Creating Sacred Places for Children
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This article appeared on pages 19-20 in the March 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.

Creating Sacred Places for Children

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

Public and Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools are under attack for in the words of President George W. Bush "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Bush's answer to the low test scores of American Indian and other students is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, requiring schools to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) in closing the achievement gap between American Indian and mainstream "white" students or face a variety of punishments. To measure the progress schools are making, students are required to take standardized tests every year in grades 3-8 as well as at least once in high school, and test scores of all "disadvantaged" groups need to go up.

Many schools are failing to make AYP in raising test scores of their Indian students. While low test scores are associated with students living in poverty, there are no excuses for failing schools. Educators and parents are desperately looking for ways to increase their students' test scores, which often means narrowing the curriculum to just prepare students for the reading and mathematics tests required by NCLB. While the Title VII Indian Education provisions of NCLB give lip service to the importance of culture-based education, in hearings conducted last year by the National Indian Education Association NCLB was found to be "narrowing the broad public purposes of schools" and creating a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum with an emphasis on reading and math so that the arts, history, and civics tend to disappear from the school day. This test preparation curriculum hinders teachers trying to connect education to the lives of students in their communities with the result that schooling is becoming increasingly boring and disconnected from student lives.

Creating Sacred Places for Children
In contrast to the one-size-fits-all demands of NCLB, last October the National Indian School Board Association (NISBA) sponsored a three-day conference in Albuquerque on using effective schools research to better serve Indian schools. The conference was keynoted by Dr. Larry Lezotte who has researched schools that have better success serving ethnic minority students and what they do to achieve it. He and his associates found that the more effective schools have seven correlates: strong instructional leadership, a clear and focused mission, a climate of high expectations for success, a safe and orderly environment, frequent monitoring of student progress, opportunity to learn/student time on task, and positive home-school relations.

Keynote speaker Dr. Lawrence Lezotte who has researched effective schools for over three decades said that the answer to the question "Do you want higher test scores or happier kids?" is "Yes!" Dr. Lezotte is the founder of an Effective Schools consulting firm. (Photo by Jon Reyhner)

The Bureau of Indian Affairs used the effective schools research to help improve their schools starting in 1987. Its Bureau Effective Schools Team identified three additional correlates: cultural relevance, a challenging curriculum and appropriate instruction, and shared governance and participatory management. Based on this research, NISBA developed a Creating Sacred Places for Children (CSPC) curriculum. Students in the 15 schools using this curriculum in grades 3-5 from 2001 to 2003 showed significantly greater gains in reading than students in other BIA schools.

Carmen Taylor, Executive Director of the National Indian School Board Association, and NISBA President Richard Marcellais organized the 2005 Effective Schools training for Indian educators in Albuquerque. (Photo by Michele Allen) The National Indian School Board Association's Creating Sacred Places for Children curriculum is designed to improve the education of American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Implementing a curriculum like CSPC in schools requires effective leadership. Research indicates that strong leaders listen to and involve the people they lead in school improvement. School principals must listen and respond to what parents, teachers, and students have to say. Experts in leadership emphasize that it requires trust, competence, vision, and enthusiasm. Blackfeet educator Tom Thompson speaks of the importance of traditional leadership values of honesty, generosity, respect, spirituality, courage, humility, and compassion. He recommends that schools adopt a set of core values and then "walk the talk."

Failed learners
To improve education and raise test scores, school principals are faced with multiple challenges. For example, students who have low test scores in high school and are in danger of not graduating were usually behind in middle school, elementary school, and when they entered kindergarten. These failed learners can enter school with very limited vocabularies and just not understand what their teachers are trying to teach. These students tend to fall further and further behind unless they receive intensive tutoring and tend to stop trying after experiencing repeated failure. The longer a child is failing and frustrated the less likely they will ever be able to catch up with more successful students. To help failing students, schools need tutoring centers that are proactive, providing one-on-one corrective instruction. Lezotte outlined two principles of effective instruction. First, all students need to be placed at their appropriate level of difficulty. If their schoolwork is too easy or too hard, students will not learn much. Second, students need to be kept at this appropriate level just long enough so they can succeed, then they need to be advanced to a higher level of difficulty.

In order to accomplish this, schools need to use modern technology to create a tracking system that can call up the academic progress of every child at any time for school staff and parents to see. Students who fall behind need immediate tutoring. Lezotte estimates that one-third of students will have to spend one-third of their time in a tutoring center, but not all at the same time. For middle class students, tutoring is often the help provided by educated parents either directly or through paying for private tutoring.

These changes are easier said then done. They require smaller class sizes so teachers can individualize their instruction to each students ability level and tutoring centers, both of which costs. But the cost to society of failed students is even more. Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that adults without a high school diploma are twice as likely to be unemployed and will earn $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate. Dropouts make up nearly 70 percent of inmates crowding state prisons and at least half those on welfare. Their life expectancy is 9.2 years lower, and the average 45-year-old dropout is in worse health than the average 65-year-old high school graduate.

Intentional non-learners and "red rage"
Unlike the failed learner, who at least in the beginning tries, there are also intentional non-learners in schools who have for one reason or another decided school is not for them. Intentional non-learners tend to be smart. They have learned that if you don't try, then you can't fail. Even when the intentional non-learner does well in school they can attribute their good performance on luck to avoid taking responsibility for possible failure later. They develop a philosophy that the good and bad are beyond their control. In contrast, it is interesting to note that Asian-Americans, who as a group on average score higher on academic tests than other Americans, tend to see success in school as more a matter of effort rather than luck or genetically inherited intelligence.

Faith Spotted Eagle (Dakota) speaks about a special type of American Indian intentional non-learner who can be eaten up by "red rage." Red rage is the result of "impact of generations of trauma, violence and oppression" that historically colonialism loaded on Indian nations. Indian students and their parents can resist being assimilated into white society in schools and can develop "oppositional identities" that reject much of what schools have to offer, including literacy, as acting "white." She emphasized the need for healing in Indian societies to, while not forgetting the historical oppression, get beyond it to lead a healthy life.

In historically oppressed societies various forms of dysfunctional behavior can arise. Besides the abuse of drugs and alcohol, the oppression can lead to intense jealousy of those tribal members who do manage to climb out of poverty—the old bucket of crabs story where the crabs in a bucket pull back down any crab that starts to escape. In schools this can be seen as peer group pressure directed at "nerds" who do well in subjects like math and science and who are accused of acting "white" and taunted with questions like, "I suppose you think you are too good for us now?" This can lead Indian and other ethnic minority students to direct their efforts at recognition in sports, which their community celebrates, rather than working for good grades.

Healing and wellness
Lezotte described the movement from a treatment model both in medicine and education where we wait for problems to occur to a prevention/wellness model. This includes, among other things, removing soft drink machines and junk food from schools. Devon Mihesuah (Cherokee) and others have talked about decolonizing diets that have led to an epidemic of diabetes and other problems and going back to traditional foods, which are healthier. Activist Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe) says she only feeds her children brown cereal—cereals with less sugar and no artificial colors added.

Many Indian leaders now see part of the healing process is the effort in many Indian communities to revitalize their Native languages in schools. For example, Cecelia Fire Thunder, President of the Oglala Sioux, at the 2005 annual meeting of the National Indian Education Association in Denver noted that, "I speak English well because I spoke Lakota well. Our languages are value based. Everything I need to know is in our language." Language is not just communication, "It's about bringing back our values and good things about how to treat each other." She wanted Native language preschools but also noted the importance of learning English.

At a time when gang activity has spread from urban areas into rural reservations, it is important to note that schools that emphasize culture, especially those that immerse students in their native language doesn't just produce academically successful students but also students who live more by tribal values. Oglala Sioux presenter Dr. Sandra Fox declared that she hated "the 'walk in two worlds' idea; the time you should be most Indian is in the white world."

One-size-fits-all standardization and NCLB
Too often the demand for educational equality is met, as it is in NCLB, by treating everyone the same with one-size-fits-all canned curriculums that showed some promise in limited experimental studies but don't relate to students' cultural backgrounds. These curriculums assume all students have the same background knowledge and all need to learn the same thing. While students need to learn general knowledge about the world beyond their immediate communities that is called for in state curriculum standards, they also need to be grounded in the specific knowledge and values of their community.

NCLB is holding schools, teachers and students accountable, but we need to also find a way to hold school boards and parents accountable. School boards need to be held accountable for running a good school that has more than winning athletic teams and a large sports complex. Indian schools will also never improve much as long as there is a revolving door for school administrators and teachers. In addition the government needs to be held accountable for adequately financing schools. We spend less than a third on schools per student annually than what we spend later on keeping a failed student in jail.

NCLB focuses on failed learners and blames teachers and schools for that failure, ignoring the effects of poverty and assimilationist colonial education. Students too often enter classrooms without the necessary background knowledge, vocabulary, etc. to learn the material being presented. Differences in background knowledge can lead to many classroom problems. One of the NISBA conference participants brought up the example of an Indian boy being nonplussed with the sentence "Jack had seven dates and he ate four of them." This boy had never eaten a date, but he had gone out on one. Students in Arizona may have trouble with discussion about oceans while an Alaskan Native might have problems with deserts and cacti.

While it is admirable that NCLB calls for all students to have highly qualified teachers, it does not require teachers of Indian students to know anything about Indians and Indian education. More needs to be done to provide consistent staff development, especially staff development that focuses on the specific needs of Indian children.

About the Author: Jon Reyhner is a Professor of Education at Northern Arizona University with over thirty years of experience in Indian education as a classroom teacher, school administrator and college professor. His most recent books are American Indian Education: A History (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) and Education and Language Restoration (2006) in the Chelsea House Contemporary Native American Issues series for high school students.

Complete List of Articles and Chapters by Jon Reyhner

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