No Child Left Behind Act: A Bust in Indian Country

A story about the No Child Left Behind Act and its negative effect on American Indians.

American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) kids have not made as much progress in reading and math under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as politicians and educators had hoped, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing done by the federal government. One of the major goals of NCLB, signed into law by President George Bush in 2002, was to close the achievement gap between white and non-white students. Instead, the gap is getting bigger.

The first year that NAEP tests were administered following the implementation of NCLB was 2003, and those test results showed a continuation of negative trends among minority students that had been evident for years. The 2011 NAEP scores for AI/AN students, compared with 2003 scores, show that for the most part those negative trends are getting worse:

• Fourth-grade reading scores for AI/AN students were the same in 2011 as in 2003. The gap between the scores of AI/AN students and white students was 28 points, one point higher than in 2003.

• Eighth-grade reading scores for AI/AN students showed a six-point improvement in 2011, compared with 2003. The gap between the scores of AI/AN students and white students was 22 points, four points lower than in 2003.

• Fourth-grade math scores for AI/AN students rose two points in 2011, compared with 2003. The gap between the scores of AI/AN students and white students was 24 points, four points higher in 2011 than it was in 2003.

• Eighth-grade math scores for AI/AN students were two points higher in 2011 than they were in 2003. The gap with white students was 28 points, three points higher than it was in 2003.

In short, the achievement gaps in reading and math for fourth-graders and in math (but not reading) for eighth-graders has widened since NCLB was implemented. Even more disturbing news: the disappointing results of NCLB were not confined to Indian country—NAEP test scores for all students between 2003 and 2011 have been trending upward very slowly, as they have been doing since 1992.

The Native education community has consistently expressed doubts that NCLB was serving its children. The National Indian Education Association (NIEA) issued a report in 2005 that said Native leaders and educators were concerned that profound changes were happening in Native education but those changes had “not included the Native voice.” Research shows that Native children learn best in classrooms where language- and culture-based education are practiced.

A July 2011 policy brief published by the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, The Role of Native Languages and Cultures in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Student Achievement, by Teresa L. McCarty, co-director of the center, concluded that “there is compelling empirical evidence that strong, additive, academically rigorous Native language and culture programs have salutary effects on both Native language and culture maintenance/revitalization and student achievement, as measured by multiple types of assessments.”

A witness quoted in NIEA’s 2005 report on NCLB put it this way: “The standards and practices [of NCLB] are not sound for the teaching of Indian children. Our children see and order their world very differently from most other children, and, as a result, demonstrate their knowledge in deepening and unique ways. The current push to meet the academic standards set out in the No Child Left Behind law rejects the need to provide culturally competent instructions.”

NCLB, with its emphasis on standardized testing, has worked against culturally based education programs. Title VII of NCLB focused on the importance of providing Native children with culturally appropriate education and provided funding for programs that do that, but the focus on testing and accountability in conjunction with insufficient funding has had unintended consequences. Title VII funding has been diverted to preparing children for standardized tests and to provide remedial education. This is essentially the same complaint heard across the nation regarding the sacrifice of art, music, physical education and other programs to the requirements of NCLB.

A benchmark for the success of NCLB is that all children will be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, even though no state has ever had all its children proficient in reading or math. In 2010, The New York Times quoted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan as referring to the 2014 target as a “utopian goal.”

The federal response to this predicament has been far-reaching, but very little information has made its way into public discourse. The Obama administration quickly began backing away from NCLB. In 2010, the administration commented, “NCLB highlighted the achievement gap and created a national conversation about student achievement. But it also created incentives for states to lower their standards; emphasized punishing failure over rewarding success; focused on absolute scores, rather than recognizing growth and progress; and prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their goals.”

In September 2011, President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan invited states to submit requests

for waivers that, if approved, would release them from meeting 2014 NCLB targets.

Relief from NCLB targets will be granted, say the feds, “in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive state-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity and improve the quality of instruction.”

Some organizations, such as the Campaign for High School Equity, of which the NIEA is a member, expressed concern that the waivers could put minority students at risk, and called for the inclusion of “communities of color” in national education-planning and policy-making.

Another attempt by the White House to get away from NCLB came on July 24, 2009, when Obama and Duncan announced Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion education-reform program. Unlike NCLB, Race to the Top was created when President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on

February 17, 2009. States compete for funds to support their education-reform goals. Two of the criteria by which applications are judged are the state’s plan for revising its education standards and its plan for developing assessments to measure how well students are doing in meeting those standards.

States may, but are not required to, include tribal schools or Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools in their allocation of these funds, and no Race to the Top funds went directly to BIE or tribal schools because they were not in the pool of eligible applicants, a fact that has disturbed the Native American community.

The National Congress of American Indians said in a 2009 letter to Duncan: “We particularly hope that you will give serious consideration to ways in which tribal schools can become eligible for future funding and grant opportunities such as the Race to the Top grant. Due to a legislative oversight, tribal schools—who serve some of the country’s most at-risk students—are ineligible for crucial funding opportunities.”

A bill introduced in 2010 by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) that would have amended the legislation to correct this oversight died in committee. However, Congress has authorized the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to run a district-level (as opposed to state-level) competition for the $550 million allocated to Race to the Top in the 2012 federal budget.

Two consortia of states are working on creating new assessments that are in line with the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards are intended to ensure that students are ready for college and careers. The final standards were released on June 2, 2010. The 28-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the 24-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers are both funded through Race to the Top. Unlike the NAEP tests, the new assessments are expected to provide information about individual students as well as data on state educational achievement, something that school officials, including those in the American Indian community, have been promoting for years.

The notion of common standards is troublesome to some. David Beaulieu, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, is a professor of educational policy and community studies and director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, former director of the Office of Indian Education at the DOE, and a former president of the NIEA. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network he says, “I’m not for a one-size-fits-all approach; it cuts into the possibilities for American Indians to develop their own standards that take into account the diversity of our tribes and meet the needs of students and communities both. It’s a retrenchment of the tribal movement to write standards [for them].”

Some say judging schools by standardized state and federal tests denies the importance of (and pulled resources away from) the effort to develop standards assessments by Native communities. Beaulieu even suggests that imposing common federal standards and assessments is reminiscent of the boarding school era.

But state-developed standards further confuse the role of the federal government in Indian education. “Indians always understood the importance of the federal government in Indian education. Current policies give American Indians two federal governments to deal with, one the federal government with trust responsibilities to Native Americans, the other the federal government that is focused on state control of education,” says Beaulieu.

One way to deal with this state tribal–sovereignty issue, he says, would be to use state-tribal negotiations such as those involved in state-tribal gaming compacts to create schools that can meet the needs of Native students. “There are agreements between states and tribes in various areas, but why not education? Another possibility is tribes would operate schools directly.”

On the other hand, the NCLB waivers could be a benefit, says Beaulieu. “I think it’s necessary to get the ball moving since Congress has not reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] since 2002.” The policy recommendations that came from the 2005 NIEA report, says Beaulieu, have gone nowhere because ESEA, first passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, has become a victim of gridlock in Washington as both Republicans and Democrats vie to control the direction of American education. No action on ESEA is expected until after the 2012 elections at the earliest. In the meantime, the DOE has granted ESEA waivers to 11 states, with at least 28 more states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico waiting for their proposals to be evaluated as of February 20, 2012.

While Congressional reauthorization of ESEA and revisions to NCLB are not expected any time soon, recent moves do indicate a renewed federal commitment to Indian education. Among them:

• On December 2, during his third White House Tribal Nations Conference, the president signed Executive Order 13592 titled, “Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.” After reaffirming the United States’s trust responsibility to AI/AN tribes, the order states that “federal agencies must help improve educational opportunities provided to all AI/AN students, including students attending public schools in cities and in rural areas, students attending schools operated and funded by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and students attending postsecondary institutions, including tribal colleges and universities.”

• That executive order also created the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.

• On December 23, the DOE’s Office of Indian Education invited applications for the 2012 Demonstration Grants for Indian Children program for projects that develop, test and demonstrate the effectiveness of services and programs to improve the educational opportunities and achievement of preschool, elementary and secondary Indian students. The Obama administration has requested $3 million in funding for the program.

• Mid-2011, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), along with Sens. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Udall and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced S.1262, the Native CLASS Act, an Indian education bill that would dramatically increase tribal sovereignty over elementary and secondary education for Native American children in tribal schools and in public schools on or near reservations. A companion bill, H.R. 3568, was introduced in the House on February 8 by Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) and referred to several House committees for consideration. Fifteen Representatives cosponsored the bill.

“It appears the Obama administration is very interested in getting tribal leaders’ views on Indian education,” Beaulieu says. “I don’t think [the DOE] will be able to make progress until we get a viable mechanism for incorporating the voices of tribes in education.”

The Native CLASS Act could provide just that mechanism. Will Congress pass it?