Skip to main content
A line of middle-school students standing in a classroom, with one boy with short brown hair and a gray shirt smiling.
One Day Magazine

Why are Native Students Being Left Behind?

The U.S. once used schools to try to exterminate Native language and culture. A new approach would build on indigenous values, languages, and strengths.

By Susan Brenna

December 11, 2014

Apart from Department of Defense schools, schools for American Indian students are the only ones in the country operated and totally funded by the federal government under treaty agreements that promise federally-supported schooling in perpetuity in exchange for tribes giving up lands (which are not subject to property taxes and generate no tax revenue to support schools). And no group of students in America fails to graduate or achieve proficiency at such disproportionate rates. (Editor’s Note: This article ran in the Fall 2014 edition.)

The failure of the U.S. to deliver on its treaty obligations to educate American Indian students first came to light in 1928, when the 847-page Merriam Report documented the disastrous effects of federal policies that forced American Indian children into boarding schools. These schools imposed manual labor and worked to eradicate students’ “Indianness” by teaching that their cultures and languages were inferior.

In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act, or “Indian New Deal,” granted self-determination rights to tribes that extended to education and later created new funding streams for schools on and off reservations. But 35 years later, a Senate report declared a near-total lack of high-quality education on reservations, calling Indian education “a national tragedy.”

This was followed by the National Academy of Public Administration report in 1999 that condemned the management of schools in tribal areas by the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the U.S. Department of the Interior; then by the Bronner Report in 2012, citing poor coordination among all the offices in the Interior Department responsible for Native education; and then by a Government Accountability Office report in 2013. The GAO found the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) had so mismanaged schools that it had given them permission to use assessments that failed to meet federal requirements because the BIE “does not have procedures that specify who should be involved in key decisions.”

“If we had systems of schooling in Indian country that were primarily locally and tribally controlled, would that mean different outcomes for kids?”

Angelina Castagna

From the standpoint of scale, improving Native students’ education would seem manageable. Of the nearly 50 million students in American public schools, just more than one percent, or around 700,000, identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian (though only American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages are federally recognized, with tribes maintaining a historical treaty trust relationship as sovereign nations within the United States).

But the smallness of Native students’ numbers (divided among 566 federally recognized tribes with 170 indigenous languages) is directly tied to the lack of drive to reform systems. To most Americans, the educational and social issues that challenge Native students in rural villages, homelands, and reservations are invisible. And when it comes to creating the conditions for reform—by reorganizing federal agencies or redistributing power in tribal communities where control of government jobs sometimes equals control of the economy—the political reward is minimal, while the potential fallout is immense.

The vast majority—93 percent—of Native students don’t go to the schools cited in those reports. They attend other public schools on or near reservations or in cities away from their home reservations. Contributing to low achievement and lack of opportunity in these schools is that many fail to collect all the federal Impact Aid, Title VII, or supplemental federal Johnson-O’Malley funds to which they’re entitled. This stems not just from Congressionally-imposed funding cutbacks, but also from federal agencies undercounting Native kids, or from Native families failing to self identify because they’re unwilling to face bias, uninformed of their rights, or not enrolled in any federally recognized tribe.

The BIE supports 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states. Some 59 are operated directly by the BIE (teachers and leaders are employees of the federal government) and 124 are operated by local tribal school boards and superintendents under the Tribally Controlled Schools Act of 1988.

The approximately 48,000 students who attend the BIE-operated or tribal grant schools underperform Native students in other public schools. In one study of fourth graders, BIE students on average scored 22 percentile points lower for reading and 14 points lower for math than American Indian students attending public schools.

Like almost all isolated rural schools in America, BIE schools struggle to attract and keep qualified teachers and principals. But the problems that make it hard for these schools to attract talent go deeper, to their structure and finances.

To begin with, the principals of these federally- supported schools must navigate Byzantine, overlapping BIE regulations to execute the most basic functions, such as purchasing textbooks and school lunches. This gets in the way of “focusing on their primary mission of instructional leadership,” a federal study group reported to the Department of Interior. The same study group noted that tribally-controlled schools are funded by the federal government at just 67% of their administrative costs, leaving principals to dip into instructional budgets to cover those.

Many of these schools are in such extreme states of disrepair—with leaking roofs and walls, asbestos, mold, and aging bus fleets traveling roads that become impassable in bad weather —that the backlog repair bill for the 68 highest-risk facilities is $1.3 billion. Some 60 percent of schools also lack the bandwidth or computers to support online learning and assessments, with most dependent on outdated T1 connectivity.

A Lakota language class.
© Photo BRIAN LEDDY Language classes are critical to the culturally responsive instruction that many Native educators believe is key to better student outcomes. At the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, middle and high school students can take Navajo, Keres, and Lakota (shown here).

Since the 1970s, tribes have advocated passionately for their rights as sovereign nations to control and operate their own schools and teach their languages and culture—to be as accountable to their tribal nations as to states and the federal government.

That change may be imminent. This past summer, the Obama administration released a blueprint for reform that lays out a vision for the BIE to turn over control of schools to tribal nations. Under the blueprint, the Department of the Interior and the BIE would eventually stop operating schools, as would local tribal councils.

Instead, the BIE would become essentially a school support organization that would fund and support tribal nations to run their own schools. As an example, the Navajo Nation would take over the operation of all 66 schools now run by either the BIE or local tribal school boards.

Whether this can potentially break the cycle of dysfunction depends partly on whether Congress appropriates the funds to bring schools up to 21st-century standards and creates the conditions to attract and develop talent, particularly from within Native communities.

It also depends on local and national tribal leaders navigating the balance of local and national control. Many local tribal councils have been criticized for how they spend school funds and practice patronage hiring in communities where schools are among the few stable employers.

“Anyone who knows Indian country would say that certainly happens, but at the same time, corruption and unethical things happen everywhere, and that’s part of the story that’s not told,” says Angelina Castagno, who does research on indigenous education and teacher preparation in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University. “That contributes to the standard narrative and deficit perspective that says indigenous people and communities are somehow inherently inferior or have more problems than other communities, instead of focusing on the structural problems in many communities.”

Scholarship by Castagno, as well as colleagues who coauthored a report on promising practices in Native education for the BIE, indicates that tribal leaders are correct to assert that better outcomes for students rest on culturally responsive teaching and Native language immersion. In a study of the K-5 Puente de Hózhó (PdH) Public Magnet School in Flagstaff, Arizona, for example, Teresa McCarty and Tiffany Lee found that PdH students equaled or surpassed their Native peers in English mainstream schools. And in recent years, PdH has ranked among the district’s top-performing schools.

“If we had systems of schooling in Indian country that were primarily locally and tribally controlled, would that mean different outcomes for kids? We have lots of research that says yes,” says Castagno, who conducted a research review with her colleague Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy for the American Educational Research Association. “But until it happens on a large-scale basis, it’s hard to say with any certainty.”