WASHINGTON – A Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on education May 25 raised the idea that Native-language immersion schools deserve emphasis alongside the national No Child Left Behind program.
Educators throughout the nation are required to cope with the quantitative Adequate Yearly Progress scores in reading and math that assess a school’s competence under No Child Left Behind. As a result, said Ryan Wilson, president of the National Indian Education Association, “There’s a huge push to advance only scientific education.”
In the meantime, Wilson and other witnesses said, evidence mounts that Native-language immersion programs are associated with stronger student interest in learning and higher academic achievement. Kevin Skenandore, acting director of the Interior Department’s Office of Indian Education Programs, said a survey of Interior’s five best-performing Indian schools, its five worst-performing schools and all Hopi schools (they have all passed the AYP benchmarks) yielded support for that position.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, drew from the educational experience of her own sons to note that dual-language schooling can be a concern to parents in the early school years. But later in the educational process, she said, it becomes clear that immersion learning of a second language early on pays off in better academic performance across the board. As Wilson expressed it in his written testimony, “National studies on language learning and educational experience indicate the more language learning, the higher the academic achievement. Solid data from the immersion school experience indicates that language immersion students experience greater success in school measured by consistent improvement on local and national measures
Some of the May 25 testimony, as well as several examples Murkowski marshaled from Alaska, suggested that tribal students in the usually rural, often isolated environs of Indian country have a hard time finding relevance in the conventional, Western-inflected pedagogy. Though data on Native language immersion schools is still being compiled, the theme of several witnesses was that learning a Native language along with English may resolve the problem of educational relevance for many students.
But Wilson added that while Native cultures and communities are losing immersion-program resources, including many speakers, “at lightning speed,” they are recovering their languages “at horse-and-buggy speed.” He offered NIEA’s support for several bills before Congress that would encourage Native language immersion programs. Senate Bill 2674, the Native American Languages Act Amendments of 2006, has been sponsored by Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye, of Hawaii; Sen. Max Baucus, of Montana; and Sen. Tim Johnson, of South Dakota, all Democrats. In the House, Republican Reps. Heather Wilson, of New Mexico, and Rick Renzi, of Arizona, have offered House Bill 4766, the Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006. Also in the House, Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, has introduced H.R. 5222, the Native American Languages Amendments Act of 2006.
S. 2674 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Ryan Wilson urged quick action. He added that it can bring about “a new day” in Indian education.
But much remains of the old days, including Indian test scores that trail national averages and faltering marks on the AYP standard of the No Child Left Behind initiative of President George W. Bush.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., vice chairman of the committee, pronounced himself “a little perplexed” at Interior’s response: a “reorganization” to increase the ratio of senior executives to staff personnel. The reorganization is the target of a tribal lawsuit announced one day before the hearing.