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Indian Schooling: Riding a Dead Horse

On February 2, 2015, Governor Dennis Daugaard issued an Executive Order creating an advisory board to explore alternative schooling models for possible use in the education of Indian children. Melody Schopp, the State’s Education Director, made a statement owning up to the facts for such action by the Governor. “It is time for the State of South Dakota to own this problem and seek solutions for it.” 

The strategy to seek solutions comes from the historic low levels of educational attainment in the regular K-12 apparatus at Indian public or the federal government’s BIE schools. For over a century data flows from these schools that clearly indicates the Indian populations in America aren’t getting much utility from the educational experience. Yet there is a consistent and even passionate “stick-to-ativeness” to continue a schooling paradigm that is simply not working well for Indian people. 

The evidential research that confirms this on-going story comes from studies such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, (NAEP - 2013). This most respected tri-annual report reveals that Indian children in South Dakota & North Dakota have a 14% proficiency level, or in other words, 86% are not performing at their proper grade level – the lowest performing minority in the USA. 

Other encouraging research continues to find that it is not a matter of Indian intelligence. IQ assessments indicate Indian children start out with just as much brain power and capacity as any learner in America. However, their brain power is not energized, and it is in fact stymied in the conventional American philosophy of schooling which was officially adopted and institutionalized in 1892. 

In any case, it is evident that Indian intellectual propensity wasn’t enhanced in the 1800’s, in the 1900’s, and now going into the 21st Century all information declares the standard K-12 system remains ineffective. 

So if blaming an Indian child’s ability is not a factor in this saga, we also have to scratch blaming administrators and teachers because these folks are very skilled at what they do and are trying their hardest at what Federal and State laws make them do.

A definition of insanity it to keep doing something that doesn’t work. Consequently, perhaps it is time to look at the philosophy and approach that is being employed. After all this was exactly what the Merriam Report called for in 1928. This initial famous Indian study said that a “different point of view” was needed in the education of Indian children.

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Many brilliant officials and scholars, Indian and non-Indian alike, suggest the impoverished home life and historical trauma makes it impossible for Indian students to perform well, which certainly is truthful, but this is an excuse and nothing short of a terrible bail-out because never is there a serious mention to change the learning institutions. Rather, useful but little time-slots are requested and given a few times a week to help Language and Culture or with Self-Image issues, but in all truthfulness, the same overriding failing march goes on. 

The cartoon shown speaks perfectly to this reality. Everyone knows Indian schooling is a debacle. It does register because everyone crabs around about it, nonetheless, everyone just sits on top of the existing K-12 mantra. “When you discover you are riding a dead horse, it is time to dismount!” The Governor and his schooling ace, Melody Schopp have by their actions and words dismounted and have formed a scouting party to look for alternative models that they hope will appropriately address the special needs of American Indian youth. 

Puzzling as this may seem, it is Indian Tribes, their leaders, and even most of the highly esteemed Indian educators, who refuse to dismount. They sit on top of the
K-12 horse, reins tightly gripped so they won’t fall off, occasionally giving the carcass a spurring action.

In Portland, sits the Alder School. It is the poorest school in Oregon and possibly in the United States. Its students are very impoverished and they come from all walks of life, speaking many different languages. This school approaches their schooling task completely different. They use a “Cooperative Learning” philosophy. Their principal, Rob Stewart, says it is all about peace and harmony first. “We don’t worry about academics, that will come along just fine and our statistics prove this. Our concern is about giving these kids great communication life skills.” 

In Lindsay, California there are eight schools that drop kicked the outdated K-12 scheme and went with an “Ability Based Learning” system for its eight thousand plus Hispanic students who all qualify for the federal free lunch program, which translates to widespread poverty. Before the school district decided to “Dismount”, they were engulfed in sad academic performance with buildings full of unhappy, if not hostile students. This was in 2005, now educators from around America travel to see an amazing transformation.

In Austin, Texas, their school district wrangled with troubling student performance and also completely changed their philosophy of learning by going to what they call “Social-Emotional Learning – SEL”. This innovative system has significantly improved student outcomes and the District now boast an 84 % graduation rate. Their school superintendent, Paul Cruz, says their schools explicitly stress social and emotional skills, which results in a positive learning environment for all. The fall out is a district-wide 11% improvement in academic scores. 

Many argue that a school’s conventional hierarchy of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’ is responsible for too much inappropriate behavior as grading and testing required cultivates or creates an unhealthy judgmental attitude toward one another in a system that is based solely on the academics. The prime example of this is the results of feeling inferior which cause the bullying and apathy problems that every school is experiencing across the Country.

Poor academic levels indicate poverty anywhere in the world. The ramifications of poverty hurt everyone. It is not just a State or Reservation problem. Achievement motivation in learning is critical. It is the answer to turning students from sad statistics into dynamic change agents. So it is a very wise move on the part of Governor Dennis Daugaard to seriously look for exciting alternative models of schooling that are showing success. The fallout is the odds of turning around the pretty bleak outlook of reservation socio-economic life is improved and the journey even exciting. 

Dave Archambault Sr., Hunkpapa Lakota, is an education consultant from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is an expert on alternative models of learning, providing services of Why & How to Successfully Implement Schooling Change for Indian Children.