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American Indian Education

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This article appeared on pages 28-30 in the June 2006 issue of Indian Education Today, published by the Native American Journalists Foundation, which became the Native American Review in August 2006 and ceased publication in December 2006.

Dropout Nation

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

When the words "Dropout Nation" were splashed across the cover of the April 17, 2006 issue of Time Magazine they were not referring to any American Indian Nation, they were referring to the estimate that 30% of all America's high school students leave without graduating. There was really nothing new in the accompanying article about why America's students are not graduating from high school at such a high rate at a time when a high school diploma is becoming increasingly important for obtaining jobs. More education is especially critical for American Indian youth as the National Center for Education Statistics reports that they have triple the unemployment rate of non-Indians.

The Times article summarizes the conclusions of 2006 report The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts written for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and echoes the findings of the research review on dropouts I did for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force in 1992 that identified seven of factors associated with Native student dropout rates: large schools, uncaring teachers, passive teaching methods, irrelevant curriculum, inappropriate testing, tracked classes, and lack of parent involvement.

The Gates Report notes that almost half of dropouts say a major reason for dropping out was that their classes were not interesting and over two-thirds said they were not motivated to work hard in school. Only a little over a third said that they were failing their classes and almost a third had repeated a grade.

High absenteeism was a precursor to dropping out. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that Indian students have the highest absenteeism rate of any group. Some of this problem is relatively easy to address. I talked recently with a former school superintendent who increased his attendance rate dramatically by sending his bus drivers back to pick up students who missed the bus. The Gates study noted that over a third of dropouts said they were given too much freedom to miss classes and not do homework. Of course, too often homework is horse-work--filling out worksheets and doing other uninteresting tasks. Despite this, three-fourths of dropouts said if they could go back and change things, they would have stayed in school.

While all Americans need to be concerned about high dropout rates, Indian nations need to be even more concerned as their dropout rate is twice that of middle class white students. While poverty is a major factor in this high dropout rate, it is not the only factor. Other factors include school climates that emphasize sports over academics, including hiring coaches who only secondarily teach. However, sports can also play an important role in keeping students in school, and coaches can be academic mentors. A second negative factor is the "test-prep" curriculum that schools are moving to meet state and No Child Left Behind Act testing requirements, which can make teaching and the curriculum less interesting. The related call to end social promotion is only more likely to increase dropout rates.

A third factor that can kick in is overemphasizing eighth grade graduation. It was not too long ago that an eighth grade education was the culmination of many school careers, after which teenagers took up ranching and other careers that then did not require much education. Some reservation schools still make a big thing about eighth grade graduation that can include even wearing gaps and gowns. This can send the wrong message to students because a high school diploma is becoming increasingly important for employment.

Dropouts tend to have the perception that teachers don't care about them. When asked, what they teach, an elementary teacher tends to say children while a high school teacher tends to say English, Algebra, or some other subject. When I taught math and science to Navajo students at Chinle Junior High in the early 1970s I taught 160 different students every school day. When I mentioned this years later at a workshop in British Columbia a high school teacher responded that she taught 210 students every day. It's very difficult to give students individual attention with such large class loads.

Schools administrators need to work to reorganize large schools so that it is possible for a teacher to get to know well at least some of their students. This can include smaller homerooms at the start of the day, schools within schools where a subsection of the school's teachers share the same students, the assignment of mentors and other efforts. The Gates Report called on schools to "ensure that students have a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school." Reducing class size is also an important step, especially when students vary widely in abilities and require more individual teacher attention. The Report also recommended "different schools for different students. Instead of the usual 'one-size fits all' school, districts should develop options for students, including a curriculum that connects what they are learning in the classroom with real life experiences and with work, smaller learning communities with more individualized instruction, and alternative schools that offer specialized programs to students at-risk of dropping out."

Walter Echo-Hawk of the Native American Rights Fund in his introduction to a high school book titled Indian Economic Issues and Development (Chelsea House, 2006) writes "Regrettably, schools do not teach us about Native Americans; textbooks largely ignore the subject." Asking Indian students who often read two grade levels or more below average to listen to lectures and read grade-level textbooks that generally ignore their existence is setting them up for failure.

The Importance of Building on Native Strengths

Three major studies of Navajo students found that a traditional Native orientation was not a handicap in regard to school success. The Navajo Dropout Study done in the 1980s found that "the most successful students were for the most part fluent Navajo/English bilinguals." Angela Willeto's 1999 study of 451 Navajo high school students from eleven different Navajo schools confirmed that students' orientation towards traditional culture, as measured by participation in ritual activities and cultural conventions as well as Navajo language use, did not negatively effect students' academic performance. Studies of college students in the northern Great Plains have shown similar results.

University of Toronto researcher Jim Cummins identified four factors need to improve the education of Indian children. The first was having teachers build on the experiential background their students bring to school, especially their home language and culture. Second was to listen to the concerns of their students' parents, the third was to use experiential-interactive teaching methods that engaged their students interests, and the fourth was to use testing to help students rather than to flunk them out or sort them into college and non-college bound tracks.

The upsurge of prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin for students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADT) may have more to say about how we expect children to sit quietly for long periods of time in classrooms listening to lectures and doing worksheets than it does about any real natural disorder. As long ago as 1928 in the Meriam Report that investigated the Bureau of Indian Affairs it was noted that in some Indian schools children were forced to "maintain a pathetic degree of quietness." The active learning strategies that Cummins and others advocate would go far in getting students motivated to come to school and to stay to graduate.

Cummins' experiential-interactive teaching method shares many of the characteristics of the "project method" that was used successfully with Indian students in the 1930s and 40s in South Dakota. In the 1933 edition of his book How We Think John Dewey called on teachers to engage their students in "constructive occupations" or "projects" that engage students' interest, have intrinsic worth, awaken curiosity, and are carried out over an extended period of time. Ideally, these projects integrate in all the basic subjects taught in schools.

The exploitation of natural resources on reservations through coal mining and other extractive industries, Indian gaming, and a host of other issues facing Indian Nations can become engaging projects for Indian students to study. For example, the dependence of the Hopi and Navajo Nations on the strip mining of coal for a large portion of their budgets along with its impact on their land and water resources can be a topic for study. Projects involve an integrated approach to the various subject areas so that a unit on Indian gaming could involve probability in math as well as a study of its economic and social effects.

An example of place-, community-, and culture-based education can be found in Between Sacred Mountains: Navajo Stories and Lessons from the Land published in 1982 by Rock Point Community School for its students, which resulted from a four year study of their community's land, plants, animals, and history.

In Fundamental Education in an Amerindian Community published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1953 and printed by Haskell students, Pedro T. Orata described how the Bureau in the 1930s consulted with the community and worked to make the curriculum more relevant to students' lives at Little Wound School in South Dakota. At that time, community concerns could be as simple (and as important) as locating outhouses away from drinking water supplies. On the Navajo Reservation developing watering holes for livestock was a major issue.

Indian education has been criticized over the years for either being too academic or too vocational. Author and activist John W. Gardner wrote, "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." Furthermore, many plumbers earn more than university philosophy professors. While all students need to have the chance to go to college, they also need to have an opportunity to have an excellent vocational education at the high school level.

It is useful to look at how other countries are handling education. Only a few decades ago Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. An old joke with a bitter edge goes that when the English first came to America and saw strange looking brown people, they scratched their heads and discussed how they should treat them. After much thought they decided they would treat them just like they treated the Irish, which meant terribly. Now Ireland is among the richest countries in Europe. A major cause for this turnaround was making high school and college education free or almost free, which resulted in creating a large educated workforce attractive to high paying high-tech companies.

As important as the goal of schools developing job skills is the development of citizenship so Indian students can be prepared to take an active intelligent role in tribal, state, and U.S. political life. It is frightening that in the middle a war today that the National Geographic Society recently found that only about one in seven--13%--of Americans between the age of 18 and 24 could find Iraq on a map. Of course, even fewer would know about the colonial history of Iraq, a nation cobbled together by the British, which helps fuel the current conflict.

You can learn more about Native dropouts at Jon Reyhner's American Indian School Dropouts and Pushouts web page at

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