Native American Students Struggling, Lagging in Math and Reading

State reports from around the country tend to show minority students lagging behind their peers when it comes to proficiency in some subjects. For Native Americans this disparity is exacerbated by those being taught in tribal schools; the performance of these students is worse than their peers enrolled in public schools. Can and is anything being done to help these students?

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A Widening Gap

Of the roughly 90% of Native Americans who attend public schools, the numbers are sobering: only 16% are proficient in math and 18% in reading (comparatively, 42% of whites are proficient in math and 40% in reading). A 2011 test results report from Seattle Public Schools showed a downward trend for Native American students in both reading and writing since 2008, while most other groups stayed the same or showed improvement.

However, the numbers worsen when these students are compared to students of the same ethnicity taught at tribal schools. Tribal schools are institutions managed by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). The BIE currently runs 183 such schools in 23 states. The bureau is part of the Department of the Interior and was established in 1824 to provide educational opportunities to Native American children.

Tribal schools strive to integrate Native American culture with educational standards. But is learning their history important enough to forsake math, reading and other standard subjects?

By the Numbers

So how bad is it?

This bad: fourth-grade Native American students taught in BIE schools scored 25 points less than their public school counterparts on national assessment tests for reading and math; eighth-grade students scored 23 points lower when compared to Native Americans in the same grade who are taught in public schools.

When one considers the percentages of math and reading proficiency among Native American public school students, these numbers are indeed disheartening. And it gets worse: at a reservation in Montana, the dropout rate is a staggering 65%! In 2008, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development found that the dropout rate for Native Americans was between 50%-100% higher than the national dropout average.

Is Failure Inevitable?

There doesn't appear to be any quick-fix solutions to the educational problems facing Native American students, particularly when it comes to those taught in tribal schools. One of the main obstacles is that tribal schools are mainly located on poverty-stricken reservations. These areas lack the resources for improvement.

Also, it is difficult to get and retain teachers for these types of schools. Finally, working Native American history and culture into public schools would of course be impossible; tribal schools remain the only viable option for those who wish to learn their native history.

Even those at the highest levels of education recognize and acknowledge the problems. In 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the aforementioned Montana reservation, where he learned that only one student had graduated from college in the previous six years!

Dismayed, Duncan said at the time, 'If we can't help those Native American children be successful over the next couple of years, then I think I personally would have failed.'

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