Obama Administration to Provide Grants to Improve Tribal Education

An executive order issued by President Barack Obama on Dec. 2 calls for enhanced educational opportunities for Native Americans and improved education at tribal colleges. According to a brief in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education would require the Department of Education to provide grants to tribal schools of all levels.

According to the executive order, enhancing educational opportunities at tribal schools and to students of American Indian and Alaska Native descent is "an urgent need." Research shows that such students "are dropping out of school at an alarming rate," that the country "has made little or no progress in closing the achievement gap between (native) students and their (non-native) student counterparts, and that many native languages are on the verge of extinction." The order states that the Obama administration is committed to the self-determination of native tribes, to helping students learn their native languages and histories, and to helping them "receive complete and competitive educations that prepare them for college, careers, and productive and satisfying lives."

Washington State University established the Clearinghouse on Native Teaching and Learning to identify and provide curriculum resources and to provide development for Native educators nationwide. In 2008, it published a study on the achievement gap between native students and non-native students in Washington, and found that native students consistently scored lower on the state’s standardized tests. The key to improving scores, it concluded, is using "culturally responsive curriculum," which "is developed using local cultural knowledge (often in combination with language) throughout instruction," as opposed to teaching solely in English or solely in a native language. According to the study, there are several benefits to teaching native students their language and history, including keeping their cultures alive, instilling and maintaining native pride, and maintaining protection of native rights. Teaching non-native students about native history helps promote cultural understanding and awareness, according to the study.

Fourteen states, primarily in the Midwest, central plains, and Alaska, have accredited tribal colleges and universities. Montana has the most tribal colleges and universities, with seven schools, and there are 33 tribal institutions of higher education total. According to the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities, the schools serve approximately 30,000 students through associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in more than 200 disciplines. These states, and other states without accredited tribal colleges and universities, have tribal primary and secondary schools. The Bureau of Indian Education currently oversees 183 primary and secondary schools in 23 states, serving approximately 48,000 students.

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