported in To Live on This Earth: American Indian Education by Estelle Fuchs and Robert J. Havighurst (1972). The study found "mild approval of schools and teachers by Indian students with some differences between communities" (p. 157), with more acculturated students being more critical of their schools. The study found a malaise similar to what Peshkin found in the high school he studied,
In the National Study 152 community leaders from across the country were interviewed, and "in general, it was found that the community leaders were more critical of schools serving Indians than were the Indian students and parents" (1972, pp. 184-185). However, they were overwhelmingly in favor of having the school's prepare students to "participate in modern society."
Robinson-Zañartu and Majel Dixon (1996) surveyed of 234 Indian parents and community members who were at one of three national Indian conferences, one of which was the National Indian Education Association's (NIEA's) annual conference. While this would tend to be a skewed sample representing activist community members by virtue of their attending a national conference, this study is useful in determining the thinking of community leadership. The researchers found,
Radda, Iwamoto, and Patrick (1998) surveyed 1,171 students in grades 5 through 12 attending an urban public school district, including 81 American Indian students. Their study reinforced much of the common thinking about Indian education. The Indian students "reported that they were retained at a rate three times higher than reported by non-Indian students" (p. 13). "Students who indicated that it is important for people to help one another at school agreed most strongly with statements pertaining to having the intent to complete high school" (p. 13). "Students may not want to be praised in front of peers, but may appreciate private praise" (p. 14). External rewards, "tokens," were less important for students who thought positively about completing high school. (p. 14). American Indian "students indicated a preference for learning in collaborative groups designed to benefit the group rather than participation in competitive activities designed to promote individual achievement." Similarly to what Deyhle (1992) found, Radda et al. found that,
Both Deyhle's (1989, 1992) study and the Navajo Dropout Study (Brandt, 1992) found that Navajo students gave "boredom" as their major reason for dropping out. Deyhle found that Navajo students perceived school as a cold and unrewarding place with an irrelevant curriculum and uncaring teachers. High school students typically had instruction that involved being told to read the textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Because the Navajo and Ute students read on average two grade levels behind their non-Indian peers, such textbook oriented teaching was especially problematic.
In a study of the perceptions of 991 American Indian women, Bowker (1993) found that two-thirds "spoke about the humiliation of growing up poor, inadequate food, inappropriate clothes, and unsympathetic, uncaring teachers who were quick to make judgments about them based upon stereotypical racial traits, than on the factors of poverty" (p. 141). "The majority of the women interviewed indicated that at some time during their childhood or early adolescent years, they had formed the opinion that drinking alcohol was the 'norm' or that 'all Indians drink'" (p. 199).
Bowker found that "over 90 percent of the women in this study reported having had experiences with racism, both on and off the reservation. Most of their on-reservation experiences came from teachers" and that this racism sometimes led to dropping out of school (1993, p. 220). Over 70 percent of the women studied "reported that peers had influenced them to stay in school and graduate" (1993, p. 229). Nearly half the women in Bowker's study reported being abused as children.
David Lester (1997) reviewed research on American Indian suicide. Some of the factors cited in research on suicide, such as family and community breakdown, also severely effect youth who do not commit suicide. Lester found that suicide rates varied tremendously between tribes and reservations and that groups that were able to keep more of their traditional culture tended to have lower suicide rates. Of particular interest in regard to the topic of this paper is the fact that young males age 15 to 24 have an above average suicide rate that is strongly linked to alcohol abuse and that this suicide rate is increasing. He found that "most commentators believe that the oppressed status of American Indians and the clash of modern American culture with traditional American Indian culture are both important contributors to the causation of American Indian suicide" (p. 131). However, he points out that research is lacking to fully back up this belief.
Swisher and Deyhle (1992) review the literature on how Indian children "learn to learn" at home and discuss the problems that can arise when teachers have different expectations about how children learn. Books overviewing the research on American Indian education (Reyhner, 1992a; Rhodes, 1994; Gilliland, 1999) promote activity-based instruction for American Indian students. Some recent studies back up this recommendation. For example Thomas Zwick and Kenneth Miller (1996) did an experimental study of two fourth grade science classrooms with mixed Crow Indian and non-Indian enrollment. In the control classroom the students were taught typical classroom-based textbook science while the experimental group received hands-on outdoor science activities with the teacher receiving inservice training supported by the Eisenhower Grant Program. Student science learning was measured with the California Achievement Test scores on the CAT 85. The experimental class had greater gains than the control class on the CAT 85, and the American Indian students accounted for most of those gains.
Sharon Nelson-Barber and Elise Trumbull Estrin (1995) reviewed research on teaching mathematics and science in general and to Native students in particular in their monograph titled Culturally Responsive Mathematics and Science Education for Native Students. They take a "constuctivist view of learners, one that recognizes students as active meaning-makers" that is "complemented with a sociocultural perspective that recognizes the importance of social and cultural systems and their associated values and expectations on students' learning" (p. 11). Nelson-Barber and Estrin cite several examples of sociocultural difference between traditional cultures and America's modern school culture. One example is that children raised in an environment with many physical hazards such as dangerous animals and/or harsh weather are not taught "discovery learning" because it is too dangerous. Children for their own safety are taught to obey elders who know the dangers and, in the words of Terry Tafoya, to "watch and listen and wait, and the answer will come to you" (as quoted on p. 14). A second example of difference is that with traditional learning in an oral storytelling culture "children are expected to make their own sense of story" rather than to ask questions about the story or to be told what the story means. A third example is about how different cultures can categorize things differently. Given objects from four categories: food, clothing, tools, and cooking utensils, the respondents from a non-mainstream culture made groupings like a knife with an orange because a knife is used to cut up an orange.
Just as ways of learning can differ from culture to culture, discipline can be handled differently as well. For example adults might ignore children's behavior according to Scollon and Scollon to "ward off threats to their authority" that could force them into continued conflict with a child (p. 15).
Based on their research review, Nelson-Barber and Estrin recommended using ethnomathematics and ethnoscience teaching approaches that relate math and science to culture. These approaches are seen by some educators "as the sources of real-world connections that will make classroom theories and procedures meaningful" (p. 25). A chemistry teacher on the Navajo Reservation told me how he rethought the way he taught chemistry when one of his best Navajo students asked him "Why are we learning chemistry?" This teacher found by moving from a textbook-based science curriculum to a community-based science curriculum that the students found relevance in what they were learning--something that is unlikely if he had answered this student by saying it was to meet state standards and/or graduation requirements. As Nelson-Barber and Estrin state, "Learning about nature from books can seem a poor substitute for the real thing" (p. 22). They suggest that teachers start with "students' lived experiences" and move first to ethno-mathematical knowledge and intuitive understanding, then to technical symbolic representation, and finally to axiomatic knowledge with the idea these can be related back to the students' lived experiences. They further state "In our vision of the classroom, students would learn how to represent and solve problems and to conduct investigations related to their own interests and past experiences, with one goal being to learn the formalized language and procedures of academic mathematics and science as well" (p. 32). This fits with constructivist learning theory that speaks to students' needing to link new knowledge to their existing knowledge and experience base.
However, in their conclusion Nelson-Barber and Estrin warn that the connection between math, science, and culture can be trivialized and that one of the key functions of teachers is to awaken students interest and curiosity in a subject and thus motivate them to want to learn the subject matter at hand. The authors conclude "for Native people who are sorely underrepresented in fields dependent on mathematics and science, there is a tremendous need for teachers who will enlist them to become explorers, who creatively develop their understanding, as well as for teachers who create connections among science, mathematics, technology and society (p. 41).
Not only are learning and behavior not culture-free, so also Nelson-Barber and Estrin document that science and mathematics are not culture free. Europeans have taken knowledge accumulated from around the world without giving credit to its discoverers. According to the authors "western thinking, in general, tends toward decontextualizing, depersonalizing, and dehumanizing experience and natural phenomena" (p. 17). Western thought "objectifies" reality rather than emphasizing process. One can see that in the current "Standards Movement" that calls for outcome based assessment and tends to ignore whether the classroom processes needed to achieve those outcomes are humanistic. People jump onto the direct instruction bandwagon as the quickest way to achieve outcomes without considering the effects of direct instruction on classroom climate and student motivation. A current example of this is the promotion of Robert Slavin's "Success for All" Program in high poverty schools, including those serving Native students. While Slavin cites extensive research supporting his program (Slavin & Madden, 2000), critics argue that this research is biased and lacks independent validation (Pogrow, 2000). Moreover the program is very prescriptive and while it tends to help inexperienced, poorly prepared, or unreflective teachers who are at a loss to figure out what to do themselves, it hampers good teachers from responding to the special needs of their students, especially minority students who may be developing an oppositional identity to school and/or whose families might not particularly support schooling.
Another example of this top down approach to curriculum is the effort by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to promote a phonics emphasis in reading instruction (Mathes & Torgesen, 2000). However, preventing reading disabilities is not as simple as the Institute's successful effort to have more parents place babies in their cribs on their stomachs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and there is thoughtful opinion that the Institute has rushed to judgment (Taylor, Anderson, Au & Raphael, 2000). Babies don't develop oppositional identities to sleeping on their stomach, and it does not matter much whether they are motivated or not. In regard to the topic of this paper, it is critical that general research findings and packaged instructional programs be tested independently on American Indian students to see if they are really applicable to them.
Compared to the studies on low achievement, relatively few studies have looked at successful Indian students. Judith Davis (1992) did one interesting case study of ten Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Blackfeet college graduates. She found contrary to typical expectations that they were,
The majority of these graduates succeeded without the support of the elementary and secondary school system or their individual teachers. (pp. 28-29)
Recruiting and retaining teachers to teach in rural AI/AN communities is a long-standing problem. Inexperienced teachers and teachers faced with new situations need time to learn and adjust, and the high rates of teacher turnover in reservation schools contributes to educational problems in these schools. In addition, staff turnover creates a loss of institutional memory that can help maintain successful teaching practices and prevent the repetition of past mistakes. A similar problem exists with reservation school administrators. The seriousness of the problem can be seen from Gary Plank's (1993) study of Navajo schools where he reported a yearly teacher turnover rate ranging from a low of 25% to a high of 57% and 77% of the teachers getting no orientation to Navajo education. One new teacher told Plank, "They hired me over the phone you know. I looked good on paper. I didn't know they didn't speak English too much and had to learn a different language. I didn't know it was a boarding school and that was a surprise" (as quoted in Plank, 1993, pp. 30-31).
Cleary and Peacock (1998) interviewed over 60 Indian and non-Indian teachers of Native American students working on or near nine Indian reservations located across the U.S. and in two cities with high American Indian populations plus more than 50 other teachers in Australia and Costa Rica. The authors share insights on how the teachers they interviewed adapted the way they teach to meet the challenges of teaching American Indian students. These teachers reported that teaching styles coming from American mainstream society often fail to meet the needs of American Indian students. One non-Indian teacher stated, "We're basically bussing them into a white school, teaching them all of our history and our language and our culture, and then tossing them back out and expecting them to get a job and conform and be exactly like us" (p. 70). In a case study Bielenberg (2000) found that even in an urban charter school set up to meet the needs of Indian students, an Indian teacher can continue to use mainstream instructional methodologies patterned after how she was taught in school.
Cleary and Peacock (1998) identified suboppression--the continuing tragedy of internalized oppression--as adversely affecting students who struggle with identity issues, self confidence, and self destruction. Oppression can delay adolescence, increase absenteeism, and lead to anger, hopelessness, fear of success, passive aggressive behaviors, low self-esteem, and self-destruction. These all work against the efforts of dedicated teachers trying to create conditions for these students to empower themselves. They concluded that Indian students struggle to find balance and harmony in schools that do not incorporate Indian cultural values. As indicated previously by Peshkin (1997), the past tragedy of students forced to leave their traditional lifeways to go to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in order to become assimilated remains part of current memory and affects both parents' willingness to support schools and the attitude they display towards education in front of their children.
Based on their study, Cleary and Peacock describe ways to make the experience of living in two worlds less destructive and how to build bridges between Indian and non-Indian worlds. Their interviewees discussed the importance of native teachers being role models and the need for sharing with their students how they achieved success in schools. The teachers also stressed the importance of their participating in the community where they work to get to know parents. By knowing the environments from which their students come each morning, teachers can make a conscious effort to teach to the needs of their students.
Teachers reported that some native students may not be interested in their own traditional culture, having grown up away from the more traditional teachings of their tribes. Cleary and Peacock conclude from their interviews and research review that these students need to be understood and inspired to develop their own sense of purpose and worth. Based on their interviews, Cleary and Peacock recommend group work with lots of dialogue in contrast to competitive classroom strategies. Because competence and self-assurance are vital issues with many native students, it is important to remove the pressure to perform and be singled out (spotlighted) from those students who do not relate to such an approach. This does not mean that all native students are going to conform to this profile, but that those who would be threatened by such an approach would be relieved by such an option. In addition, the authors note that,
The role of AI/AN teachers working in schools is particularly problematic. Title VII (Bilingual) and other bicultural teacher training programs, such as the University of Alaska's Cross-Cultural Education Development (X-CED) Program founded a quarter century ago, have increased the number of minority teachers, but they sometimes send them out into a hostile school environment. Jerry Lipka, Gerald Mohatt, and the Ciulistet Group (1998) describe a field-based teacher-training program for Alaska Native teachers, the problems faced by these new teachers in schools, and the solution they found through an indigenous support group called the Ciulistet.
The X-CED Program is a field-based teacher training program for Native Alaskans that has helped increase the number of indigenous teachers in Native Alaskan villages from less than one percent to 25 percent since its beginning. However, graduates of the program often felt not accepted by mainstream teachers and school administrators because of the alternative nature of their teacher-training program and by their communities because being a teacher was identified with being an outsider. As Yu'pik teachers began to enter the school systems "they were both welcomed and treated as objects of suspicion" (p. 46). For the village community, a new Yup'ik teacher "should not act white, but if she acted as herself (Yup'ik), she was not considered a 'real teacher,' or not as good as the White teachers" (p. 60). Thus, new Yup'ik teachers "struggled with doubts about their effectiveness as teachers and about their ability to be of service to their communities" (p. 25).
One of the problems with transferring curriculums designed for mainstream schools to Indian schools is that incentives they use may not work with Indian students and/or may be culturally inappropriate. Yup'ik teachers rejected the profuse "bubbly" praise promoted by outside teachers because traditional Yup'iks believed "overly praising will ruin a person" (p. 126). Yup'ik teachers also wanted to provide their students with greater comprehensible input, both in terms of language and content, based on Yup'ik culture rather than to continue to use the decontexualized curriculum from the dominant culture that pervaded Alaskan village schools.
Yup'ik "children in the village were raised to be self-reliant and have a great deal of responsibility;" however, "in school, they learned to look upon the teacher as an authority figure who tells them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it." (p. 95). Yup'ik teachers emphasized "establishing a strong personal relationship with students," in contrast to the outsiders' ideas that "good teachers" were teachers who had the "ability to impart content knowledge," content designed to replace the Yup'ik language and traditional cultural knowledge and values (p. 101). Thus the growing number of Yup'ik teachers were faced with cultural conflicts just as their students were. The formation of a group of all the certified Yup'ik teachers in 1987, which became known as the Ciulistet grew into a general support group for Yup'ik teachers and has expanded over time to include village elders. This support is needed because "Yup'ik culture conflicts powerfully with cherished values associated with mainstream schooling and society" (p. 5).
Mainstream schooling emphasizes "abstract learning decontextualized from personal experience and organized into chunks to fit prescribed time, spaces, and places of learning" while Yup'iks' desire "knowledge validated through personal experience--typically related to subsistence off the land" (p. 25). According to Lipka et al. (1998), new Yup'ik teachers did not like phonics instruction and the pervasive Nomination, Elicitation, Evaluation (NEE) model of teaching used by non-Yup'ik teachers. In the NEE model a teacher repeatedly calls on individual students in their classroom and asks them questions that the teacher already know the answer to, and then the teacher tells the whole class whether a student has answered correctly. This teaching model "spotlights" individual students in a way that is contrary to traditional Yup'ik child rearing practices.
Various "rigid" programs that have been designed for minority children--such as DISTAR, Madeline Hunter's version of Direct Instruction, and Success for All that tend to turn both students and teachers into robots following a script--were disliked by Yup'ik teachers because the programs forced teachers to rush through lessons and did not allow them flexibility. Yup'ik teachers wanted to treat their students like a family rather than as objects for drill and practice.
However, the situation faced by Ciulistet teachers is not an either/or choice between traditional Yup'ik life and child rearing practices and mainstream American culture and its classroom practices. While schools are a meeting place between the two cultures, neither are monolithic entities. "Traditional cultures face a series of modern choices," and Yup'ik teachers act as cultural brokers "negotiating a curriculum with the help of both village elders and outside facilitators," such as university professors (pp. 26-27).
Yup'ik teachers called for "more content that related to the children's environment and culture so they could learn rapidly" (p. 52), but they also recognized the need for literacy and learning about the outside world. The Ciulistet teachers have found that the rich Yup'ik "oral tradition, rich in its explanations of the relationships among people and between people and the environment, offers teachers numerous possibilities for developing oral and written literacy" (p. 193). Ciulistet teachers also developed culturally appropriate mathematics and science curriculum. This culturally compatible curriculum built mathematical and science concepts on the prior knowledge that students brought to the classroom from their village, including their fluency in the Yup'ik language.
The "culturally negotiated curriculum" that Lipka et al. (1998) derived from their study offers more than a compromise and is not simply a matter of "taking the best from both cultures." It is a complex process of decision making that must go on in every community to determine what is best for that community and its children. It is not something that can be mandated from any state or national capital. It is a curriculum that parents and students must buy into.
Based on their experiences with X-CED, Lipka et al. (1998) recommend increasing the number of minority teachers, helping them form support groups, involving elders and other community members in those groups, and establishing ties to other groups, including indigenous educators elsewhere and even to mainstream teachers once the local community has a clear educational agenda mapped out. They think this intervention will help end the persistent school failure of Native students.
Since the 1970s, Indian policy has been considered to be in an era of "self-determination" with tribes practicing more self-government and taking more control of education (Reyhner & Eder, 1989; Szasz, 1999). However more needs to be done to examine how closely the reality of self-determination has matched its rhetoric. For example, Guy Senese (1991) in a study of self-determination found that Rough Rock Demonstration School (now Rough Rock Community School), the first Indian community-controlled school in modern times was "an institution of great vision and promise, but frequently unfulfilled ambition" (p. x). Ironically Senese found that in the 1960s when the Rough Rock school was founded, the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Republic viewed "the program of encouraging Indian culture was presented as a technique which would work toward eventual assimilation" (p. 50). From his study of government documents, Senese concluded that the goal set by the U.S. government in pushing self-determination was not really to increase tribal sovereignty, but "rather it was a sophisticated attempt to provide a successful competency base upon which an argument for termination could be built" (p. 52). He concluded that "cultural and linguistic assimilation proceeds apace in the schools?regardless of type" (p. 183). Lomawaima (1995) also questions whether the Self-Determination Act of 1972 and the subsequent tribal school movement has really restored self-control and sovereignty to tribes in the arena of education or only its illusion.
Because of the poor performance of Native students in schools controlled by non-Indians, it has been generally assumed that with greater local control schools would be more responsive to the special needs of Native communities and Native students. However, as in other areas of Indian education, there is very limited research that supports the hypothesis that greater local control improves education. Willeto (1999) drew a random sample of 451 high school students from 11 schools representing public, private, BIA funded, and BIA operated schools. She found "there were no significant relationships between type of school and Navajo youths' academic success" (p. 17).
Based on their research review Deyhle and Swisher (1997) indicated that the dominant culture's approach to minority schooling that concentrates on replacing the minority culture and its language with the dominant culture and English has failed many minority students in general and AI/AN students in particular. Schooling for indigenous peoples has historically tended to be imposed imperialism designed either to assimilate them into an alien dominant culture and/or to keep them in a dominated second-class status. American Indians and Alaska Natives have been more than just victims of this oppression and have been establishing more local control of public, tribal, and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.
However, this local control is being threatened by both the "Standards Movement" that seeks to control what is being taught through high stakes testing mandated at the state or national level and by the passage of anti-bilingual education initiatives such as California's Proposition 227 passed in 1998 and Arizona's Proposition 203 in 2000 that effectively hamper the use of minority languages in public schools. Studies reviewed here indicate that if this assimilationist approach is persisted in, some children and their families may well continue to reject schooling while other children can become lost between their families and the demands of the school.
Texas has been recently spotlighted as an example of the success of using high states testing to improve the quality of public education. However, more research needs to be done, especially with regard to minorities, on the impact of retaining students in grade who fail to meet what many consider to be arbitrary achievement standards. Dropout research generally confirms that the more students are retained, the more likely they are to drop out of school (Reyhner, 1992b). Once students in academic difficulty drop out, average test scores rise because there are fewer lower test scores to bring them down, but is this real improvement? (Haney, 2000).
Deyhle and Swisher (1997) also note that little research has been done on the impact of Indian teachers teaching Indian students and that "cultural relevance is rarely defined and almost always assume to be significant. This exclusive focus on culture and curricular innovation draws attention from the very real possibility that economics and social structure may be more important" (p. 163). Research needs in Indian education include longitudinal studies of students following them through their school years and for "thick" ethnographic studies of how Native and non-Native teachers teach and the school environment they work in.
Currently the best way to teach children is being debated across the country with impassioned arguments being given supporting various approaches such as phonics reading instruction, whole language reading instruction, back to the basics curriculum, multicultural curriculum, English immersion, and bilingual instruction. While these approaches are not always contradictory, they often are. In addition, researchers such as Jim Cummins (1992, 1996, 2000) discuss "experiential interactive" teaching methodologies as most appropriate for minorities versus the textbook-oriented "transmission" direct instruction approaches that Deyhle (1992) and others have found predominating (and failing) in classrooms with Indian students. It cannot be assumed that approaches that work for other groups will work for American Indians and Alaska Native students without careful testing. And it cannot be assumed that approaches that produce short term initial gains in student achievement, such as has been found for DISTAR and Success for All will produce long term gains without longitudinal studies.
The last well-funded comprehensive study of American Indian education was Havighurst's national study completed in 1971. That study put to rest for many readers some of the basic questions about the intelligence of AI/AN students and provided extensive data on them and their schools. There is no question that 30 years later, a new organized and well-planned study or series of coordinated studies needs to be done. One only needs to look at the well funded private study of the schooling of Native Hawaiian students by the Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools to see what can be accomplished with adequate funding, a minimum of preconceived biases going in, and a good research plan. The results of the Kamehameha Early Education Program (Project KEEP) have been disseminated in numerous articles and are featured in almost every textbook on bilingual education and or teaching English as a second language (see e.g., Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Jordan, 1984; Tharp, 1982; Reyhner, 1992a). The KEEP results are also reported in many mainstream textbooks. No study of American Indian or Alaska Native education has had nearly the impact on teacher training programs and the thinking of teachers.
1The contents of this paper were originally developed under a contract with Westat for the U.S. Government's American Indian/Alaska Native Education Research Initiative. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Government, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
2Jon Reyhner is professor of bilingual multicultural education at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Before coming to NAU in 1995, he taught Native American Studies and education classes for seven years at Montana State University--Billings and was a teacher and school administrator in reservation schools for 14 years in Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana. He co-edited Learn in Beauty: Indigenous Education for a New Century (NAU, 2000) and Revitalizing Indigenous Languages (NAU, 1999); edited Teaching Indigenous Languages (NAU, 1997), Teaching American Indian Students (University of Oklahoma, 1992), and Effective Language Education Practices (Native American Language Issues, 1990); and co-wrote A History of Indian Education (Eastern Montana College, 1989). He is currently researching the history of American Indian education and how best to teach American Indian languages. He has also written over 30 book chapters and articles. For more information about the author go to http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/ or contact him at Jon.Reyhner@nau.edu or phone 928 523 0580.
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