American Indian Education  

American Indian Education

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American Indian School Dropouts and Pushouts

American Indian and Alaska Native students have a dropout rate twice the national average; the highest dropout rate of any United States ethnic or racial group. About three out of every ten Native students drop out of school before graduating from high school both on reservations and in cities. Academically capable Native students often drop out of school because their needs are not being met while others are pushed out because they protest in a variety of ways how they are treated in school.

As the psychiatrist Erik Erikson has pointed out, positive identity formation is an ongoing, cumulative process that starts in the home with a trusting relationship established between mother and child and develops through the child's interaction with other children and adults. To build a strong positive identity, new adults that the child interacts with need to reinforce and build on the cultural messages that the child has previously received. However, too often in schools today teachers are not reinforcing what Native parents show and tell their children producing cultural discontinuity between home and school and forcing Native children to choose between their Native heritage and school success with disastrous results. Many of the problems faced by students such as drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of the poor self concepts of Native students who have unresolved internal conflicts resulting from educators asking students to give up their Native culture. Teaching methods and school curriculum need to be changed to reduce cultural conflict between home and school. In addition, the underlying causal factor of internal identity conflict in many Native teenagers needs to be treated at a community as well as an individual level through community-based counseling programs.

In order to help Native students form positive, mature identities and to reduce the number of Native dropouts large schools need to be restructured to allow teachers to get to know and interact with their students, caring teachers (especially Native teachers) need to be recruited who will spend the time and effort to learn from as well as teach their students, these caring teachers need to use active teaching strategies with their students to keep their students motivated, Native curriculum needs to be developed and used in Native schools to reduce cultural discontinuity, testing needs to be used in schools to help students learn rather than to track them into non-academic programs, and parents need to have the power to demand schools give their children an education that will strengthen Native families rather than separate Native children from their parents. Academic student advocacy programs such as the ones sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and by tribal colleges need to be encouraged.

Both on and off reservations many schools are not providing an appropriate education for Native students. They are denied teachers who have special training to teach Native students, they are denied a curriculum that includes their heritage, and culturally biased tests are used to push them out of academic programs. The supplemental add-on programs such as Indian Education Act, Johnson O'Malley (JOM), Bilingual Education, Special Education, and other federal programs of the last two decades have had a limited success in improving the education of Indian children. However, add-on programs are only a first step to making schooling appropriate for Native children. Native education must be viewed holistically rather than fragmented with basic skills, Native studies, and other classes taught in isolation from one another. In addition to treating the curriculum holistically, dropout prevention needs to be treated holistically. Students do not drop out of school just because of academic failure, drug and alcohol abuse, or any other single problem. Too often well meaning add-on remedial programs focus on finding the reason for failure in students and their homes, "blaming the victims." These programs treat the symptoms of the cultural conflict going on between students and teachers in school rather than the root problem. The idea that Native students are "culturally disadvantaged" or "culturally deprived" reflects an ethnocentric bias that should not continue. When schools do not recognize, value, and build on what Native students learn at home, they are given a watered-down, spread out curriculum that is meant to guarantee student learning but which often results in their education being slowed and their being "bored out" of school. The "traditional school system" has failed dropouts rather than they having failed the system.

Beyond correcting these problems to prevent future dropouts, more needs to be done to help current dropouts through retrieval programs such as the Graduate Equivalency Diploma (GED) and community-based drug prevention programs. In addition, the negative tinge of vocational programs needs to be removed, and these programs opened to all students. In particular, vocational programs need to be tied to real jobs through partnerships with business, labor unions, and government.

Dropout prevention starts with caring teachers who give students every chance for success in the classroom through interactive and experiential teaching methodologies, relevant, and culturally appropriate curriculum. At risk students need peer support through cooperative instructional methodologies and peer counseling programs. Dropout prevention also includes support services outside of the classroom from school administrators and counselors who work closely with parents.

If teachers and school administrators continue to not get appropriate training in colleges of education, local training programs need to provide school staff with information both on what works in Native education and information about the language, history, and culture of their Native students. Parents and local school boards also need on-going training about what works in Native education and what schools can accomplish. Head Start, elementary, and secondary schools need the support of tribal education departments and tribal colleges to design and implement effective educational programs that support rather than ignore Native heritages. (This is the abstract for a paper titled Plans for Dropout Prevention & Special School Support Services for American Indian & Alaska Native Students prepared for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force in 1992)


The Dropout/Graduation Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students 2010

Dropout Nation 2006

1995 ERIC Digest:
Drop-Out Rates Among American Indian & Alaska Native Students: Beyond Cultural Discontinuity

General Information on Dropouts & Retention

Reducing Student and Teacher Dropout Rates 2009

The Silent Epidemic 2006

School to Prison Pipeline

Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline 2005

Test, Punish & Push Out 2010

Suspended Education 2010

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