Challenges in American Indian Education

50,000 American Indian students (approximately 7 percent of all American Indian students) attend 183 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools across the country—about the same size as the Atlanta Public School system. These students scored significantly below American Indian students attending public schools on the 2011 NAEP: fourth graders scored 22 points lower in reading and 14 points lower in math. In comparison to the 18 cities participating in NAEP’s 2011 Trial Urban District Assessment, BIE schools as a whole underperformed all except Detroit.

This data is from the “Blueprint for Reform,” released by the BIE last week. The Blueprint is the product of a Study Group that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formed to identify challenges and make recommendations for improving BIE schools.

Some of the challenges identified in the Blueprint are familiar. For instance, “principals and teachers feel unprepared for implementation of the Common Core State Standards.” We’ve heard that before. Others, as the team at Bellwether has learned through our work on rural education, are common to schools operating in remote regions of the country. Many rural and BIE schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers, and their efforts are often confounded by a lack of adequate housing.

BIE schools also face unique obstacles. The BIE and American Indian communities must overcome a history in which the federal government pursued a policy of assimilation, sending American Indian youth to boarding schools far from their communities. BIE schools are also funded and overseen by a confusing amalgam of agencies: the BIE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Affairs’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management. Each agency has its own hierarchy. See here, here, and here for their respective organizational charts. School principals who met with the Study Group consistently called the bureaucracy “disorganized and inefficient” and complained that they “routinely had to respond to duplicative data calls from different offices.”

One of the Blueprint’s major recommendations is for the BIE to transition “from a direct education provider to an expert service and support provider.” The BIE currently operates 57 of the 183 BIE schools; the remaining schools are operated directly by tribes. The BIE would then focus on supporting schools on things like Common Core implementation and teacher recruitment.

Transitioning away from school operations makes sense—as Andy Smarick and I have argued, big government agencies are more adept at setting long-term goals and creating the policy conditions for change than responding to the dynamic challenges of day-to-day school operations. However, repurposing an agency that Secretary Jewell has called an “embarrassment” into a support provider sounds a bit like a consolation prize for the BIE and a potential barrier between BIE schools and support providers with more promising track records.

While the majority of school reform conversations revolve around urban education, rural and BIE schools also face knotty challenges that deserve our attention and resources. I’ll be watching to see how the Blueprint plays out and hope you will, too.

-Juliet Squire

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