Much is written, even online, about the damning statistics for American Indians in the educational system. Although there are many exceptions, including young people who go on to careers in law, science, government, et cet., American education continues to fail American Indian peoples. As far back as 1972, the Indian Education Act attempted to remedy what was still, essentially, the missionary-reservation system. While the "melting pot" or "salad bowl" view of diversity has pushed the content in public schools in a more inclusive direction, the educational process itself still excludes native people.
In Valerie Ooka Pang's Multicultural Education, Pang links culture (for both the teacher and the student) to educational outcome:
What does culture have to do with teaching? Oftentimes you as a teacher might act as a cultural translator or mediator who understands the layers of culture (Bustamante-Jones 1998). For example, many Native American young people grow up in families where children are expected to listen rather than speak. Young people learn to watch others before they do something that might make them look like fools. Children are advised not to show off. Therefore, some students have difficulty participating in class and may choose to withdraw instead of showing up for school, knowing that they must speak out or act aggressively. Other times, Native American youngsters may choose not to participate because they do not trust or feel comfortable with teachers. Some teachers may feel that this lack of participation shows disinterest in learning, though this is not accurate.
How many of you had at least one teacher who assigned points for participation?
Given some experience over time, the dilemma, described in the quote, may be at least picked up on by a non-Indian teacher on a reservation. Teachers in Indian-majority communities tend to also have some targeted training to prepare them for culture shock. Diagnosing or treating this conflict becomes more nebulous outside of 'Indian Country.'
Incidentally, while the book is listing sources largely composed in the 1990s, there is a new paradigm that emerged in the last decade. A majority of American Indians now live in urban areas, where they may be the invisible minority, may be or at least seem much more assimilated, and will be among ethnic and cultural groups with conflicting approaches to education.
Increased focuses on diversity may have a band-aid affect: American-Indian students may hear or learn information about their own groups, and still not be in an environment where the information is actually trustworthy. The discussion itself may be uncomfortable or hostile. And more importantly, too often while the class may feel a general sense of satisfaction at multicultural efforts, the American Indian student may still faced with the reality of falling behind in a school system that goes through the motions of trying to be inclusive but never makes the bridge.
Many American Indian people are able to walk 'two roads' and maintain a strong sense of identity in a nation very much at odds with it, but many, perhaps more, fail at the overwhelming task.
Clearly and Peacock (1998) also note that if the young adult chooses, to participate, he or she may have to take on a different cultural role. This role may be uncomfortable because the students must disregard cultural behaviors and beliefs. For example, the student might need to learn how to interrupt in order to be heard in a Socratic social studies discussion. This can be extremely uncomfortable for someone who was taught that this behavior is disrespectful. However, in many discussions, if a person does not interrupt, she or he may not have the opportunities to participate and be heard, and school culture rewards aggressive verbal behavior. The school often mirrors the cultural values of mainstream society.
The difficulty in succeeding as a bi-cultural person exceeds the difficulty that poor students, in general, have in acquiring a new skill. Assimilation goes fundamentally against the way many native peoples have grown up, contradicting both verbal, open life lessons as well as customs taught by silent example. There is much about education this is often disruptive and, in my opinion, harmful about education for all races, especially minorities in general. Most poor Americans, while at a disadvantage in US schools, culturally and materially, still fundamentally believe values of self-assertion, rugged independence, (material) status attainment and competitive achievement that schools emphasize. These values are highly useful in schools. Here, the lesson is that many Americans have never assented to these values.
For many students, the need to assert oneself becomes even more pronounced in college. You can imagine the feeling of being in a brash, economics class where students are expected to speak up, introduce data, create and defend an argument. For another layer, throw in that the teacher him or herself expects to debate the students.
Of course, this last quote also implicitly suggests negative implications for American Indians in the workplace and general society.
Jon Reyhner writes on his website about how to make schools more inclusive:
In contrast to the one-size-fits-all demands of NCLB, last October the National Indian School Board Association (NISBA) sponsored a three-day conference in Albuquerque on using effective schools research to better serve Indian schools. The conference was keynoted by Dr. Larry Lezotte who has researched schools that have better success serving ethnic minority students and what they do to achieve it. He and his associates found that the more effective schools have seven correlates: strong instructional leadership, a clear and focused mission, a climate of high expectations for success, a safe and orderly environment, frequent monitoring of student progress, opportunity to learn/student time on task, and positive home-school relations.
Also, Reyhner discusses something you may have been wondering about, in addition to students who tried to adapt and do not succeed: those who never tried because they feel alienated, entirely:
In schools this can be seen as peer group pressure directed at "nerds" who do well in subjects like math and science and who are accused of acting "white" and taunted with questions like, "I suppose you think you are too good for us now?" This can lead Indian and other ethnic minority students to direct their efforts at recognition in sports, which their community celebrates, rather than working for good grades.
As easy as it would be to argue that personal achievement can benefit that wider community down the line, the trade-offs for the gains give us pause. And successful students don't tend to stay around the poorer places where American Indians usually live.
On Rayhner's website, there is a bibliography of links on how to address our disparity.