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America's 'best' education keeps Indian children down


Just three years ago Dave Anderson, former head of the BIA, dreamed of changes he envisioned for the bureau's school system. He proposed a pilot project centering on developing a leadership academy and a culture-based curriculum that emphasized personal success. ''I never realized this, but being head of all our school systems, we have the ability to create a whole different model,'' Anderson said of his role in shaping the BIA school system. Six months later Anderson resigned, his laudable but naive education dreams gone with him.

We all have dreams for our children's educational experience, but struggling to make ends meet always comes first in Indian country. The BIA should focus squarely on helping the federal government meet its treaty-bound obligation to provide basic services, including education, to Indian people. Complicating this fix is the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes and rewards traditional white, middle class values in education.

Bush administration policies leave little chance to dream of a culturally relevant education. Many educators cite the rigid, standardized curriculum of NCLB as problematic for children whose tribal cultures provide an alternative set of educational benchmarks. An emphasis on core subjects (math, science, English and American social studies) means a de-emphasis on liberal arts and diminished instruction in Native languages and traditional arts. As a result, educators in Indian country charge that their students are experiencing a ''forced assimilation'' administered via intense preparation for standardized testing.

The vigor with which President Bush promotes NCLB despite widespread, vocal criticism is similar to his defense of the Iraq war. It isn't difficult to imagine why. When failing policy continues to be promoted by this president, it is most likely because someone close to the administration is profiting from it. In the case of federally mandated public education disguised as locally controlled curriculum, the windfall is in the tests. Privatization of education is a lucrative business, as many Bush associates have discovered.

One of the principal architects of NCLB is Sandy Kress, a Dallas lawyer and board member of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, who served as a consultant for the Governor's Business Council (once headed by Bush when he served as governor of Texas). Kress helped design the Governor's Reading Initiative, which scored McGraw-Hill, a textbook publishing company with close ties to the Bush family, a lucrative contract. Kress's clients, purveyors of commercial academic products - tutoring firms, curricular materials, testing tools and even data collection and management - saw their bottom lines surge after the passage of NCLB. Even the president's brother, Neil Bush, is in the game. His company's instructional software, designed to help students prepare for standardized testing, has raked in an estimated $20 million. In this era of federal penny-pinching, it is unconscionable that society's richest members are fleecing the poorest in the name of education, and with the help of the government.

A report out last spring from the Inspector General of the Interior warned that a number of BIA schools have severe health and safety deficiencies requiring ''immediate action.'' Of the 185 elementary and secondary schools in its jurisdiction, 13 were flagged for poor conditions. Inspector General Earl E. Devaney issued a stern warning, telling BIA head Carl Artman that unless something was done to mitigate the safety concerns, the poor conditions ''will likely cause injury or death to children or school employees.'' Devaney recommended some schools be demolished. Exacerbating this dismal review was the resignation just days before of Tom Dowd, director of the Bureau of Indian Education. The BIE, formerly the Office of Indian Education Programs, is the part of the BIA which administers federal aid to some 60,000 Native students representing nearly half of all recognized tribes in the United States. Putting NCLB in Indian country into perspective, the outlook for an education system that aims to turn students into leaders is pretty grim considering the danger they face by simply attending school each day.

Hearings in 2006 on the impact of NCLB on Indian children's education revealed many negative consequences. Chief among them were the rigid focus on testing, an almost hostile lack of cultural relevancy and the breakdown of government-to-government cooperation between the BIA system and communities. One educator lamented, ''Indian children are internalizing the system failures as their personal failure.'' Few among us enjoy the ''best'' education the government says it can provide under NCLB; we can only dream of what could be while struggling to help our children from drowning in so-called achievement tests.

No Child Left Behind encourages incentives for what is essentially government-funded assimilation into a white, middle class culture. Although there are few notable successes of NCLB in Indian schools, one thing is certain: our students are not underachievers. They are bearing the brunt of a policy that does not acknowledge their inherent skills and cultural values. Success can be defined many ways; none of them should include accountability at the expense of cultural traditions and identity.