WASHINGTON - The National Indian Education Association delivered a
preliminary verdict on No Child Left Behind at its February summit in
Washington, but not until March 28 in Arizona did the primary NIEA
complaint strike home with force.
The Arizona State Board of Education voted unanimously to take over
operations at 11 schools deemed "failing" under President Bush's NCLB
initiative, which measures school performance on numerous indicators,
including teacher credentials, student scores on standardized tests and
"adequate yearly progress" benchmarks.
Under NCLB, all districts and schools receiving federal Title I funds must
meet state adequate yearly progress goals for their total student
populations and for specified student groups. A school failing to meet AYP
goals is classified "in need of improvement" and faces consequences.
Students in these schools may be eligible for school choice or supplemental
services such as tutoring. Continuing problems may bring about more drastic
measures, depending on the state.
The first schools to fail in Arizona fell short because of faltering
student scores on standardized tests. The state ranked the schools as
failing, and state officials subsequently worked with teachers and parents
to develop plans for change.
Following the March 28 board vote, the state's options include "kicking out
five principals, mentoring those allowed to stay, replacing teachers and
even combining campuses," according to the Arizona Republic newspaper,
which reported the board vote.
These were not Indian schools. But one board member, Cecilia Owen, "worried
that rural schools, which struggle to hire and keep principals and
teachers, would be able to sustain improvements after the state's
As the Arizona Republic reported, "Owen said improving schools is only a
piece of developing economic stability in many remote communities that
suffer from poverty and lack of jobs."
Add to her concerns a near-visceral fear that Native culture will not be
fully accounted for as K - 12 Indian schools come under the NCLB
performance measures, and NIEA's early verdict on the sweeping reform
Dave Beaulieu, NIEA president and director of the Center for Indian
Education at Arizona State University, offered testimony to Congress that
underscored many of the remarks made by NIEA members at the summit:
"Although the National Indian Education Association supports the
broad-based principals of No Child Left Behind, there is widespread concern
about the many obstacles that the NCLB presents to Indian communities, who
often live in remote, isolated and economically-disadvantaged communities.
"There is no one more concerned about the accountability and documenting
results than the membership of our organization, but the challenges many of
our students and educators face on a daily basis make it difficult to show
adequate yearly progress or to ensure teachers are the most highly
"The requirements of the statute and its time frame for results do not
recognize that schools educating Native students have an inadequate level
of resources to allow for the effective development of programs known to
work with Native students."
In effect if not intent, then, "NCLB emphasizes failure" for Indian
schools, in the words of Bobby Ann Starns, an educator at Rocky Boys in
"Native American needs are at one end of a continuum, and NCLB exists at
another," Starns said, adding that the law emphasizes the opposite of what
is known about Native learning styles - that is, it rewards part-to-whole
instead of whole-to-part learning, abstract thought instead of hands-on
experience, and linguistic instead of visual teaching strategies.
Starns characterized NCLB as ineffective and disrespectful of Native
culture, a product of putative "scientific research" that is no more than
the established opinion of a small group of influential non-Indians.
Carol Lee Gho, an assistant professor of Mathematics at the University of
Alaska, said the problems with NCLB for all Indian schools are concentrated
in Alaska. Teachers often take a job in the state as an adventure, find it
more adventurous than they bargained for and leave early, contributing to
high turnover in the state's teaching ranks.
Under the circumstances, years of teaching experience should equate to a
credential that satisfies NCLB criteria, she added. For many Alaska Native
students in a school that is found to be failing, "Choice is silly when the
nearest school is 100 miles downriver."
And adequate yearly progress is problematic in small rural schools, where a
few dropouts can undermine a class's chances of achieving AYP goals. Gho
said students should be assessed individually rather than as a class, and
schools should be assessed by progress.
Deborah Bordeaux, of Loneman School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South
Dakota, said the school believes in the philosophy of NCLB. But in
practice, the law leaves children behind: "Alaska children, children at the
bottom of the canyon, FAS [fetal alcohol syndrome] children."
Verlie Ann-Malina Wright, NIEA board member and vice principal of a
Hawaiian native language immersion school in Honolulu, said her first
priority in Washington was to get a Native Hawaiian provision in the NCLB
law. She said she was looking for support of "the right to be educated in a
Native way," and judging from the applause, she found it.
Joyce Silverthorn, director of education for the Salish and Kootenai in
Montana, said the teacher credentials mandated by NCLB are especially
difficult to come by for Indian schools, which typically value experience
within the tribal culture - experience that isn't recognized adequately
outside the culture.
"It's been difficult to get through the barriers that [mainstream] teacher
education sets up for us ... We face strong challenges in creating a better
Silverthorn also mentioned a historical track record that prevents some
Indian parents from engaging with education in their communities. Problems
associated with the boarding school era, when mission schools sought to
separate Indian children from their families, communities and cultures,
"live on in our communities," Silverthorn explained.