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Coming Along or Left Behind?

PORTLAND, Ore. - No Child Left Behind? Perhaps for students - if there are
truly any - who relate to the values implicit in "See Spot run!" and
excited mothers in aprons who say things like "Look, look! See, see!" But
for those in Indian country, the jury's still out.

"If you want to see teachers' eyes roll," president of the Center for
Collaborative Teaching and Learning in Opelika, Ala., Bobby Ann Starnes
said, "just suggest that a group of government-selected programs can ensure
that no child will be left behind." Starnes thinks that even the
politically-catchy name of President Bush's education reform agenda "is
ridiculous" because inevitably kids will fall through the cracks in the
system, just as they have historically.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 reinforces the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act of 1965, the main federal law regarding K - 12
education. While the ESEA primarily provided aid to disadvantaged students,
NCLB makes funding conditional on performance standards set by the federal
government.

Standardization is part of the problem because the process often resorts to
"methods and materials that are the exact opposite of those known to be
effective with Native American children," Starnes continued in her 2003 Phi
Delta Kappan essay. "Sit-and-listen, and sit-and-memorize ... The short
right answer is what counts ... Thinking, imagination and creativity are
very low priorities, if they are priorities at all.".

At first glance, Starnes' claim doesn't jive with one of NCLB's four
tenets: Expanded local control and flexibility. The idea is that school
districts have more freedom to implement innovative teaching strategies and
design professional development training and allocate resources for
education technology. It sounds good on paper, but in Washington state,
even the leaders have questions.

"Momentum is building in addressing disparity in education," said Patsy
Whitefoot, Yakama tribal member and ParaEducator coordinator and Parent and
Community Involvement liaison for the state Office of Superintendent of
Public Instruction. "In the past there wasn't the focus on closing the
gap."

Despite the progress, Whitefoot pointed out that the real issue that has
been with educators all along - the challenge of how to address the needs
of underserved students - remains. "No Child Left Behind has requirements,"
admitted Whitefoot, "but the Bush administration has not followed through
with the funds that we need to implement meaningful multicultural
education."

Starnes agreed. "There is no Native American presence [in NCLB], no
connection between the content and the children's daily lives ... Rich
language experiences are minimal, if even possible."

Indeed, a second parameter of NCLB is an emphasis on using programs and
methods that science and research has shown to be most effective. But how
this mandate interfaces with American Indian communities trying to take
more proactive approaches in their children's education is uncertain.

American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise roughly 1 percent of the total
public school enrollment in the United States or about 500,000 students.
All but 10 percent of this group attends either public or Bureau of Indian
Affairs schools.

"One of the problems we struggle with," said Rachel Maho, member of the
Hopi tribe and principal of BIA-operated Keams Canyon Boarding School, "is
getting mainstream Americans to understand how different and unique our
culture is, especially here on Hopi. I'm not sure that enough consideration
for our society is on the table when the educational strategies are
established."

Another major tenet of NCLB is accountability. The law mandates that
schools meet a variety of standards related to student progress and
attendance, as well as teacher proficiency. By enforcing measurable
standards, the federal government hopes to see American Indian and Alaska
Native students as proficient as their mainstream counterparts by 2013 -
14. Maho agreed that the accountability built into NCLB is good, however
she noted that "some of our students are so far behind now, that catching
them up that fast is unrealistic."

While Maho's school is set squarely within the Hopi and Navajo
reservations, schools that Alaska Native and director of Portland's Native
American Youth Association, Nichole Maher, works with are all within
Portland's urban area. "I do like the No Child Left Behind emphasis on
teacher quality," Maher said. "But that doesn't equate to cultural
competency, a problem that is a big boundary for our students within the
Portland public schools."

Maher also agrees that the fourth tenet of NCLB - that of allowing students
attending schools that do not improve to either transfer or access public
or private tutoring and supplemental support - sounds better in theory than
it works in the daily lives of the youths with whom she works. "What
happens here in Portland - a city in which the disparity of achievement
between minority and white students is nationally very high - is that the
state and district contracts out with places like Kaplan and Sylvan. These
groups have highly developed corporate cultures and staffs that are not
diverse. So, while we have many kids that qualify for the support, they
just won't go because they don't feel comfortable there."

Whitefoot, Maho and Maher may be in different states and situations, but
they agree on one thing: children will do better if their education is tied
to their own culture and language. That NCLB acknowledges this is
debatable. While the U.S. Department of Education maintains that the law
leaves room to incorporate cultural traditions into the classroom, Senate
Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has questions.

In May of this year, Senator Daschle criticized the Education Department
and BIA on the grounds of unclear and inconsistent guidance on complying
with the law, and called for a hearing on NCLB before the Senate Indian
Affairs Committee.

No Child Left Behind. Merely a political football designed to further
election year politics? Or a law capable of truly helping prepare American
Indian and Alaska Native students with the task of straddling two cultures
that so often do no more than meet like passing trains in the night?

As Maho observed, "If a new administration comes into office after the
November election, NCLB policies might be history. We never know what
Washington, D.C. is going to tell us."

And that's the dilemma. On the one hand, the federal government wants to
ensure that all states and schools provide access to quality education. On
the other, local communities want to share in the process of developing a
curriculum and methods best suited to their youths.

The bottom line is, of course, money. Republicans and fiscal conservatives
want a tight cost-benefit system that assures discipline and
accountability. Democrats and laissez fair liberals say the line between
point A and point B isn't always straight and that people will actually
perform more successfully if not so rigidly constrained.

In the middle are the students - American Indian and Alaska Native
students. Whether NCLB will help them experience more success than their
predecessors remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the
education today's youths receive will be with them throughout their lives.
Throughout their lives, as they grow into adults, become parents, and take
their places in adult society as tribal members and citizens of the United
States of America.