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Educator in Navajo Nation Grapples with ‘Savage Inequalities’ in Reservation Schools

A first-hand account from an American Indian teacher who struggles with "savage inequalities" in reservation schools.

In 2010, I moved from Indiana to Piñon, Arizona to teach on the Navajo Nation reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles over a three-state area. I initially came as a student-teacher through Indiana University’s Cultural Immersion Projects program, eager to practice my trade in a new setting and learn as much as possible about the Navajo culture and language. The schools in which I student-taught were very clean and well-maintained and my students were very open and accepting after I had earned their trust and respect.

I then received my B.S. in education from Indiana University and am currently pursuing my M.A. in curriculum & instruction from Arizona State University. After graduating from college, I returned to Piñon as the sixth-grade writing teacher in the Piñon Accelerated Middle School on the Navajo Nation and have lived here since.

In my experience, the students attending schools on Indian reservations, much like their inner-city counterparts, are handicapped by, as author, educator and activist Jonathan Kozol calls them, “savage inequalities.” Indian reservation schools, like inner-city schools, serve mostly low-socioeconomic and culturally marginalized students who typically struggle on the standardized tests mandated by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). There are many factors contributing to this sorry record of underachievement:

• there is less per-student spending by state and federal agencies;
• there is a very high teacher turnover rate due to the unique challenges of teaching on a reservation;
• teachers are teaching to the test rather than focusing on student progress;
• there are pronounced deficiencies in resources for students labeled English Language Learners (ELLs);
• a lack of teacher training for working with ELLs;
• lack of computers and books at home;
• lack of electricity in many homes makes it hard for students to do homework after dark;
• dirt roads that prevent students from attending school regularly due to mud and other resulting conditions.

These challenges, which have been largely eliminated in most parts of the country, unfairly detract from the quality of education that many American Indian students receive. As a result, the dropout rate for American Indians is 8.4 percent, compared to the Anglo dropout rate of 2.7 percent. While 62 percent of all U.S. high school students go to college (according to the American Indian Education Foundation), only 17 percent of Native American high school students do so.

Studies have shown that a good way to decrease dropout rates is to create meaningful learning by using what the students already know as a foundation for what is being taught in class and connecting the learning to the lives and cultures of the students. This is important because most school curricula cater to the suburban, middle-class students who share similar backgrounds and experiences. Furthermore, as most teachers come from that suburban, middle-class population, teaching a similar group of students a curriculum that is specifically created for them may not be very challenging. However, in the case of American Indian students, most teachers and curricula share or include little to no experiences with these populations and, therefore, struggle to build onto the skills and knowledge of students. Most curricula do not incorporate aspects of reservation life, and too few teachers in reservation schools supplement their curriculum with literature and activities that tap into their students’ backgrounds and knowledge or empower the students’ identities and learning through relevancy to their lives. By supplementing the curriculum and providing meaningful opportunities for students to engage in authentic learning through relevancy to the students’ cultures and lives, teachers can dramatically improve the academic successes of their students.

Not only do teachers struggle to adequately present relevant learning opportunities for American Indian students, but standardized testing also tends to ignore the challenge of accurately measuring the performance of American Indian students with tests geared toward Western, middle-class culture. Many American Indian students are ELLs because their primary language, even if it is English, is mixed with another language.

Although there are perhaps 400 different languages spoken by ELLs of different races and ethnicities in the United States, most states have provided minimal accommodations for these students during the high-stakes standardized tests enforced by NCLB due, in part, to fiscal interests. These standardized tests carry high stakes for students, and for their schools. If a school fails to make its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for two consecutive years, it must provide students the opportunity to transfer to non-failing schools and cover the costs of their transportation. If a school fails for three consecutive years results it must get outside sources to provide additional educational opportunities for students, such as tutoring. The school must also appoint outside experts to advise the school, which diminishes the authority of the school’s management. Finally, if a school does not turn around its AYP for four consecutive years, teachers and administrators may be fired, and the school may be converted into either a charter school or private company. All the while, for each of the years that a school does not make its AYP benchmark, it also suffers from funding cuts, which negatively impact the school.

As a result, schools that serve underprivileged students often enter into the deadly cycle of “failing” on the NCLB tests and having their funds cut. A study conducted by the Education Trust discovered that “poor and minority students tend to be segregated in the most overcrowded and underfunded schools” and that the United States spends approximately $900 less per year on each student in the schools with the poorest students than in the school districts with the fewest poor students.

The biggest predictor of college success is performance in rigorous high school courses. As Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities rightly observes: “Money does matter, especially in lower-income communities (such as on the Indian reservations) that lack the staffing to offer the rigorous courses needed for colleges.” Furthermore, ELL students are particularly segregated as the language services they require entail additional funding. As a result, the cycle of underperforming schools not receiving the necessary funding to adequately provide for their students feeds on itself. Without sufficient funding, schools struggle to increase their students’ authentic learning because of a lack of resources. Due to the lack of resources and subsequent lack of authentic learning opportunities, these schools continue to be labeled as “failing” as they are not able to sufficiently prepare their students for the testing standards. The big-picture effect of NCLB: More and more marginalized students and schools are being left behind.

Some Indian reservations are actively taking steps to improve their schools. A case in point is the Promise Neighborhoods program, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, under way in the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana. Given the location of many Indian reservations, technology (online classroom instruction, web-based training) can be a valuable platform to bring distance learning and distance health care to students in these remote areas. In general, teaching on Indian reservations, much like teaching in inner-city schools, requires teachers to bring an existential-phenomenological perspective to bear upon the structure and reality of the school and students.

The central challenge for teachers on Indian reservations is to provide opportunities for authentic learning experiences that are both relevant to the lives and cultures of their students and are applicable to life outside of reservations. Teachers, curricula and standardized tests should be cognizant of and relevant to the specific needs of marginalized and American Indian students through trainings, supplementation, and appropriate accommodations that consider the students’ backgrounds. To be effective, especially on Indian reservations, the academic framework should include an understanding of the cultures of the students. The need for effective education cannot be addressed solely by the imposition of any particular method or methodology but only by the exercise of the creative, inquisitive imagination. As Robert A. DeVillar and Binbin Jiang persuasively mention in their recent book, Transforming America, rather than devaluing student and community identity we should help students on Indian reservations use their multilingual skills as cognitive tools. This is a core insight in understanding socially marginalized students.