WASHINGTON - Department of the Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has announced a new $15 million education initiative that aims to improve learning and instruction for 50,000 students and their teachers in Bureau of Indian Education schools to meet the 2014 goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Kempthorne and other Interior officials talked about the new educational effort in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today on Feb. 5 following the presentation at a press conference of Interior's $10.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2008.
The education plan is linked to a separate $16 million proposal to combat the production, distribution and use of methamphetamines on reservations, Kempthorne said.
''Drug cartels are targeting populations such as our Native American tribes because high unemployment and dropout rates seem to be the elements they look for,'' Kempthorne said. ''We need to really intensify our efforts on the education of our children that are targeted in Indian schools.''
The BIE, which operates 184 schools on 63 reservations in 23 states, is one of only two school systems the federal government runs; the other is the military school system.
The NCLB Act was signed into law by President Bush in January 2001. NCLB aims to have every student in the United States proficient in math, reading and science at or above grade level by 2014. The law requires, among other things, mandatory standardized testing in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and at least once during high school. By the end of the 2007 - '08 school year, science testing will required once during grades 3 - 5, 6 - 9 and 10 - 12.
Testing is broken into subsets such as gender, race, ethnicity, special education status, English language learner and more. Schools are required to show ''Adequate Yearly Progress,'' but if a single subset within a school fails to reach a proficiency level, the entire school is deemed to have fallen short.
In public schools outside of the federal school systems, ''failing'' schools are subject to a progression of sanctions and ''corrective actions'' that can ultimately turn a school over to a state or private firm.
''I think only 30 percent of our [Indian] schools are meeting NCLB. We cannot be satisfied with that. So this is $15 million that will be directed toward our school system,'' Kempthorne said.
The $15 million fund seeks:
"$5.3 million for ''education program enhancements'' at BIE schools with the lowest performance on standardized tests for math, reading and language arts. ''This is for leadership training, monitoring and teacher development,'' Kempthorne said.
"$3.6 million for additional educational specialists in administration and data management, contracts and school finances. ''This will be educational specialists at the BIE offices to provide oversight,'' Kempthorne said.
"$4.25 million for student transportation. ''Being from a rural area, I know the challenges of just getting kids physically to school over many miles of tough road conditions. This will help with buses and, I think, will help lower the absentee rate,'' Kempthorne said.
"$1.85 million to fund the Native American Student Information System that will help the BIE keep track of students' academic progress, attendance and NCLB reporting requirements.
Since NCLB is a production of the non-Indian dominant culture, Interior officials were asked if the BIE adopts culturally relevant learning styles for Indian students and if language immersion programs were available.
Tom Dowd, Hopi and the director of Office of Indian Education Programs, said the focus is on English because it is needed for success in the wider culture.
''It's important for our students to be able to be proficient in using the English language. There's a fair amount of Native language taught in the schools in order to help bridge the acquisition of English, if that is not their first language, but the fact of the matter is that throughout their education, which we want them to be successful at both in K - 12 and secondary, they are going to principally be operating in English; so we think it's prudent and responsible for us to ensure that we support the schools to help them be able to teach students who otherwise may not have English as their first language to be able to acquire English language successfully,'' Dowd said.
To that end, BIE and the schools use whatever is ''culturally relevant and pertinent'' to help students learn the basics, Dowd said.
The issue of NCLB's mandated standardized testing was subject to a ''negotiated rule-making,'' which involved Indian country representation, Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason said.
''There were some who believed that we had to have an Indian testing program specifically. There were some who suggested the approach we use is to tailor our testing to parallel the testing done in each state where we have an Indian schools; and the reason is we have a lot of movement of students from Indian schools to public schools so we wanted to afford them the most opportunity of being successful wherever they were testing,'' Cason said.
The decision-makers ultimately decided that students in the BIE schools would take the same standardized tests as other students in the state. Each state develops its own test.
While these efforts are being made to help students and teachers in BIE schools meet the requirements of NCLB, the act itself has come under widespread criticism.
In November 2006, Frederick Hess, education director at the American Enterprise Institute, and Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundations, convened a conference called ''Fixing Failing Schools: Are the Tools in the NCLB Toolkit Working?'' (This can be viewed at www.aie.org.)
Educator Gerald W. Bracey reported on the conference in an article titled, ''Things Falls Apart: No Child Left Behind Self Destructs.''
''As the law enters its fifth year, even its supporters can no longer ignore that the law is imploding,'' Bracey said. He is currently an associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, a fellow at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and a fellow at the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Even ''terrific'' schools can be labeled as failing ''if any subcategory in a school fails to make an arbitrary, predetermined gain in test scores called 'Adequate Yearly Progress,''' Bracey said.
NCLB comes up for reauthorization this year and, Bracey said, ''Radical revision is required.''