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Oklahoma Brags About American Indian Students

With the U.S. Department of Education and public education in jeopardy, applauding achievements by American Indian students is a good thing.

On March 7, the Oklahoma Department of Education put out a press release crowing about its American Indian students and the results of the 2015 National Indian Education Study:

Oklahoma’s American Indian students continue to lead the nation in math and reading scores. The 2015 National Indian Education Study (NIES) released today shows significant gains in reading for Oklahoma fourth-graders, who scored 19 points above the national average.

Oklahoma’s American Indian scores in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading have consistently been above the national average since the test was first administered in 2005.

“We are immensely proud of our American Indian students and their achievements on the Nation’s Report Card,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

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The report sampled 14 states with significant American Indian populations. Oklahoma’s scores dropped in only one area—eighth-grade math—but Hofmeister pointed out those scores were still above the national average.

Some people claim that the test scores Oklahoma Indians keep putting up are an artifact of the historic assimilation of the Five Tribes. There are ways to examine that if somebody thinks it’s important enough, but the most important issue is the gap between American Indian students generally and non-Indian students. Attacking that problem requires government keeping an eye on it.

On December 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13592, directed at closing the test score gap between American Indian and Alaska Native students and other students. Like so many Obama executive orders, 13592 was an attempt to pull together everything the executive branch could do in the absence of congressional action “to help ensure that AI/AN students have an opportunity to learn their Native languages and histories and receive complete and competitive educations that prepare them for college, careers, and productive and satisfying lives.”

The meat of 13592 was to put together governmental actors with potential private sources of funding and to require the various governmental actors to report progress or lack of it every year.

While President Trump has generally denounced executive orders that walk to the edge of presidential authority and promised to revoke them, he has so far been too busy for such a general sweep.

The U.S. Department of Education funds the only broad-based attempt to relate cultural competence among American Indian students to test scores. Early attempts at Indian education famously tried to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man” and here we are in the 21st century just beginning to understand that destruction of indigenous cultures is not a good place to start empowering American Indian students.

A group of Omaha American Indian students in their cadet uniforms at the militaristic Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1880.

A group of Omaha American Indian students in their cadet uniforms at the militaristic Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1880.

The NIES reports can, over time, show how preservation of Native languages and cultures is a good thing rather than a drawback. These initiatives are also threatened by the new administration.

The Department of Education has been on the conservative hit list from the time it came into the cabinet under President Carter. President Reagan promised to eliminate it as a cabinet post but was unable to overcome Democratic opposition. That may no longer be a problem. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced H.R. 899 last month. The bill reads in full:

The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.

While Massie’s bill fails to deal with lots of necessary details and is therefore unlikely to fly, it does illustrate an attitude toward the Department that can probably command a majority. At this time, the Deputy Secretary and Under Secretary offices in the Department of Education are vacant and General Counsel position is filled by an “Acting” place holder. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has a record opposed to public education generally.

Oklahoma may be trying to take too much credit, but publicly lauding the achievements of American Indian students is a good thing when both Executive Order 13592 and the Department of Education itself are in political jeopardy.