Gilbert: Indian kids deserve a fair chance

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For all the worthy debate over the relative merits of the No Child Left Behind Act, let;s not lose sight of the goal on which we can agree: to better educate and prepare our nation's students. A recent study by the Center on Education Policy documented improvements in American Indian and Alaska Native students' reading and math achievement since NCLB was enacted in 2002. From the perspective of this educator, such results reinforce the importance of NCLB as a significant source of data to better understand student progress, but a work in progress in terms of achieving equality for all high school students in the U.S.

The inequities and indignities that darken the history of public school treatment of American Indians and Alaska Natives are a national tragedy. Even though the CEP report indicates recent improvements, findings specific to Native students were presented with caution. Challenges in data reporting of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students muddy the projection of their success and cloud the stark reality of the dismal graduation rates that afflict our young people.

Fewer than half of all American Indian students graduated from high school during the 2003 - 04 school year, compared to more than three-quarters of white students. And American Indian and Alaska Native students who stay in school read below grade level at rates higher than their white peers. What awaits these students who don't achieve in school and don't graduate? All too often the answer is poverty, incarceration, suicide, teen birth or substance abuse.

By and large, our neighborhood schools are not serving American Indian and Alaska Native students academically or culturally. We must demand policy changes that prepare schools to support and nurture tomorrow's leaders. A reauthorized NCLB should include requirements for teaching that takes culture into account, improving teacher quality and reporting of data in such a way that we can make meaningful comparisons among and across subgroups. The next CEP report should paint a clearer picture of success for American Indian and Alaska Native students.

Students excel in the classroom when content area, Native language and culture intersect. For example, the Native Science Connections Research Project at Northern Arizona University, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, successfully integrates Native language, culture and traditions into schools' science elementary curriculum. Ongoing analysis reveals increased student mastery of science and math concepts, deeper levels of student engagement in science and math, and increased student achievement in math and science. In a Navajo immersion school, Tse'hootsooi Dine' Bi'olta', third- and fifth-graders are performing at higher levels than their peers in the state reading, writing and math assessments. These types of innovative solutions should be encouraged and adequately resourced.

The quality of teachers also affects the success of American Indian and Alaska Native students. From the small numbers of teachers who represent similar cultural backgrounds as their students to an inability to recruit subject-matter trained teachers for schools in remote or isolated communities, students are paying the price.

Finally, the way in which data are reported by high schools confounds efforts to improve student achievement. Without a requirement by NCLB to disaggregate data by ethnic subgroup, the progress or lack thereof made by American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students will continue to be overlooked, rendering an inaccurate perception of the reality. Unless educators and school officials have the capacity to hone in on problem areas, how can they be expected to address them? It's like planning in the dark.

American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students deserve a fair chance to succeed. With NCLB reauthorization that requires culturally based teaching, teacher quality and data disaggregation, we can provide our students with that opportunity.

Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, Hopi, is the board president of the National Indian Education Association. NIEA is a member of the Campaign for High School Equity, a civil rights coalition that strives for education policy that prepares all students to be successful in work and life.