The Roundup

Oklahoma Makes the Grade in Indian Education

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Posted 07.17.12

Earlier this month, the National Center for Education Statistics released some dismal news: American Indian students are stuck in an “academic rut.”

The organization released its National Assessment of Educational Progress, which scores fourth- through eighth-graders in reading, mathematics, and cultural exposure. As Education Week explained, achievement gaps “have remained stagnant for Native American students in reading since 2005, and in mathematics they have actually increased.”

“… (T)he study found Native American 4th-graders trail two grade levels behind non-Indian peers on average reading scores … and one grade behind their peers in 8th grade,” Education Week reported. “A majority of 4th-grade Indian students performed below the basic achievement level in that subject. They would not be able, for example, to recognize conversation directly stated in a story or use a character’s statement to interpret a character trait.”

More from Education Week:

The overall trends for Native American students are at odds with other recent NAEP studies, which have found black students narrowing achievement gaps with white students on the NAEP and Hispanic students increasing in achievement while holding gaps steady. NCES Commissioner Sean P. “Jack” Buckley said there aren’t any statistics that point to a particular reason American Indian and Alaskan Native students should be so far behind their peers.

Researchers couldn’t pinpoint a reason for the achievement gap but did note that the majority of American Indian students tested identified as low-income and attended small, rural schools, which have less access to required resources.

One the positive side, however, Oklahoma was “the only state in which Native American students outperformed the national average in both grades in reading and math,” according to Education Week.

Nearly four out of five American Indian 4th-graders in the Sooner State met at least the basic benchmark in math, and 59 percent did so in reading. That’s compared with 67 percent of American Indian 4th-graders who achieved at least at the basic level in mathematics and 47 percent in reading.

Similarly, Oklahoma, where average scores have grown significantly, from 267 in 2005 to 272 in 2011, was the only state above the national average for American Indian students on 8th-grade mathematics.

This isn’t a new trend for Oklahoma, one researcher noted. “Oklahoma has for several years been an outlier,” Commissioner Buckley told the blog. “That suggests to a policymaker that maybe there’s something they should take a look at, but nothing has jumped out as to how the state has cracked the code.”

Photo courtesy Oklahoma City Public Schools' Native American Student Services.

In Oklahoma, there are 400 school districts with Indian Education programs, which spend time educating both Native and non-Native students about American Indian culture, as well as specific tribal cultures. The districts are all members of the Oklahoma Council for Indian Education, where they can pool their resources and share best practices in Indian education. They also work with the tribes represented in their districts—there are 90 in Tulsa Public Schools, for example—to bridge the gap between school and home and to provide opportunities for college and careers after graduation.

Jean Froman, Indian education coordinator for TPS, who worked at Native American boarding schools before entering the public school system, said her program offers a targeted, on-site, after-school tutoring program; one-on-one counseling; home visits; higher education assistance; and Indian cultural education, as well as any other resources a specific student might need. The goal, she said, is to provide each student with the tools he or she needs to be successful in school.

And culture has proven to be a major component.

“When we acknowledge that student’s culture, that helps their self-esteem and self-identity,” she said. “We want them to be proud of who they are and of their heritage. Not only does that help their wellbeing, but it helps them academically and it helps their attendance. What we shoot for is lowering the dropout rate and increasing the grad rate.”

And in Tulsa Public Schools, where about 10 percent of the student population is American Indian, there is no achievement gap. The graduation rate among Native American students is 95 percent; districtwide, it’s 78 percent.

In Oklahoma City, Star Yellowfish heads up the Native American Student Services for the public school district, where about five percent of students identify as American Indian. Yellowfish is also on the board of directors for the National Indian Education Association. In her district, Native students also have higher graduation rates than the district average, and she thinks her district, and the others nearby, have done a good job of identifying student needs—especially for those living on reservations or in rural areas where they have less access to resources and services.

“Our overall mission is to try to focus on culture in our program, because many of our Indian students have a little bit of disconnect between their tribe and their tribal communities,” Yellowfish said. “It’s important to us for students to know what tribe they are and their different customs and traditions.

“The reason I think that our Indian education programs are so successful in Oklahoma, is that we do good a job of paying attention to our students’ needs. And they’re different for every district. Oklahoma City is pretty urban, so maybe their parents didn’t grow up with their tribal customs or community, so they don’t know either. We want to empower students to know who they are as an Indian person. That gives them self-confidence and pride and translates into the classroom in all subjects, behavior, and attendance.”

Holly Wall, News Editor