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Getting Smart About Indian Education Means Looking for Alternative Approaches

Public education has failed Indians for 150 years, fault does not lie with our students but with the method of instruction, which needs a new approach
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Public education has failed the Indian for 150 years, yet so many of us continue to put faith in its reform. We have become too familiar with the disappointing statistics. According to the National Indian Education Association, only 71 percent of Natives have a high school diploma and of those, only 44.6 percent of males graduate with a regular diploma. For those high school graduates, only 11 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.

Each year, tribes across the United States contribute millions of dollars to their local school districts hoping an increase in funding will provide better educational opportunities to Native students. And each year the statistics remain unchanged. Some tribes have even taken the courageous step of creating their own schools—unfortunately often with the same results as the public schools. The fault does not lie with our students but with the method of instruction and the institutional failure built into public education.

Rather than continually funding failing schools and districts, we must embrace alternatives. Our students thrive in project-based learning environments, where what they learn can be tied to immediate practical application. Student success and achievement should be based on progress rather than failure to meet state standardized test scores. Tribes must exercise their sovereignty in education.

For many Natives, education is about survival and not the delayed achievement of future goals. Native students also learn with all of their senses and the spiritual, physical, and emotional sides must be educated as much as the mental. What works for Native students works for all students, but only tribes have the ability to adapt and fund progressive, student-centered education that works. Tribal schools are a great start but often fail to provide the intended opportunities to students because they are too often facsimiles of the culturally illiterate public schools. We must not only teach our culture, but culturally teach.

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Imagine a tribal school built upon truly transformative education. Integrated curriculum taught by culturally literate, highly-skilled teachers and administrators. Imagine a school built around not only college, but also career and technical education with ties to relevant tribal enterprises and departments. Whether for college or career we must educate our children to be leaders in our communities. Imagine a Native student who loves science and excels in a class that works with tribal fish and wildlife. Here, education meets immediate application and a career. There is no need to “teach to the test” because effective, culturally relevant teaching is the bedrock of this system.

Tribes have many options in rethinking education, including creating project-based, holistic, and career focused tribal schools, creating a liaison school with a neighboring school district, or hiring certified, culturally literate teachers for tribal education departments. We can’t extol a universal right answer or model without simultaneously forgetting our diversity as Native peoples. What works for the Apache may not work for the Seminole. Our education programs must necessarily be as unique as the people they serve. The methods are proven. How we choose to use them will determine our outcome.

In addition to the many educational alternatives, tribes need to put as much attention into hiring. Continuing to hire culturally-illiterate, dominant culture teachers will only reproduce the same problems. For 150 years, we have sent our students, by choice or by force, to public schools in good faith with no return. It is time we take our children back.

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina are certified teachers in Washington State. Medina is a career and technical education teacher and Koepp is a middle and high school social studies and history teacher. Both have committed their careers to Indian education.