Courtesy U.S. Department of Education
President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law on December 10, 2015.

9 Ways the New Education Law Is a Win for Indian Country

Tanya H. Lee

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 is a big win for Indian country, according to the National Indian Education Association. Executive Director Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee/Creek, and Federal Policy Associate Dimple Patel explained why in a January 27 webinar, “Understanding the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

ESSA, signed into law by President Obama on December 10, reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a piece of civil rights legislation meant to protect the nation’s most vulnerable children. ESSA replaces the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and shifts much of the responsibility for elementary and secondary education from the federal government to the states.

Tribal Consultation

For the first time ever, states and local educational agencies (LEAs) are required to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes or tribal organizations in the development of state plans for Title I grants. Further, LEAs must consult with tribes before making any decision that affects opportunities for American Indian/Alaska Native students in programs, services or activities funded by ESSA.

“Consultation means better decisions will be made for our students…. We believe that this provision alone is going to change the way our students are perceived and worked with in our school systems,” said Rose.

The key, she said, will be to help schools and LEAs understand what meaningful consultation is. NIEA will be working with the Department of Education and states to make sure consultation occurs at the earliest possible stage and prior to the development of any programs, initiatives or policy.

Native Language Immersion Programs

Funds awarded under a new Title VI (the new title for Indian Education) grant may be used to fund Native language immersion programs in public schools. The intent is to help Native peoples use, practice, maintain and revitalize their languages and cultures and to improve educational opportunities and student outcomes in AI/AN communities, said Rose. A Language Immersion Study will identify best practices.

Cooperative Agreements

ESSA allows tribes to enter into cooperative agreements with states and LEAs to run and operate Title VI programs on tribal lands. Also, the law permanently authorizes the State Tribal Education Program (STEP), which gives tribes Increased authority to operate other Title programs in public schools located on tribal lands. “This is a huge step toward tribal self-determination. We know it is going to improve academic achievement and promote coordination and collaboration between tribal educational agencies, states and local school districts,” said Rose.


States must submit their accountability plans to the federal government for the beginning of the 2017-1018 school year. Schools will set their own academic goals, decide how to measure progress and determine what to do when schools do not meet those goals. “Indian country needs to be thinking about these accountability plans and making sure their respective states and educational agencies are receiving tribal input [on how to] best support and assess Native students,” said Patel.

Reporting Standardized Test Results

Data from standardized achievement tests must be disaggregated. “What we are really excited about is that all of this testing data and results have to be broken down by different subgroups of students [including a subgroup for AI/AN students]. States will no longer be able to combine different categories of students for accountability purposes, so we will be able to better assess how Native students are doing. Native students will be held to the same standards as their peers,” said Patel.


Teacher evaluations are no longer tied to how well students are doing. The NCLB requirement that teachers be “highly-qualified” has been eliminated. This is a benefit for Indian country because that provision sometimes kept Native language and culture teachers out of tribally-operated schools.

Low-Performing Schools

States must identify and intervene in the least well-performing 5 percent of schools and in high schools where the graduation rate is 67 percent or less. “This is particularly important for schools with high Native student populations because too many of our schools fall under the category of ‘low-performing.’ We need to make sure that Native students are identified when they fall under the category of low-performing in order to best support them to graduate high school,” said Patel.

Special Education

Only 1 percent of students overall can be given alternative achievement tests; that equates roughly to 10 percent of special education students. “This is important for Native youth because we know that our youth are overrepresented in special education,” said Patel. In 2009, 19 percent of AI/AN 9th grade girls received special education and services, compared to the national rate of 7 percent, she said.

Bureau of Indian Education

BIE is now eligible to apply for all discretionary funding within ESSA. Prior to this, there were funds, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Race to the Top grants, for which states could apply, but BIE could not.

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