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Native Sun News: South Dakota Indian graduation rates drop

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Page from Bureau of Indian Education's “Reading First” highlights the vocabulary word “conform” and teaches solely about American business practices. One photo shows 1600's Eastern Woodlands people trading with colonists. No other Native representation is included.

Indian graduation rates in SD drop from 65 % to 46 %
Accusing fingers pointed in all directions
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News, Staff writer

WASHINGTON - American Indian High school graduation rates have dropped from 68 percent to 45 percent in South Dakota in the last two years. Since No Child Left Behind was implemented in Bureau of Indian Education and tribally operated schools, fingers at the recent House Appropriations Committee hearing pointed in every direction. The usual suspects of poverty and the physical state of schools were blamed and disorganization within the Bureau made it difficult for Tribal schools to move ahead at their own pace and in their own way.

Tribal complaints of the lack of language and culture are argued; while the Bureau says they comply with Obama’s policy of supporting tribal schools by allowing 15% of the school day, one hour out of eight, to be dedicated to language and culture.

“You cannot engender any significant body of knowledge in 1/8 of the school day, and it is not consistent with the executive orders which allow Native students to learn their languages,” Ryan Wilson, President of the National Alliance to Save Languages, insisted. “Every time we tell them this they say, well these kids have to compete in the real world.”

Wilson said a paper by Sandra Fox, Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, “What BIE Students Got From No Child Left Behind” was handed out at this year’s Appropriation meetings. Fox wrote more flexibility was needed than the rigid teaching methods currently being used in BIE schools and that students must be taught in ways and about what is relevant to them.

Fox wrote that culture within curriculum helps students identify with the material and learn more about their history while building vocabulary, interest in reading, and solving problems. However, some teachers at the Takini School on the Cheyenne River Reservation say this is far from what is happening.

The fifth grade social studies lesson plans originate with European settlers and the difficulties they had upon arriving on these shores. One teacher said that out of the entire curriculum, there is only one section on Native Americans and it features only early contact. The all-white representation of people within the curriculum is said by educators to be as alienating as the lesson plans.

“If Indian students learn how their ancestors understood and used science and math in their lives and how their ancestors lived in rich and thriving societies in comparison to other groups, it helps them understand and have appreciation and connections to what they are learning in school,” Fox wrote.

According to all tribal school administrators interviewed, the curriculum devised for BIE schools is as assimilationist as it was in the days of the Carlyle Boarding School era. One teacher even stated that the current curriculum includes mistakes based on was known in the 1960s. “They changed the cover on the old curriculum. That’s all they did,” said Heather Brown, teacher at the Takini School. “I call the program Spoon Feed and Regurgitate,” Brown said. “You give children the math problem “3 times 4 is 12,” then ask them to repeat it to you. If they say it wrong, you say it again, and you feed it back to them, and if they still get it wrong, you go back to the top of the list and say it all over again. It is training them not to think.”

Brown’s thoughts are echoed in Fox’s paper which described the BIE teaching method as the “deficit” approach” in reading based upon the notion that students who do not perform well are believed to be unintelligent and cannot figure things out for themselves. “Their cultures are considered deterrents to their learning. Teachers in low-performing schools are also considered deficient and, therefore, can’t provide the instruction themselves; they read scripts,” Fox wrote that the approach was developed in the 1960s, when “It was believed that children of color were not as intelligent as white people.”

Brown said that the scripts are required for teachers today and that the program she was required to teach gives students the right answer and they are then asked to repeat it until they answer correctly. In the reading program, there are no “how and why questions”, only the one right answer that is detailed in the curriculum.

When a teacher poses a question that includes critical thinking, Brown says there should be ten different correct answers but with the “Reading First” and “Math Counts” material, she said, “No, they all have to answer it the same way. You tell them the answer until they repeat it. It’s still assimilation boarding school era. It follows the same pattern they followed at Carlyle Boarding School.”

Fox’s paper goes so far as to say students are taught to decode words, but not to understand them, and the system actually discourages reading. Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, quoted in Fox’s paper, said the approach creates helpless students “because they aren’t allowed to think for themselves, make decisions and solve problems.”

Christopher Bordeaux taught Gifted and Talented in Pine Ridge for 20 years and he agreed. “The curriculum that was issued by the BIE leaves no room for students to develop critical thinking skills. Math problems discourage students from figuring out the answer.”

When a Takini fifth grade teacher wrote 2-4-6-?-? on the board, the students responded, “Teacher, what do you want me to say?”

These materials are required to be used by all Tribal schools that receive ESEA funding.

“We have to use “Reading First” and “Math Counts”, Bordeaux said. “The Bureau says, ‘If you want all the title money, which is about 30% of the schools budget, they had to use these programs,” Bordeaux said. “It didn’t matter what the school said.”

With such a large percentage of the budget at stake, the majority of schools use the programs, but Bordeaux said that was then that the schools proficiency rates dropped from an average of 52% to 22 %.

“We are not teaching what our children need, and what the BIE has to realize is these schools have been operating for a number of years and they know what to do to succeed. But as soon as they do, they don’t get technical assistance. Then the BIE monitors the schools and they say, ‘You are doing it wrong.’ Bordeaux said.

Wilson complained that the Bureau does not understand that cultural immersion needs to happen on every level of education. Instead, he said, “They call them enhancement or special project programs. But it’s already proven that “Math Counts” and “Reading First” don’t work; in fact we’ve slid back.”

He said, “Until there are separate designated funds that are protected, we won’t see these schools getting a heightened level of immersion instruction, and that’s the crux of it.”

Wilson said that currently, tribes are struggling to figure out how to implement culture creatively without getting penalized. He suggests, “Of all the tens of millions of dollars that have been wasted on consultants, on professional development and packaged curriculum, let’s take at least five million of that and carve out a space for language instruction in these schools, and let the tribes carve out a plan that implements that in the school.”

“They’ve graduated generation after generation of functionally illiterate students who aren't competing well in Division 1 universities. The current system is the worst of both worlds,” Wilson said. “Having teachers teach to tests, making teachers into bureaucrats, not teaching kids to think, all those are the kind of things that NCLB brings to the table. If we are going to break the cycle of poverty in Indian Country, we have got to have a good education system,” said Jon Tester, US Senator from Montana said in a 2010 House Appropriations meeting.

Joined by others who spoke out at that meeting, Keith Moore, director, BIE, said, “As we talk about NCLB,” missing is the respect paid to our tribal cultures, our languages, the unique needs that our students need, standards, the values that we have as a people. All of those things are missing right now in NCLB and are vital for our students' feeling valued and welcomed and comfortable in school systems.”

For those who are hoping for better in the new Common Core standards which will be fully implemented by 2014, a skeptical Wilson said, “The Common Core system was developed 100 percent to the exclusion of tribal input. Not one tribal member in one state helped with the establishment of Common Core standards.” He added, “I am not saying we shouldn’t heighten the academic rigors, a lot of people are for that. What we are saying is we shouldn’t do it to the exclusions of culturally responsive education.”

(Contact Christina Rose at

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