An American Indian education manifesto


Born of frustration by Congress over the failure of public education with
poor and minority students, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is
impacting public schools serving Indian country. Despite the lofty rhetoric
and grand promises, the great white fathers of this law, both Republican
and Democrat, have blundered seriously. Tribal governments should be
alarmed at the dramatically increasing time schools must spend on drills
and worksheets in order to prepare for paper tests.

On the surface, the law seems to make sense and, indeed, it is not all bad.
The funds dedicated to the elementary levels and the implementation of
technology are dearly needed and the requirement that the success rates of
Indian students be publicly reported is a good idea. The goal of decreasing
dropouts and increasing graduation rates for Indian students is worthy.
Unfortunately, the methodology dictated by the law is fatally flawed. It
proposes to avoid the "soft prejudice of low expectations," but only
succeeds in making a burdensome assessment system even worse than before.
It is a double dose of the very thing that is poisoning the system.

The terrible irony may be that the whole effort to reduce the so-called
achievement gap exacerbated the problem it seeks to solve by condemning
Indian students to a steady diet of remediation and longer stints of
passive learning. The cure proposed by NCLB may actually be the disease. In
the end, it comes down to a question of who should define success. Thus, it
is a matter of conflicting cultural values.

The cultural clash of perspectives on education between Indians and
Europeans has dated from early colonial times. While negotiating a treaty
at Lancaster, Pa. in June of 1744, commissioners from Maryland and Virginia
invited the Six Nations of the Iroquois to send boys to William and Mary
College for a "proper" education. The next day, Conassatego, speaking for
the Iroquois, declined the offer as follows:

"We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those
colleges and that the Maintenance of our young Men while with you would be
very expensive to you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us
Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you who are so wise
must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and
you will, therefore, not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of
Education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had some Experience
of it...

"We are however not the less oblig'd by your kind Offer tho' we decline
accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentleman from
Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great care of
their Education, teach them all we know and make Men of them."

If he were alive today, how would Conassatego have responded to the No
Child Left Behind Act? Perhaps he might have put it this way:

"To the ladies and gentlemen of the Congress of the United States:

We send our greetings and salutations. We are writing in regard to your new
education law and the impact it is having on our local schools. The funds
are badly needed and we thank you heartily. However, we also are given to
understand that all our students must now test equally well with all other
students. This is a lofty goal and we are convinced that you mean to do us
good by your proposal that we emulate you in this way. But you who are so
wise must know that different nations still have different conceptions of
things and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind
of education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had much
experience of it.

"We know that you highly esteem the numbers given to you by these paper and
pencil tests. Your scientists have studied the numbers deeply and have
foreseen a bleak future for our children. We, on the other hand, have a
cultural tradition of respect for the wisdom of our elders, who tell us
differently. Our cultures also have shamans and other seers who predict the
future. But hard experience has taught us that, as with all things special,
few truly have the gift. Some shamans are false and by the same token, you
must realize that not all who claim the title are true scientists. We
counsel you to look more closely at these little men before you bestow such
power upon the numbers they conjure.

"Nevertheless, we understand and support the need for school
accountability. Since local control and flexibility are two of the pillars
of the No Child Left Behind Act, we propose to offer our local schools an
alternative accountability system. We do not accept that test scores define
the potential or truly measure the growth of our children in any legitimate
way. However, we know that the larger society puts great store in these
numbers and we recognize them as a traditional rite of passage into your
society. We will therefore require our schools to adopt reasonable minimum
scores in reading and math to earn a diploma. We will not, however, require
absolute minimum scores at each grade level. There is no doubt that our
young people will meet and exceed the graduation testing standard but, as
always, we will get there in our own time and in our own way.

"To the honorable members of Congress: We thank you again for the help you
send to our schools but we must reject those requirements that are bad for
our children and other children as well. The scientific method has
limitations and should not be applied to all things. Indeed, its
misapplication to the field of education may be hurting public schools
across the nation.

(Excerpted from an essay written by Robey J. Clark, located online at

Robey J. Clark is an enrolled Blackfeet tribal member from Browning, Mont.
with a Master of Science in educational administration and 35 years of
experience in the field of Indian education. He currently works out of
Portland, Ore. as an educational consultant specializing in culturally
congruent school reform.