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Wahinkpe Topa: Say 'No More!' to laws that hurt our children

In 1892, Captain Richard C. Pratt, the founder of Carlisle Indian School, presented a paper in which he said, "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one ... In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." From that day forward, schools were used instead of guns to end "the Indian problem."

George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law continues the violence against Indian children in ways more subtle than those of the boarding schools, but in ways that are equally wrong. These laws that label schools and children as "failing," and force teachers to ignore the true ways of teaching and learning, are part of a plan to assure that class systems in the U.S. remain unchallenged and that democratic ideals will be replaced with authoritarianism.

We say we love our children, that they are sacred. If so, why do we continue to allow our schools to implement this law in spite of the fact that most respected education associations agree that the law hurts children, especially children of color? For example, the largest educational group in the country, the American Education Research Association has taken a stand against high stakes testing, saying, "Decisions that affect individual students' life chances or educational opportunities should not be made on the basis of test scores alone." The American Evaluation Association has taken even a stronger position, saying that "high stakes testing leads to under-serving or mis-serving all students, especially the most needy and vulnerable, thereby violating the principle of "do no harm." The American Evaluation Association opposes the use of tests as the sole or primary criterion for making decisions with serious negative consequences for students, educators, and schools."

To judge schools and children exclusively by a single test result with tests that are aligned with white, middle-class values, is to miss much of what matters in education. Relying on proficiency benchmarks as the law does makes things even worse. NCLB requires that every public-school child in grades three through eight be tested annually in reading and math. The law requires every school to report the percentage at each grade level who achieve proficiency and, separately, the percentage of each racial and ethnic minority group and the percentage of low-income children who achieve it. If schools fail at this, they are labeled as failing, given time to correct the failing, then subjected to serious penalties if the failing status continues.

All of this gets what education should be about all wrong. It causes teachers to all but ignore art, music, critical thinking, creative autonomy and social/environmental justice. In many states, the tests themselves are flawed. The pressure on children and parents "not to fail" is creating serious issues in self-esteem, a problem already serious in Indian country.

Many educators outside Indian country feel NCLB does violence to children, especially those in minority populations, but they have little options but to say "no" and risk getting fired. Educators and parents in Indian country have an advantage. We have sovereignty. Consider that Title VII, the American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native Education Act that is inserted into NCLB clearly states: "It is the purpose of this part to support the efforts of local educational agencies, Indian tribes and organizations ? and other entitles to meet the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indians and Alaskan Natives so that such students can meet the same challenging State student academic achievement standards as all other students are expected to meet." Section 7114 (c) (4) goes on to say that LNCB "will not diminish availability of culturally related activities."

Labeling schools and children as "low performing," putting them at risk for take over, forcing them to adopt a curriculum that is not culturally related, and allow Indian and non-Indian educators who have been propagandized to reproduce a system of thinking about the world that is harmful to everything does diminish culturally related activities.

So what are we waiting for? The gross underfunding of NCLB also means that the U.S. government does not have the resources to "take over" all of our Indian schools if we stand together and all "say no." We have research on our side. We have the language of the law itself on our side. More importantly, we have our cultural worldviews about the sacredness of our children and the traditional approaches to teaching and learning on our side.

A little known clause in NCLB forces schools to release student names to military recruiters. Those with the lowest test scores often become front line casualties in illegal, immoral wars. This is another reason to say no to these laws. If we do, no one can say truly we do so to avoid honorable military duty. During the Vietnam War, nearly 99 percent of the 86,000 Indians who enlisted volunteered, giving American Indians the highest record of service per capita of any ethnic group, and over half served in combat.

But if we still have the courage to fight for what is right, then Indian people, who are still here against all odds, in spite of Captain Pratt's and George Bush's educational agenda, are still here. It is time for us to use this courage and warrior spirit for our children. This is a great chance for us to exercise our sovereign rights, for the sake of our children, for the sake of all of our futures. It is time for Indian country to take the lead.

Formerly Dean of Education at Oglala Lakota College, Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows - also known as Don Trent Jacobs, Ph.D., Ed.D.) is an associate professor in Education Leadership at Northern Arizona University and a faculty member at Fielding Graduate Institute's College for Educational Leadership and Change. His articles and books on behalf of indigenous peoples can be viewed at His forthcoming book, "Indigenous Worldviews: First Nation Scholars Challenge Anti-'Indian' Hegemony", includes contributions from Vine Deloria Jr., Greg Cajeti and others who also believe that it is past time for us to take a stand.