Dr. Heather Shotton
At LegSummit2013, the 16th Annual Convening
Ya'at'eeh. It is a great
pleasure to stand before all of the teachers, school leaders, community
members, and families who work so hard to improve education for our children.
It is especially wonderful
to see our students here today, engaging in sports activities that can help
them build the strong character and self-pride they need to succeed in a world
that sometimes doesn’t admit they exist. Watching these affirmations of their
inherent abilities is amazing.
It is great to be here in
South Dakota – and not just because NIEA will hold its 44th Annual
Convention and Trade Show here this coming October. As the leading advocate for
all Native students, NIEA strives to do more than just arrive in a community,
stay for a few days, and leave a few gifts behind. That is missionary work, and
that is not what NIEA is here to do. NIEA exists to support Native communities
build brighter futures for their children, and help them sustain their efforts.
Because every Native child is our kin too.
NIEA and its members, here
in South Dakota and throughout the nation, brings its Advocacy, Research, and Capacity-Building
work to every Native community. And our organizations and members stay
connected to every community until every child gets the high-quality
culturally-based education they need in order to be the future leaders our nations,
communities and cultures deserve.
We know that far too
often, people visit Pine Ridge and other Native communities here in the Great
Plains to despair about conditions of education for our Native children. Yet
they do nothing while they are there, and leave the children behind never to
return. On behalf of my fellow members and leaders, I am here to tell you right
now that the work NIEA is doing in every Native community throughout South
Dakota and the rest of Plains never leaves our kids behind.
Today, I want to talk briefly
about NIEA’s goal of building education nation and communities that help our
cultures thrive in an increasingly knowledge-based economic future – and what
we must all do to make this a reality.
When I talk about
education nations, I am talking about every child graduating high school ready
to attend and complete a two- or four-year degree, an apprenticeship, or a
technical school certification.
When I think about
education nations, I think about every Native student who walks into college
walking out with the learning they need to be productive members of their
tribes and communities.
When my fellow leaders and
I envision education nations, we aim for our students to be taught by
high-quality teachers who know what they are teaching, who are responsive to
the cultures of our children, and are compassionate to every one of them.
And when we think about
education nations, we see our tribes launching their own schools, our families
choosing the schools that best-fit their children, and our communities
leveraging new technologies to provide high-quality culturally based learning
no matter where our children live.
As parents, educators, and
advocates for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children, we
have learned a long time ago that educated nations of millions can never be
held back. This is because knowledge is the ultimate power. When our children
are knowledgeable about their cultures
the world around them, they can build our economies, battle for our languages,
and bring about ideas that can save the world.
We also know that educated
nations can build trails that lead to our tribes and cultures remain relevant
beyond our lifetimes. This is because
learning is a trail-builder between our past, our present, and our future. When
our students get both Advanced Placement classes and language immersion
courses, our languages and cultures survive into the next century, and our
communities will thrive and not just survive.
reality is that we are only beginning to build our education nations and
communities. We are nowhere close to being able to say that every Native child
gets an education fit for their future or for that our cultures. At the same
time, we know that we can provide every child with effective teaching and
high-quality curricula that each student deserves. We have no choice but to
make the achievable possible.
THE SOBERING REALITY
We know all too well the statistics about how poorly our Native
students are being educated.
Thirty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native
fourth-graders scored Below Basic in math on the 2011 edition of the National
Assessment of Educational Progress.
South Dakota, two out of every five fourth-graders scored Below Basic in math.
In an economic future in which math is key to meaningful employment,
mathematical illiteracy equals futures of economic despair for our students,
their families, and our tribes and communities.
The average vocabulary scores for our American Indian and
Alaska Native fourth graders declined by five points between 2009 and 2011. On
average, an American Indian or Alaska Native fourth-grader had vocabulary
scores 16 points – or more than a full grade level lower – than their
non-Native peer. We know that our Native students, for whom English is a second
language, are not getting the reading help they need for reading literacy.
But we aren’t just failing to help our kids learn to read
and write. Only one-fifth of American Indian and Alaska Native students
surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education two years ago knew "A
lot" about their cultures and ways of life. This cultural deprivation,
this exclusion of Native languages and ways from our classrooms, is as
devastating to our children and communities as efforts to “kill the Indian to save
the man” of not so long ago.
The consequences of low-quality education that denies
that our children come from cultures worthy of being taught in classrooms can
be seen in the fact that fewer than three out of every five American Indiana
and Alaska Native high school freshmen in Bureau of Indian Education Schools
and public schools in nine states – including South Dakota – graduated on time.
Two in five. Every hour, the crisis that grips Native education renders our
children unable to lead our families and tribes into a future in which the mind
is the most-important tool for economic and social success.
This educational starvation and cultural dehydration of
our children hinders their ability to be our future leaders in ways we are just
beginning to understand.
For example, there is growing collection of evidence
suggests that bilingualism, which is a byproduct of Native language immersion,
helps children build their executive functions that are needed for problem-solving
and other aspects of life. As psychologists Ellen Bialystok of York University
and Michelle Martin-Rhee of the Canadian Institute for Health Information
determined in a 2004 study, bilingual children were better-able to distinguish
and sort out shapes and colors.
When our kids struggle in education, they will eventually
struggle to stay healthy into adulthood. The average mortality rate for adults
who dropped out of high school is three times higher than that for adults who
graduated with a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control in a 2007 study. Health economists As
David Cutler of Harvard University and
Lleras-Muney of UCLA have concluded, four additional years of
education equals out to a six percent decrease in one reporting poor health –
and reduces the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points.
And the greatest consequence is borne by all of us in
terms of Native languages and cultures lost to history because our tribes and
communities are only half-educated.
Seventy-four Native and indigenous languages may disappear in the next
decade, according to UNESCO. Just 200 people still speak Hidatsa, a language of
my heritage, while only 10 people speak Mandan, another language that is part
of my heritage. And Akira, another language that is part of my lineage is
“severely endangered”, according to the Endangered Languages Project.
Yet even for our Native students who do graduate from
high school, they have not gotten the preparation they need for success in
traditional four year-universities, community colleges, technical schools, or
apprenticeships, the dominant forms of higher education today.
Seventy-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native
students in 2010-2011 have never taken an Advanced Placement course even if
when they can master the subject. Not so far from here in Sioux Falls, just 1.4
percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students took A.P. courses in the
2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Meanwhile our Native students who are heading to higher
education aren’t prepared for completion. Just 11 percent of American Indian
high-school seniors who took the ACT, a key test of college readiness, scored
high enough to be considered ready for success. One in ten.
These numbers are unacceptable, especially in a time in
which being college-ready isn’t just about being prepared for traditional
four-year colleges. It is about brighter futures for our children and our
On average, a young man or woman with the education they
need to get into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields will
earn $500,000 more in their lifetime than their peers. That is $500,000 in
additional lifetime resources for the betterment of our communities.
This even extends beyond to blue-collar careers that
provide resources to our communities. A Native student with strong math skills
and knowledge of computer languages such as C can become a machine tool-and-die
maker shaping the very metal parts used on our cars, earning wages of more than
$60,000 a year.
We all know the consequences tribes and communities know
these consequences all too well. When you look at the high levels of
unemployment, the atrociously high rates of suicide among our teens, and the
high levels of disease, it can be traced back in part to how our children
struggle educationally. Our children need education that nurtures both their
minds and their souls.
THE STRUGGLE FOR RESOURCES
There are several reasons why our Native children are not
getting high-quality education.
You have all heard about the fiscal cliff, the
consequences of sequestration-related budget cuts temporarily averted earlier
this month after congressional leaders and the Obama Administration agreed to
end their stalemate over federal spending. But for our communities, cuts in
spending have been the norm for quite some time.
Federal funding for BIE, for example, declined as a
percentage of the federal budget by one-third between 1995 and 2011. A freeze
imposed 18 years ago on Johnson O’Malley funding – which limits funding to
tribes based on their enrollments at that time – has forced schools to stretch
scarce funding across more students.
The federal government has long failed to live up to its
trust obligation to our tribes and communities. This isn’t just a matter of
funding. When it comes to education policy, our tribes deserve the same status
as state education agencies and school districts. Yet until recently, our
tribes could not access education data on the children they are charged with
educationally supporting on their paths to adulthood.
The federal government, along with states, has ignored
their obligations to consult with tribes and communities on the direction of
Native education. The most-recent example of this is the Obama Administration’s
move to grant waivers from accountability provisions of the No Child Left
Behind Act to 34 states and the District of Columbia.
While No Child may have not been perfect, the law brought
visibility to the lack of educational opportunities for our Native students. But
now, thanks to the waivers, we will lose data on how well our children are
being educated. We also know that in several states, including South Dakota,
there was no evidence that tribes were consulted on waiver proposals before
they were submitted for federal approval.
But it isn’t just about the federal government. One of
the realities our Native children face is that because they are often among the
poorest children in the United States, they are often not provided the
high-quality teaching they need for success. This is critical because as we all
know – and has been demonstrated by decades of evidence – the quality of teaching
is the most-important factor in the success or failure of schools to help all
Our Native students also find themselves taught by those
who have not been trained to understand their cultures, and in fact, do not
always respect their traditions. The lack of cultural competence training has
been as damaging to our students as the lack of updated textbooks.
Meanwhile our Native communities have been denied the
ability to play strong roles in directing the education of our children. More
than 40 years after the passage of the Indian Education Act, state and local
education officials don’t fully understand the importance of Native communities
as lead partners in directing student learning.
Especially as states play a more-prominent role in Native
education, we must advocate strongly for the rightful recognition of our tribes
and communities as the most-important players in improving education for the
children we love.
Then there is the matter of building the capacity of
Native communities to direct and control student learning. This includes
exploring new opportunities for reforming Native education. We cannot help
Native children receive high-quality education if we don’t first take the steps
to make it possible.
STEPS TO BUILDING EDUCATION NATIONS AND COMMUNITIES
We know this to be true: When Native children are taught
by highly effective and culturally competent teachers, they are more-likely to
be successful academically.
When Native children learn in culturally responsive and
nourishing school cultures, they are more-likely to stay on the path to high
school graduation, college completion, and economic sustainability.
When Native communities direct student learning, we help
ensure that our children are prepared to keep our cultures and languages alive
for generations to come.
And when we take the steps needed to make all these
things happen, we are building education nations that can survive and thrive
for generations to come.
This starts with recognizing that we are not just
reforming education for only American Indian, or Alaska Native, or even Native
Hawaiian children. We are working to improve education for all Native children.
As Natives, we share a common struggle even amid the
differences in our cultures and histories. Whether our ancestors were forced
onto the Trail of Tears, or suffered through the overthrow of an independent
Hawaiian government, all of our peoples have all been subjected to education
policies and practices that aim to render our children and communities invisible
This common goal of giving our children education worthy
of them and our communities is why NIEA represents every Native and all
Natives. Whether we are in Huron or in Honolulu, we are all part of a common
movement to reform Native education and be the lead decision-makers in the
schools and systems that serve our children.
When we stand together to build education nations, no one
can hold us back. So everyone in this room should know today that NIEA members
everywhere stand with you to help all of our students get high-quality teaching
and learning. And we are ready for you to stand with us, both as members of
NIEA, and as powerful leaders in educating our children.
This includes ensuring that the federal government meets
its trust obligation to our tribes. This goes beyond the BIE. Every agency
within the federal government – and especially the U.S. Department of Education
– must play their roles in supporting our efforts to reform Native education.
The Obama Administration recognized this in 2011 when it
signed Executive Order 13592, which launched the new White House Initiative on
American Indian and Alaska Native education, and started the process of
bringing all federal agencies together into improving Native education.
Part of reforming Native education includes accepting the
role of tribal governments in directing student learning. This is happening in
part through the new State-Tribal Education Partnership pilot program, which
has provided $4 million in funding so far, is helping tribes build the capacity
to administer federal education programs.
At the same time, the federal government needs to do
more. This includes reauthorizing the Esther Martinez Native American Languages
Preservation Act, which has provided more than $50 million to Native language
immersion programs since it became law seven years ago. It also includes
passage of the Native CLASS Act, which will give Native communities stronger
roles in shaping education.
But we cannot just look to the federal government to help
us reform Native education. It also starts with each of us together. We cannot
depend on others to do for us what we should do for ourselves.
As William Demmert
once declared, our first role as educators and parents is to create
environments in schools, homes, and communities that stimulate the development
of our children. This starts by building the capacity of tribes and communities
to provide our Native students with high-quality schools, teachers, school
leaders, and curricula.
As Native communities, we must take power to play
stronger roles in directing the education of our children. This means our
tribes and families must be full partners and decision-makers in public schools
and BIE schools in order to shape student learning. As researchers such as
Anthony Bryk of the Carnegie Foundation have shown, empowered families and
communities are one of the five key components to improving schools.
We are seeing more efforts on this front. In Utah, for
example, Navajo Nation has a partnership with that state’s department of
education to access data on the performance of students attending public
schools. In Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation is now partnering with that state on a
new tool that allows the tribe to access student data.
Native communities must mobilize and advocate at the
state and district levels. NIEA is already starting to assist state Native
education organizations, as well as work with other advocates and educators on
the ground. NIEA wants to know more about how it can help you. E-mail us at NIEA@niea.org , or follow us on Twitter at WereNIEA as well as on Facebook at NieaFanPage to share your
As Native peoples, we must also take advantage of new
opportunities to start our own schools. This includes exploring the
opportunities allowed under public charter schools, a form of public schooling
under which tribes and tribal colleges are allowed to either start their own
schools or oversee schools launched by those within their communities.
Last year, NIEA and Harvard University Graduate School of
Education released a study
about practices being pioneered by three charter school serving our Native students.
All three schools take different approaches that best fit the contexts in which
they are located. But these schools succeed in providing both strong academic
content and culturally based curriculum to our students.
NIEA is further exploring the opportunities provided by
charters and working with tribes and other organizations to help them build the
capacity needed to launch their own schools. This will also be one of the areas
that NIEA will cover at our upcoming Convention here in South Dakota.
Meanwhile we must also work on bringing more
highly-effective and culturally competent teachers, especially Native teachers,
into our children’s classrooms. This includes working with schools of education
– as well as developing our own programs – to improve teacher training.
Common Core reading and math standards offer an
opportunity to improve the quality of curricula our children are taught. At the
same time, we as Native educators must work to ensure that culturally-based
curriculum is incorporated into the content. We cannot have standards that
ignore our culture and language, and we also cannot ignore the need to provide
our kids with strong reading, math and science education.
Through a grant with the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation, NIEA is developing teacher training that will support teachers in
meshing Common Core standards and culturally based learning. This important
work is one that we are looking to bring to every school serving our Native
Let us take this time right now to build education
nations. Let’s bring our collective energies together to provide our children
with education worthy of them. As people united behind to educate the children
we love, we can make high-quality education a reality here in South Dakota and
every place where our Native children live.
Thank you for your dedication to building education
nations – and to fighting fiercely for the futures of our Native children.