Skip to main content

Anderson's views on education

Urges raising the bar for Native children

HAYWARD, Wis. -- "Famous Dave" Anderson, the barbecue restaurant king and
entrepreneur, was spending a weekend at his vacation home on the border of
the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin,
occupied with the work of creating a new resort, entertainment and retail
complex when Indian Country Today caught up with him.

Following a brisk description of the new enterprise and a salvo of work
needed to plan and develop the business, Anderson paused to answer
questions about a favorite topic -- the education of American Indian youth.

Indian Country Today: What have you been doing since you left the
Department of the Interior in February of 2005?

Dave Anderson: Rockin' and rolling! Seriously, I don't allow moss to grow
under my shoes. Some of my best skills are in the creation of businesses
and jobs, and serving the economic needs in areas where employment, jobs
and service is most needed in America. Currently, I'm developing a set of
businesses that will provide multiple opportunities for service, jobs,
sales and entertainment. A business announcement will be forthcoming.

ICT: When you were heading the BIA, it was clear that your interest and
focus were not so much on economic development as they were on education
and Native youth. Are we in Indian country doing a good job in educating
our young people?

Anderson: We're not doing a good job of educating any youth in America. I
just recently saw a report in an education journal that placed American
public school students in 25th place in SAT results among the industrial
nations. The 16-year-olds of Poland and Sweden were ridiculing American
students. This has dire consequences for our future. In years to come, we
may have to import brain power to generate businesses to keep food on the
tables of American homes. What's even more troubling than the fact that
America is seriously behind the rest of the world ... is that Indian
country is even further behind.

The problem with Indian schools is that we're cutting our kids too much
slack. We feel sorry for them because of what happened to their
grandparents -- the theft of their lands, beatings in boarding schools and
years of poverty. Indian tribes boast of their sovereignty and nationhood,
but little is being done to build the human capital that will be needed to
sustain it. School staff feel sorry for the Indian kids, so they ease up on

If you were scheduled for heart bypass surgery, would you want an American
Indian surgeon whose teachers had eased up on him because he was raised at
Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation? I don't think you would;
and yet we lower the bar for Indian students when we know darn well that
our kids will achieve only when we challenge them -- only when we expect
more from them and then excite them, motivate them to acquire more
knowledge and determination.

And by the way, a community will not develop its economic power and value
unless it educates its young people. It's not an "either/or" thing.

ICT: Are you a critic of American Indian schools?

Anderson: I'm a guy who grew up on, worked with and consciously searched
for answers with Indian tribes for over 40 years. I know that until the day
arrives that our tribes take bold steps to reinvent schools that will
courageously demand more from our kids, then our kids will continue to lag
behind other American students in all of the tests and our tribes will keep
leading the nation in all of the poverty areas. I believe there's much more
that we can do, that we should do, to raise the achievement levels of
Indian students.

ICT: What about the cries heard from educators who argue that no matter
what they do in their classrooms, unless the home reinforces learning and
brings the stability that kids need, then their high expectations and
efforts will be wasted?

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Anderson: This argument has been heard in America for over 70 years. It's
the old issue of "home environment versus classroom" that just leads to
parents blaming the school and the schools blaming the home life. Yet,
there are numbers of places in America where dedicated teachers have taken
the initiative to set high expectations; to push kids from minority
[groups], poverty neighborhoods; to reduce all of the needless disruptions,
keep students on task and really motivate kids to learn.

When I was in Interior, I had the opportunity to visit these model schools,
observe teachers and examine school policies that kept the school focused
on learning. We brought these schools together with our [BIA and tribal]
school leaders to learn about the ways that our schools can employ these
strategies to produce scholars.

Tom Torkelsen from the I.D.E.A. Academy explained how his school is located
in rural Texas on the Mexican border in a poverty-stricken barrio with a
history of failure; and yet they started with a belief that Hispanic
children have just as much ability to achieve with the brightest students
in America, and they set high expectations for both students and staff, and
they lengthened the school day and school year -- things that Japanese
schools take for granted. Uniforms take away the social pressure on kids,
and the school's philosophy is "no excuses."

Schools that succeed with minority children do not cut them any slack. In
fact, their modus operandi is to challenge the minority student even more.
Poverty, history and drugs are no excuse. High school students are not
allowed to graduate unless they have an acceptance letter from a college.
There's a waiting list of students trying to get in and the school has a
pick of the best teachers in Texas.

This story was repeated by other presenters who represented the [Knowledge
is Power Program] Academy and the Boy's Choir school in Harlem. Allison
Rose, from KIPP Academy, said that their philosophy was "no shortcuts."
This means that their staff and students must do the things that other
schools are not willing to do. Rose told our school leaders that they must
invest the best use of time for rigorous instruction.

Our tribal leaders and school leaders must have the courage to expect the
highest achievement from our students, our school staff and our parents,
even if it means requiring contracts. One of these guys put their teachers
on notice: "Here's where we're going -- are you with us or are you looking
for a new job?"

ICT: Is there room for tribal language and culture in your vision for BIA
and tribal schools, or is tribal culture part of the excuse system that you
mentioned earlier?

Anderson: In some respects, Indian people have had so many things taken
from them, that our desire to preserve our past and the picture we have of
ourselves as a people who still harvest wild rice, maple sugar, hunt
buffalo, and make moccasins ... this has sometimes been our biggest
deterrent to taking more of a current leadership role in this country.

We respect the traditions and culture of our forefathers and our elders,
yet we have to realize that we too are also responsible for leaving a
legacy to our offspring. In the same way that our great-grandfathers taught
their children, our grandfathers, how to skin buffalo for shelter and food,
how to weave baskets to carry a harvest of corn ... We need to be able to
sit down with our children and show them how to look up the family's
investment portfolio on the Internet.

If we cannot teach our Indian children how to be relevant in today's
society, then we are not being responsible as Indian parents. The true
tradition and culture of our people is that we were always survivors
thriving in the environment we called our home.

Today, we are still living in our homelands; but we are no longer
successfully thriving as independent people capable of supporting our own
governments. As hard as this may be to accept, we need to challenge
ourselves to go back to being the people of our forefathers -- and that is
[being a] proud, independent people capable of surviving in any

ICT: Does the tribal and BIA bureaucracy and the political realities allow
for this kind of change in schools?

Anderson: I believe if any change is going to take place, it must first
start with the attitudes of tribal parents first. When Indian parents start
demanding higher standards for their students and are willing to support
teachers by spending quality time alongside their children at home and
helping them with their homework, then we will not need to worry about the
BIA or tribal politics. It will be parents doing the things that must be
done to raise high-achieving kids -- living healthy, being positive and
supporting the hard work of their children.

The KIPP Academy in Texas and the Harlem Boys and Girls Club Academy school
are both boarding schools that take children from the ghetto, place them in
a structured residential facilities and allow them to flourish. I'm not a
strong advocate of boarding schools, but sometimes conditions demand that
Indian schools also serve this need.