A State of Emergency for American Indian and Native Students

The recent release of Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate data from the U.S. Department of Education was certainly shocking to the nation. But for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities, the data just confirms that education for our Native students is in a state of emergency.

In nine states -- Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington -- the graduation rates for American Indian and Alaska Native students in 2010-2011 are lower than 60 percent. And just 61 percent of Native students served by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education graduate from high school. Meanwhile in three states, one out of every two Native Hawaiian students graduates on time.

The achievement gap between Native and Caucasian students remains as wide as ever. Only three states -- Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee -- have graduation rates for American Indian students equal or greater to that of white peers. More typical is Minnesota, where the graduation rate for Native high school students is half that of the 84 percent rate for their white school mates.

The problems for Native students begin long before they reach high school. The percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native fourth-graders scoring Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased by two points between 2005 and 2011 -- even as the percentage of fourth-graders struggling in math declined by five points in that same period

Even when our Native students do graduate, they are not adequately prepared to achieve success in higher education, which is critical to helping them become future leaders of their communities. Seventy-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students in 2010-2011 have never taken an Advanced Placement course even when they are capable of successfully mastering it, according to the College Board.

The result is a lost generation of young men and women, at a time in which Native communities and the United States as a whole can ill-afford to lose them. This is especially true for our American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities, which have been damaged by past federal education policies designed to eradicate our languages and cultures.

One cause of this state of emergency is that our Native students are not provided curriculum that respects their cultures and traditions. For our children, who must attend schools in communities where harmful Native stereotypes and mascots are common, the lack of cultural knowledge means they have few opportunities to build pride in themselves and what they can achieve. Just 32 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native eighth graders reported having some knowledge of their history, according to the 2011 National Indian Education Study, while only 33 percent of Native fourth-graders reported that their teachers integrated cultural knowledge into reading instruction at least once a month.

Another culprit lies with the lack of access to high-quality teaching and comprehensive college-and-career content that is critical to preparing Native students for an increasingly knowledge-based society. In Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, and North Carolina, one out of every two Native students attends a high school with graduation rates lower than 60 percent, according to Robert Balfanz and Nettie Letgers of Johns Hopkins University. Native students are shortchanged when they attend schools that are not equipped to educate them.

These problems are compounded by the fact that Native communities -- especially tribal governments -- are left out of decision-making about the kind of education our children receive. Forty years ago, the federal government took small steps toward empowering Native communities when it passed the Indian Education Act of 1972. But tribes still don't have the same standing in education policy as traditional districts and state education departments, even though they are recognized as sovereign governments under the U.S. Constitution and treaties between tribes and states.

This state of emergency cannot continue. We must take three critical steps to improve education for our Native children.

The first is to pass the Native CLASS Act, which will help Native communities play stronger roles in making education decisions. The law, which is currently under consideration by Congress, would grant tribes the same authority over education as states and districts, as well as fund culturally based education programs that improve academic achievement.

The second step is for the U.S. Department of Education to fulfill its obligation to consult with tribes on improving Native education. There's no reason why federal officials should not be working more-closely with the very governments, communities, and families most-concerned about the futures of our children.

Finally, as Native communities, we must work together to make sure that our students have access to an education that better prepare them to succeed in higher education. This includes leveraging innovations such as charter schools, as well as working with teacher training programs on recruiting and training high-quality Native and non-Native teachers.

The new graduation rate data should serve as another call to action on behalf of our Native children -- and a new opportunity to help every student get the education they deserve.

Dr. Heather Shotton (Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, Kiowa, Cheyenne) is President of the National Indian Education Association and an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma.