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Get Smart: Bring World-Class Teaching to Native Schools

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In his recent visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, President Obama announced an ambitious plan to fulfill the promise of a brighter future for children who grow up in often remote and impoverished Native communities. He set high expectations for success, calling the lack of opportunity available to Native American students “a moral call to action.”

Unlike other groups, Native students have yet to benefit from education reforms over the past decade. Their achievement results have remained stagnant and the gaps separating them from their peers of other races and ethnicities have actually widened. While the U.S. Department of Education recently hailed the news that the nation’s high school graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent, the rate for students in schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) is an alarming 59 percent and the dropout rate for Native students stands at twice the national average.

Charles M. Roessel

After numerous listening sessions and tribal consultations, today, the Obama administration released a “Blueprint for Reform,” a comprehensive plan to redesign the BIE to achieve one overarching, mutual goal for the BIE and tribes: for tribes to deliver a world-class education to all students attending BIE schools.

Native Americans can have confidence in the administration’s plan because it has as its cornerstone an effort to elevate the factor that contributes most to student success in school—teaching. The BIE is partnering with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to support more BIE teachers in achieving Board certification through a rigorous, performance-based, peer-reviewed process similar to certification in fields such as medicine.

It’s important to be clear about one point in particular: This initiative is not about parachuting teachers into the BIE schools; it’s about getting resources and support to the teachers who have chosen to work in these schools for their careers. There are many logistical, pedagogical and cultural reasons that students should be learning from members of their own community, but like many rural schools, BIE schools face a challenge in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. Teachers often lack access to professional development resources as well exposure to best practice and innovative approaches in education. It is imperative that we invest in these teachers to secure the future of Native communities.

National Board Certification, in its emphasis on self-reflection, cultural competency and student learning gains, has been a transformative experience for more than 100,000 teachers across the country. Research has shown that students of Board-certified teachers outperform students in other classrooms. For this reason alone, developing a pipeline of accomplished, Board-certified teachers in BIE schools will go a long way toward changing the odds for Native students.

Ronald Thorpe

The initiative has set a goal of developing 1,000 Board-certified teachers in BIE schools by 2020, representing a quarter of the existing teaching workforce. But the gains will be much greater. Every teacher in BIE schools will benefit from resources connected to the National Board process. Through mentoring and teacher leadership roles, teachers who achieve Board certification will continue to have an impact on their students and colleagues well into the future.

By connecting BIE educators with their Board-certified colleagues around the nation, the initiative will build a powerful network to improve education and outcomes for Native children and ensure that all BIE students receive a world-class education that honors their cultures, languages and identities as Indian people.

President Obama often talks about rectifying broken promises when he mentions the history of the United States and tribal nations. This new partnership is a significant step in finally fulfilling the dream for Native children and rewriting that tired narrative.

About the Authors: Dr. Charles M. “Monty” Roessel is the director of the Bureau of Indian Education within the U.S. Department of the Interior and is a member of the Navajo Nation. Dr. Ronald Thorpe is the president and CEO of the nonprofit National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.