Education Issues Weigh on Tribal Voters in South Dakota, Montana

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are courting the Native vote and their pitches both revolve around improving the educational systems in Indian country. Obama stopped at the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana to make his case. Former president Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota while Sen. Clinton made a stop on the Flathead reservation near Glacier National Park.

While crisscrossing these reservations, both candidates have focused their tribal platforms on the improvement of educational resources. Clinton has pledged to repeal the hotly-debated No Child Left Behind Act and Obama has pledged to invest more money into Indian education and reform NCLB.

But for many within the Indian community, their concerns reach beyond these top-line policy goals, focusing instead on how standardized tests and uniform curriculum could undercut traditional teachings and native language learning. Despite repeated attempts to contact both campaigns, no calls or e-mails were returned to clarify the candidates’ stands on the complex issue, and experts say the problem is much more intricate then simply reforming or repealing the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The issue for Indian tribes in society is yes, they want to be educated but at what cost?” said David Beaulieu, director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University. “We have to give up who we are as peoples, our languages, our heritage, our cultures in order to become educated? It is possible to have your cake and eat it too.”

The Native American system of education was born more than 130 years ago in 1875 when a group of Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapahoe prisoners of war were taken to Fort Marion prison in Florida. Their internment became the model for Indian education: the Indian boarding school.

“That system was developed to completely change Indian societies and cultures and Indian people,” said Beaulieu. “It was designed to eradicate their languages and cultures and one of the best ways thought to do that was to remove children from communities for education.”

In 1924, Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship and the boarding school model was reassessed. The impetus for further change in Indian education came in 1928, with the release of the Meriam Report by the Brookings Institute — a report which condemned the curriculum of the boarding school system.

“You had to be on the same page of the same book in every school everywhere,” said Beaulieu. “It was learning by rote, by memorization, by repetition and a lot of people today see the approaches that come out of the NCLB [No Child Left Behind] approach to education as being sort of like that.”

In 1972, with heavy pressure from Indian Civil Rights groups, the government began fulfilling earlier treaty obligations and passed the Indian Education Act. The act later became Title VII — and finally was incorporated into the No Child Left Behind in 2001.

No Child Left Behind mandates that every child in the U.S. meet state education standards by 2014, and standardized test scores in math and reading measure progress. If a school doesn’t make progress in an allotted amount of time, they are place on a Needs Improvement list and if they do not improve could face sanctions or state intervention.

“There is this incredible pressure to meet these adequate yearly progress requirements and it’s unreasonable and unfair,” said Michael Rebell, author of Moving Every Child Ahead: From NCLB Hype to Meaningful Educational Opportunity. “One of the reasons it’s impossible is even though there’s more funding, there’s not enough to accomplish this goal.”

Rebell says that emphasis on testing is distorting teaching and the idea of a well-rounded education. Many schools teach to the test in order to meet requirements, and subjects that do not affect standardized testing — like art or music studies — are given less attention. But he adds there is another problem.

“The passing scores are set by the states and not set by the federal government,” said Rebell. “So if you’re a state that’s not doing so well you can go ahead and water down your standards or lower your pass score and no one can say boo about it.”

For Beaulieu and other experts, it is the role of Indian culture and language that remains the most important and unique aspect of the educational system.

“Indians have the right to their language and culture as a part of their educational program no matter what,” said Beaulieu, “it shouldn’t be eliminated.”

Keith Moore, Indian Education Coordinator with the South Dakota Department of Education agrees, however, he says implementation of No Child has been a different story.

“I think that’s been the biggest hit on NCLB in Indian country and South Dakota,” he said. “When we’re paying so much attention to just reading and math and science and the basic courses, how are we giving our students what we want them to get which is a nice, well rounded education?”

Moore’s criticism echoes other complaints leveled at NCLB in the past, with the Indian culture and language being possibly sacrificed to “teach to the test.”

Despite the flaws, there is one thing that has come out of NCLB: data. One part of the law forces schools to aggregate data by race and ethnicity. If there is a 70 percent pass rate among a thousand students at a high school, data must be reported.

“Then they have to break down the scores to Black, Latino, ESL (English as a Second Language), and 70 percent of those categories have to pass as well,” said Rebell. “So if 80 percent of your kids are passing and only 50 percent of the Blacks are passing then the school is listed as Needs Improvement and sanctions are put on the school.”

This has proved useful for places like South Dakota.

“For a long time we had anecdotal data and stories about Indian education and we knew kids weren’t doing well, but now we have specific data,” Moore said. “So I could say that NCLB really put the spotlight back on Indian education in South Dakota.”

In South Dakota, the graduation rate for Native American students is around 61 percent while the overall graduation rate for the state is about 89 percent. Moore says the data hasn’t changed much over the last five years, but in places like the Pine Ridge reservation, the graduation rate is part of a larger struggle to improve life on the reservation.

“There’s 65 to 85 percent unemployment and it’s been that way for 100-plus years now,” Moore said. “That creates problems and issues for communities when you have that type of unemployment for the long haul.”

Moore says research shows that lessening expectations for low socio-economic, minority schools has been detrimental, saying, “We’ve got to have high expectations in our standards and our assessment in order to have kids achieve and achieve at a level we want them to be competitive in the world.”

In both of the states that vote June 3, the Indian vote will make up a sizeable part of the voting bloc with more than six percent of the population of Montana, and over eight percent of South Dakota’s population.

Analysts say when these Indian voters cast their ballots, it will be for the candidate who can offer some hope and specific ideas for improving the struggling state of Indian education and the overall economic outlook for Native Americans.

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