ECHO Culture & Change Symposium 2008


The presenters shared many common themes in their assessments of the effects of NCLB on Native communities. While individual outlooks varied, there was general consensus on the following points:

Native communities have been left behind. US indigenous communities are chronically underserved and consistently underperform the US mean in reading and math (National Indian Education Study, 2007, IES). There are approximately 620,000 Indian students enrolled nationwide in grades K-12. More than 50% will drop out of school by 12th grade (NIEA Transition Paper, 2008). Test scores for the US as a whole have improved slightly since the advent of NCLB. Scores for Native students, on the other hand, have remained nearly unchanged (National Indian Education Study, 2007, US Dept. of Education, Institute of Education Sciences).

Standardized tests are created from the perspective of the dominant culture. As such they tend to alienate Native students, as well as others whose cultural “givens” diverge from those expected by test authors.  There is evidence to suggest that culture-based programs get Native students engaged, keep them in school longer, and graduate them at higher rates. Parent, community and student involvement in curriculum development leads to tighter connection with schools.

In education, “universal” does not equal “uniform”; “standards” are not the same as “standardization”.  Knowledge is specific to content and subject matter, so teaching critical thinking and engagement with your physical and cultural surroundings is key. NCLB has reduced emphasis on local reality, environment and traditions, thereby disenfranchising those communities that are rooted in place and culture. There is a growing body of evidence that a child grounded in his or her own culture is better able to learn and more adaptable to others.

Not only for Native students…  Although the Federal government has a special relationship to and responsibility for Native communities, the lessons to be learned in Native education will be applicable to education of any culturally marginalized group: English Language Learners, immigrants, and religious or historically isolated groups, to name but a few. Basing education in the culture of the learner is a strategy that can be applied to the whole community of students in the United States.

Creativity and critical thinking are central. Creative and critical thinking skills have been abandoned under NCLB in favor of standardized and uniform practices. This trend acts to the detriment of the population broadly, with differential disadvantage to Native communities with limited resources and corresponding challenges in attracting and retaining excellent teachers for rural and underfunded school districts.