National Indian Education Association

Getting Smart About Indian Education Means Looking for Alternative Approaches

Jerad Koepp & Jason Medina

Public education has failed the Indian for 150 years, yet so many of us continue to put faith in its reform. We have become too familiar with the disappointing statistics. According to the National Indian Education Association, only 71 percent of Natives have a high school diploma and of those, only 44.6 percent of males graduate with a regular diploma. For those high school graduates, only 11 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.

Each year, tribes across the United States contribute millions of dollars to their local school districts hoping an increase in funding will provide better educational opportunities to Native students. And each year the statistics remain unchanged. Some tribes have even taken the courageous step of creating their own schools—unfortunately often with the same results as the public schools. The fault does not lie with our students but with the method of instruction and the institutional failure built into public education.

Rather than continually funding failing schools and districts, we must embrace alternatives. Our students thrive in project-based learning environments, where what they learn can be tied to immediate practical application. Student success and achievement should be based on progress rather than failure to meet state standardized test scores. Tribes must exercise their sovereignty in education.

For many Natives, education is about survival and not the delayed achievement of future goals. Native students also learn with all of their senses and the spiritual, physical, and emotional sides must be educated as much as the mental. What works for Native students works for all students, but only tribes have the ability to adapt and fund progressive, student-centered education that works. Tribal schools are a great start but often fail to provide the intended opportunities to students because they are too often facsimiles of the culturally illiterate public schools. We must not only teach our culture, but culturally teach.

Imagine a tribal school built upon truly transformative education. Integrated curriculum taught by culturally literate, highly-skilled teachers and administrators. Imagine a school built around not only college, but also career and technical education with ties to relevant tribal enterprises and departments. Whether for college or career we must educate our children to be leaders in our communities. Imagine a Native student who loves science and excels in a class that works with tribal fish and wildlife. Here, education meets immediate application and a career. There is no need to “teach to the test” because effective, culturally relevant teaching is the bedrock of this system.

Tribes have many options in rethinking education, including creating project-based, holistic, and career focused tribal schools, creating a liaison school with a neighboring school district, or hiring certified, culturally literate teachers for tribal education departments. We can’t extol a universal right answer or model without simultaneously forgetting our diversity as Native peoples. What works for the Apache may not work for the Seminole. Our education programs must necessarily be as unique as the people they serve. The methods are proven. How we choose to use them will determine our outcome.

In addition to the many educational alternatives, tribes need to put as much attention into hiring. Continuing to hire culturally-illiterate, dominant culture teachers will only reproduce the same problems. For 150 years, we have sent our students, by choice or by force, to public schools in good faith with no return. It is time we take our children back.

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina are certified teachers in Washington State. Medina is a career and technical education teacher and Koepp is a middle and high school social studies and history teacher. Both have committed their careers to Indian education.



Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on

I enjoyed reading this article. There is much merit in what you co-authors of this article had to share. You are exactly right in your surmise about what works for one tribe may or may not work for another tribe in a different area.

I have said for decades that education isn't all about books & a classroom setting. It has to do with a hand-on approach & teaching in the field as it were. Our tribes all over Indian Country need to focus on teaching our languages, cultures, histories & the ways of the ancestors to see a successful outcome for all our children. It needs to be implemented from the moment they enter those school doors till they graduate & leave them for the last time & enter the work force of today & in the future.

Our ancestors were some very smart people throughout time. They managed to survive despite so many odds against them in those times. Today, those of us who have come forth from those ancestors are some very smart people as well. We will adapt to our world of today & in the future as well.

Parents, grandparents & other relatives of our young people & little ones, it takes YOU to make it ALL come together for our future generations. Get out in our native communities, be mentors to those of our families who need good role models due to not having a mother or father for these little ones & young folks for one reason or another. Be the one person who makes a difference in a good way for all the kids out here who want someone to show them what it is to be a good man or good woman out in our First Nations communities. Be the one person that shows them how to break the cycle of shameful living, abuse of any kind & making relationships work for a change.

Yes, it really did take a village to raise our children in how to become decent human beings, learning each year how to make their own way when they got out on their own. To be a success again in our tribal communities we have to return to the ways of the past & our ancestors who knew how to raise successful generations of our many people across this world that the Creator made.

Are YOU willing to be part of a success story my friends? Only YOU can answer that question through your actions!

smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Submitted by smartphoenixnavajo on

Too much is put on schools to educate the young people, while parents go to work or do something else. In the last several decades, I have seen that if the parents do not get "actively involved" in their childrens education, then count on a future US citizen who will struggle for most of their lives. There is absolutely not reason, none, that an Indian child cannot go to college these days. If a child does not get higher degrees, they are locked out of the american dream of materialism, not to mention becoming human. To know is everything. Its simple, when your car fails too much, do you keep throwing money into it? No. You find another one that is better and perhaps more reliable. Do this with education and help your children and the future.

Gloria Jara's picture
Gloria Jara
Submitted by Gloria Jara on

Year 2002 I was Hired as a Teacher assistant for a Public school in Ossining NY ,so I had the Opportunity to see many wrong thins on the Public education . The The administration Hid very well from the Parents and Public in general .it was a Cover up on Millions of Dollars on taxes . Year after year was Pass by the Voter with no public witnessing this from the inside money were miss handle no Boocks were purchese children eat Rothing Food etc etc.

A NW Tribal Parent's picture
A NW Tribal Parent
Submitted by A NW Tribal Parent on

The challenges of today's native students are becoming more complex than that of our previous generations. The reasons are growing, and the need for improved understanding of educators, family support, and tribal government recognition seem to be the primary advocates that could provide some base knowledge and framework for providing the needed structure for the current and new generations of native students.

Not all educators support tribal knowledge and tribal input into the educational system. The article about very successful educational counselors being removed from positions where they were developing honors level native students provides a solid basis for that statement. Challenges of tribal historical perspectives are not supported because of lack of understanding and acceptance of tribal historical knowledge, and lack of "qualified history teachers of tribal knowledge." Tribal governments are not always allowed to influence educational institutions that are within or close by their lands.

The family structure is very different for today's students, inter-marriage by previous generations has created generations of mixed-blood students that have confusion about which culture to take part in, it is a positive support system that says take part in all. The reality is family's may lack the needed tools, knowledge and/or location to provide for the development of cultural knowedge from different tribes, especially if they are far from the areas where the children share ancestry. This may cause long-term identity issues when some children are allowed to take part and others are not, this is a family issue that is growing.

Then there is tribal recognition of academic acheivement by young and returning students. This is a positive support model to get students recognition for their academic achievements, through tribal program planned awards for students who are enrolled in the local tribe. This provides enrolled members acknowledgement, but the non-enrolled students get left out because they are not a member of the local tribe. Then if, possible at all, a parent group may provide a program to acknowledge students enrolled into the same school district, but then there may be other school districts that cannot provide a potential parent committee the needed funding support to get the program functional, and maintain parent involvement in the program to keep the program active and supportive of native students.

The students are the people who then must strive for themselves. A few who were supported by a good counselor have been successful in secondary schools and were successful in getting a college education. A few have solid family support in keeping their tribal culture as a part of their lives and found a way to provide for their families and allow the student to have much valued cultural knowledge of different aspects of life instilled into their lives to make them successful in education and keeping traditional culture alive. Tribal governments have been doing the leading edge of developing laws, and policy to support, protect, and provide for the students enrolled into their tribes. The complexities are a large obstacle to overcome for many students, who get lost due to lack of good direction from educational institutions that focus on a general student achievemnent and do not provide native centered student support. Then families who are on low-income or no-income situations the crises are for survival, how can they keep things in perspective when just getting fed is a challenge for these families? The obstacles continue when a student is not supported financially, spiritually, within the framework of the educational system, and may not be able to get a chance to even take part in a cultural activitiy because of their situation. Tribal governments are being challenged by budgets that are being reduced and hard decisions are being made, whether to support education, jobs, cultural programs, or make investments in new income generating businesses or other tribal interests. Then the cycle starts over, when these mixes of various people come together and try to make a decision on how to deal with the educational system and how it affects their children.