Education | Opinion

Gerald Gipp: National strategy needed to reform Indian education

Students at Santa Fe Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in New Mexico. Photo from Facebook

I am writing to fully support the op-ed piece by Dr. Sandra Fox. I agree that Dr. Fox captured the heart of relevant reform required in the classroom for Indian education to be successful.

But, in Dr. Fox’s words, “it is hoped that those involved in planning to reform Indian Education will not miss the opportunity to truly reform it and finally improve teaching and learning for our students.”

It is here that the critical questions emerge.

First, given the requirements outlined by Dr. Fox will the planners listen? Will they listen to an Indian scholar, an expert in the field of teaching and learning who has experienced, studied and researched the problem over the years while advocating for culturally relevant reform strategies?

Second, the primary focus of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) effort is on the federally funded BIE schools. Will it be enough?

In terms of the low achievement of all Indian students what is missing is the reality that the majority of Indian children are educated in public schools in over thirty states each with different approaches and standards. The BIE system directly funds and operates schools serving some 40,000 Indian students while the public school system serves nearly 700,000 Indian students.

Improving the BIE school system is important, but equally important are those students attending public schools, especially those located “on or near” Indian reservations that serve large numbers of Indian students. They are an important part of the equation in addressing the overall problem of low achievement among Indian students nationwide and simply setting new standards will not achieve the desired results.

This central issue is the education of Indian children is a “fragmented approach” that is complex and the solutions will require a commitment from all stakeholders across tribes, state governments, school districts, federal agencies and Congress.

As we move into the coming decades of the 21st Century with more jobs requiring higher skilled workers, the urgency for change is greater than ever. It begs the question, where are we going from here in the remaining months of the current administration and Congress?

If the decision makers and planners in the federal government are serious about reforming Indian education it will require a mandate by President Obama to formulate a nationwide strategic plan that encompasses all the schools, both federal and public, that educate Indian students. For example, can a collaborative system be created to directly connect BIE and public schools on or near reservations? In addition, how can the large urban schools serving large numbers of Indian students be connected in some cooperative fashion, to share and exchange ideas and methodologies?

I believe it is not too late for President Obama to consider these questions by declaring Indian education a national priority. His current executive order on Indian education, implemented during his second term, can be amended to add provisions to immediately promote the planning of a national strategy for educational reform. There are other initiatives that can be modified or built upon to promote educational reform, to address the current “fragmented approach” to Indian education.

One of the first actions to consider by the Obama administration in declaring Indian education a national priority is to immediately elevate the Office of Indian Education (OIE) in the Department of Education as originally positioned during the creation of the Department under the Carter Administration in 1980.

Why is this important? OIE is the only congressionally mandated Indian Education office in the federal government that has a legislative mandate to serve as the key advisor on Indian education for the Department of Education. Restored to the highest level in the Department, OIE could play an important leadership role in guiding the design of a national planning effort for the future and tap into current departmental resources.

For example, there are approximately 40 separate department programs that provide funding for Indian education that should be coordinated to better serve Indian students. This would be the first step to Indian education having a real voice in the Department of Education with a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Education to work collaboratively with the BIE Director of Education.

The Obama administration has the authority to accomplish this goal without congressional legislation. The precedent for elevating OIE to the Office of the Secretary level occurred during the first term of the George W. Bush administration.

A national strategy must include a collaborative effort between public schools and tribal schools on or near reservations. Schools serving Indian students in large and small cities and smaller towns, where feasible, should be brought into a cooperative relationship with these schools. Tribal education departments should be established beyond pilot projects and funded with trained professionals working on behalf of tribal governments to play a key role in working with the both school types.

In order to impact teaching in the classroom Indian people need to take ownership of the schools funded under the BIE, but only if adequate training and support is provided for all local communities members and tribes beyond a “demonstration project’ to assist them in determining if and when they are prepared for self-determination by taking over a failing school.

We now have excellent models in tribal schools that are governed by schools boards. But we need a new rigorous initiative to prepare students, parents and community members to takeover and manage all of the remaining BIE operated schools. In the spirit of self-determination the BIE should establish a goal to get out the business of operating schools. An initiative is required to rebuild and support our family structures so parents can fully participate in the education of their children.

All of these reform efforts require assistance and resource support at all levels across Indian Country, beyond pilot projects. The reestablishment of the technical assistance and resource centers as originally funded through the OIE in the 1980s should be supported and funded as part of a national priority.

President Obama supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination. The challenge for our elected tribal leadership is to help create a movement and commit to a national strategy. We should not wait for a new administration, we have waited long enough. Indian communities must accept responsibility of running our own schools, not the federal government.

To do so, will give our communities a greater voice and will help our allies in the federal agencies and policymakers to act more judiciously in establishing policies and programs for improving culturally relevant education for Indian children. The challenge for the administration will be to bring the key stakeholders together to agree on a visionary plan for the future. It can only be accomplished with the support of our tribal leaders and our community members requesting President Obama to widen the scope of his current plan for Indian education.

We would all like to see Dr. Fox’s wisdom prevail.

Gerald E. Gipp, Ph.D., is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (Hunkpapa Lakota). He served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Education, U.S. Department of Education, and as the President of Haskell Indian Junior College. He also worked in the Administration for Native Americans, (ANA) the National Science Foundation (NSF) and served as the Executive Director for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and interim Executive Director for the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) on two occasions.

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Sandra Fox: Fixing the education system for our Indian children (08/20)

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