Sitting on a plane on my way home from Seattle, I am sorting through reflections on the historical end of No Child Left Behind and the passing, at the end of last year, of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The turbulence makes it difficult to type but that simply adds to the symbolism of the journey our nation's education has taken over the past two decades: bumpy and unnerving. Now, there is a new law and a plethora of provisions in it to applaud. I want to offer my accolades for a subtle but valuable win, the recognition of Native American education. I had just spent a weekend in Washington State to offer Common Core literacy training for tribal school educators. It was during this time that I realized how significant of a win the new legislation is for the 567 federally recognized tribes of Native Americans.
Around 20 of us -- teachers and administrators --gathered at the Muckleshoot Tribal College in Washington State, a college on the Muckleshoot reservation, to practice blending a recently-mandated Native American curriculum into the college's content classes using Common Core instructional practices. Despite the varied grades, content areas, and educational roles, our purpose for spending the weekend learning together was to ensure that native and non-native teachers could utilize culturally-responsive teaching practices and texts to ensure that native students had more equitable access to quality culture-based instruction. Several educators mentioned the literacy challenges their students face because of the lack of resources and support in the community. Native and non-native teachers discussed how important it is to embed the students' culture into instructional practice but this would mean more communication between schools, tribes, and the community. There was a voice of determination for success despite the frustration.
Historically, there is a presence of a nearly silent voice, one that has been mistaken for being passive. Amidst the cacophony of political and social discourse, the Native American plight to affirm their sovereign rights and maintain a cultural identity has been a quiet under-recognized plight. Several hundred years of persevering through this plight has wreaked havoc on the native educational system as well as the academic performance and psychological well-being of Native American students. In the narrative of equity, other minority groups have taken center stage as native students fell further behind. In 2015, I traveled with the Native Indian Education Association (NIEA) across New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington State to provide Common Core trainings like the one in Muckleshoot.
The ESSA is a landmark piece of legislation for Native Americans that offers several high-impact changes. Title VI- Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native education includes a great deal of new language around services, funding, community support, language and culture teaching, and quality of instruction. This is a huge victory for native education and yet I call it a "silent win" because the dialogue and even celebration around healing Native education has yet to gain a voice in the overall broader and louder discourse of other minority groups and in particular urban settings.
This silent win has the potential to make great changes for Native American students by returning the power of education and instructional practice back to their communities so they can collaborate with state and federal programs to ensure services are rendered and students are taught through the lens of cultural expectations. Here are a few huge wins for Native American education:
1. States must intentionally and meaningfully consult with tribes to develop plans for how funding should be utilized to support and expand programs, services, and activities funded under title money.
2. The Bureau of Indian Education is now recognized as an educational entity and is allowed to apply for STEP grants as a partner--just as state educational agencies currently do--to promote tribal self-determination.
3. Title VI authorizes research of best practices around Native American languages and immersion programs, as well as provides funding for creating and expanding native language immersion programs.
Among many re-scripted pages of Title VI is a rejuvenated hope for a marginalized group of students rich in culture and language but socially overlooked. I do not want this to be a silent win for our thousands of native students in tribal and public schools. After countless hours working with tribal schools and public schools educating Native American students, it is imperative that we voice the needs of this marginalized people to uphold our desire for equity so that we can truly say that in America "every student succeeds."
Casie Jones, a former teacher and instructional coach, is a Director of School Support for The Achievement Network as well as a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She has partnered with the NIEA for the past two years to provide Common Core training in communities that educate Native American students.