Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 31 Number 3
January 1992


Jon Reyhner

American Indian students leave high school without graduating at over twice the rate of Euro-American students. The extent of the Indian student dropout problem is examined along with the theory that minority-culture students drop out of school more frequently than dominant-culture students because of cultural differences between home and school. Based on the theoretical framework of cultural discontinuity between home and school, Indian and non-Indian dropout research, plus testimony from Indian Nations at Risk Task Force hearings, seven school-based reasons are identified that push Indian students out of school. These seven reasons are large schools, uncaring/untrained teachers, passive teaching methods, inappropriate curriculum, inappropriate testing/student retention, tracked classes, and lack of parent involvement. Recommendations are made for each of the seven areas as to how schools can be changed to improve the quality of Indian education so that more Indian students will graduate from high school and more will go on to college.

During the summer of 1991, I taught a dropout prevention seminar at Eastern Montana College (see Note 1). In initial class discussions, the students, mostly members of Montana Indian tribes, blamed dysfunctional families and alcohol abuse for the high dropout rate among Indian students. If this allegation is correct, and Indian families and the abuse of alcohol are to be held responsible, then the implication exists that teachers and schools are satisfactory and not in need of change. However, the testimony given at the Indian Nations at Risk (INAR) Task Force hearings, held throughout the United States in 1990 and 1991, and other research reviewed, indicate that, both on and off the reservation, schools and teachers are to be held accountable as well. Academically capable American Indian students often drop out of school because their needs are not being met. Others are pushed out because they protest, in a variety of ways, how they are being treated. This article examines various explanations for the high dropout rate which oppose the dysfunctional Indian family and alcohol abuse resolution so popularly accepted.

American schools are not providing an appropriate education for Indian students who are put in large, factory-like schools. Indian students are denied teachers with special training in Indian education, denied a curriculum that includes their heritage, and denied culturally appropriate assessment. Their parents are also denied a voice in the education of their children.

After describing the extent and background of the Indian dropout problem and seven reasons why Indian students leave school before graduation, I will review some positive actions which educators can take to restructure schools to increase the probability of Indian student success.

Extent and background of the problem

The National Center for Education Statistics (1989) reported that American Indian and Alaska Native students have a dropout rate of 35.5%, about twice the national average and the highest dropout rate of any United States ethnic or racial group sited (see Note 2). Regional and local studies gave similar rates (see for example Deyhle, 1989; Eberhard, 1989; Platero, Brandt, Witherspoon, & Wong, 1986; Ward & Wilson, 1989). This overall Indian dropout rate (35%) is not much higher than the 27.1 % of Indians between the ages of 16 and 19 living on reservations who were found by the 1980 Census to be neither enrolled in school nor high school graduates. However, the Census figures also showed wide variation among reservations as to how many Indian teenagers between 16 and 19 were not in school. One New Mexico Pueblo had only 5.2% of those teenagers not getting a high school education whereas several small Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and California sites had no students completing a high school education (Bureau, 1985).

A recent compelling explanation as to why Indian students do poorly in school in the United States involves the cultural differences between Indian cultures and the dominant Euro-American culture (see Jacob and Jordan [1987] for an interesting discussion of explanations for the school performance of minority students). As Estelle Fuchs and Robert J. Havighurst reported from the National Study of American Indian Education in the late 1960s, "Many Indian children live in homes and communities where the cultural expectations are different and discontinuous from the expectations held by school teachers and school authorities" (1972, p. 299). In the INAR Task Force hearings several educators and community members testified on the need for Indian teachers and Indian curriculum to reduce the cultural conflict between home and school (Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, 1991).

Positive identity formation, as the psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1963) pointed out, is an ongoing, cumulative process that starts in the home with a trusting relationship established between mother and child and develops through the child's interaction with other children and adults. To build a strong positive identity, educators that the child interacts with in school need to reinforce and build on the cultural training and messages that the child has previously received. If educators give Indian children messages that conflict with what Indian parents and communities show and tell their children, the conflicting messages can confuse the children and create resistance to school (Bowers & Flinders, 1990; Jacob & Jordan, 1987; Spindler, 1987). In the words of John Goodlad, ethnic minority children are "caught and often savaged between the language and expectations of the school and those of the home" (1990, pp. 6-7).

Too often, well-meaning remedial programs focus on finding the reason for failure in students and their homes thus, "blaming the victims." The idea that Indian students are "culturally disadvantaged" or "culturally deprived" reflects ethnoocentrism rather than the results of educational research. When schools do not recognize, value, and build on what Indian students learn at home, the students are given a watered-down curriculum (meant to guarantee student learning) which often results in a tedious education, and their being "bored out" of school. As a Denver adult education teacher summed it up in the INAR/National Advisory Council on Indian Education (NACIE) Joint Issues Session at the 1990 National Indian Education Association annual meeting, the "traditional school system" is failing dropouts rather than dropouts failing the system.

Students do not have to assimilate into the dominant Euro-American culture to succeed in school. Two studies (Deyhle, 1989; Platero et al., 1986) of Indian dropouts found that a traditional Indian orientation is not a handicap in regard to school success. The Navajo Student at Risk study reported that "the most successful students were for the most part fluent Navajo/English bilinguals" (Platero, 1986, p. 6). Lin (1990) found that Indian college students with traditional orientations outperformed students with modern orientations. Tradition oriented students are able to learn in school, in spite of negative characteristics of the schools, because of the strong sense of personal and group identity their native cultures give them.

Why students leave school

Research indicates a number of factors associated with higher student dropout rates. Particularly critical factors for Indian students include large schools, uncaring and untrained teachers, passive teaching methods, inappropriate curriculum, inappropriate testing/student retention, tracked classes, and lack of parent involvement. Each of these seven factors is explained below (see also Weis, Farrar, & Petrie [1989] for a general discussion describing some of the factors discussed below).

1. Large schools

The increasing size of American schools, especially the large comprehensive high schools with more than one thousand students, creates conditions conducive to dropping out. Goodlad (1984) criticized large schools for creating factory-like environments that prevent educators from forming personal relationships with students. He recommended that high schools maintain no more than 600 students.

A recent study on dropout prevention sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education (Sherman & Sherman, 1990) found small class and program size, low pupil-teacher ratios, program autonomy, and a supportive school environment associated with successful dropout prevention. The study reported that "many students who have not met with success in the regular school program have been alienated by a large, bureaucratic system that does not respond to their unique needs" (p. 49). This study pointed to the need for school-wide reforms.

Smaller schools can allow a greater percentage of students to participate in extra-curricular activities. Students participating in these activities, especially sports when excessive travel is not required, drop out less frequently (Platero et al., 1986). However, many reservation schools do not have drama, clubs, debate teams, and other non-sport extra-curricular activities which would help develop Indian student leadership and language skills.

The Navajo Students at Risk study (Platero, et al., 1986) reported that students who travel long distances to get to school are more likely to drop out. Large consolidated high schools in rural areas, in contrast to dispersed high schools, increase the distance some students must travel, and thus increase their risk of dropping out. Students who miss the school bus often cannot find alternative transportation, and many high schools today maintain strict attendance policies causing students who miss 10 days of school or more to lose their credit for the semester. An educator from Cuba High School in the INAR/NACIE Joint Issues Sessions in San Diego testified that some students had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the school bus at 6:30 a.m., so they could start class at 8:50 a.m. Long distances between homes and schools also discourage parents from taking a more active role in school activities.

2. Uncaring and untrained teachers and counselors

In an ethnographic study of Navajo and Ute dropouts that included both interviews with students and classroom observations, Deyhle (1989) reported that students "complained bitterly that their teachers did not care about them or help them in school" (1989, p. 39). Students who "experienced minimal individual attention or personal contact with their teachers" interpreted this neglect as "teacher dislike and rejection" (p. 39).

In comparison to other racial or ethnic groups, few Indian students report that "discipline is fair," that "the teaching is good," that "teachers are interested in students," and that "teachers really listen to me" (National, 1990, p. 43). Two General Equivalency Diploma (GED) instructors noted in supplemental testimony before the INAR Task Force hearings in Seattle that:

Those students who study for the GED examination often are experiencing for the first time instructors who are Native American themselves, and who truly acknowledge that they are intelligent human beings who are capable of learning and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. For many, this is a new concept. (Document 191, p. 5)

In testimony at the INAR/NACIE Joint Issues Sessions in San Diego, an educator testified that teachers were,

not really explaining what needed to be done, teachers [were] going too fast. . . . They also felt defeated because teachers and other school staff members didn't seem to understand them. The easy way out was just to leave school.

It can be argued that in an attempt to improve the quality of teaching in the United States, changes have been made in teacher preparation programs and certification standards that aggravate rather than solve the problem of recruiting well-qualified caring teachers for Indian children. Increased certification standards are preventing Indian students from entering the teaching profession because the National Teachers Examination (NTE) and similar tests that neither measure teacher commitment to educating Indian children nor their knowledge of Indian cultures, languages, and teaching practices.

Indian students can successfully complete four or more years of college and receive a Bachelors Degree in education at an accredited college or university and be denied a license to teach Indian students on the basis of one timed standardized examination, usually the NTE, that does not reflect Indian education at all. At the same time, a non-Native who has never seen an Indian student, never studied native history, language, or culture, and whose three credit class in multicultural education emphasized Blacks and Hispanics, can legally teach the Indian students that the Indian graduate cannot.

The Winter 1989 issue of the Fair Test Examiner reported how teacher competency tests barred nearly 38,000 Black, Latino, Indian, and other minority teacher candidates from the classroom. In addition, teacher preparation and certification programs are culturally and linguistically "one size fits all," and the size that is measured is a middle-class, Western-European cultural orientation. Recent research (see for example Reyhner, in press) identifies a wide body of knowledge about bilingual education, Indian learning styles, and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teaching techniques that teachers of Indian students need to know. In addition, teachers of Indian students should have an Indian cultural literacy specific to the tribal background of their students. But teachers often get just one generic multicultural course in accredited teacher education programs.

This lack of job-specific training is a factor in the high turnover rates among teachers of Indian children. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) professional staff have a 50% turnover rate every two years (Office, 1988). When teaching, those instructors who are not trained to educate Indian children, as most teachers are not with our present teacher training system, tend to experience failure from the beginning. As these teachers often become discouraged and find other jobs, the students are left to suffer from continued educational malpractice.

Proper training and screening of teachers could solve this problem, especially the training of Indian teachers. However, today's commonly used screening devices of test scores and grade point averages do not measure teacher personality. The Kennedy Report (Special, 1969) found that one-fourth of the elementary and secondary teachers of Indian children admitted not wanting to teach them.

These teachers also need to use interactive teaching strategies (described below in the section on passive teaching methods) to develop positive relationships with their students, because related to the high turnover is the fact that Indian students think worse of their teachers than any other group (Office, 1988). Studies (Coburn & Nelson, 1989; Deyhle, 1989; Kleinfeld, 1979; Platero et al., 1986) clearly show the Indian student's need for warm, supportive teachers.

School counselors, a specialized form of school teachers, can also help prevent dropouts by showing personal care and concern for Indian students. However, professional school counseling is too often restricted to academic matters (see Note 3). This weakness of the professional school counseling program can be overcome, at least in part, through the training of peer counselors. An example of giving students a reason for learning is the peer counseling program at Chinle High School that two students described at the INAR/NACIE Joint Issue Sessions in San Diego. These students volunteered for a class where they learned about the effects of drug and alcohol abuse and learned leadership and peer counseling skills. The students then applied what they learned by helping other students with their problems.

Cheryl Kulas, assistant director for Indian education for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, described another Peer Facilitator Training Program, sponsored by her department, that teaches peer support techniques, decision making skills, and offers alternatives for substance abuse as part of a Youth Leadership Institute (INAR Great Lakes Regional Hearing, St Paul, MN, September 20, 1990).

3. Passive teaching methods

Too often educators of Indian students use passive teaching methods to instruct Indian children. Cummins (1989) argued that most teachers in the United States use a passive "transmission" method of instruction in which knowledge is given to students in the form of facts and concepts. These teachers, according to Bowers and Flinders (1990), view language simplistically as a conduit for the transmitting of information rather than as a metaphorical medium through which the teacher and students mutually build meaning through shared experiences and understandings. They expect students to sit passively, to listen to lectures, or to read and memorize the information they receive so that they can answer worksheet, chapter, or test questions (Deyhle, 1989). Students who refuse to sit quietly for long periods of time are considered discipline problems who, over time, are gradually encouraged in a variety of ways to drop out of school (see Note 4).

Although it is popularly assumed that students who drop out are academic failures, the Navajo Students at Risk study (Platero et al., 1986) showed that the academic performance of dropouts is not that different from students who remain in school. Forty-five percent of the Navajo dropouts are B or better students (Platero et al., 1986). Navajo students most frequently give boredom with school, not academic failure or problems with drugs and alcohol, as their reason for dropping out or planning to drop out.

Indian and other minority students are most likely to be the recipients of passive teaching strategies, and they are commonly placed in low track classes (see section below on tracked classes). "High-track" students have more active learning activities and high prestige subject matter; for example, Shakespeare in English classes (Oakes, 1985). "Low-track" English classes have popular rather than classic literature and more "alienation, distance, and authority" than high track classes (p. 133). Savage (1987) gave a similar description of Chapter I classrooms, and Smith (1988) described generally how instruction, especially in reading, is often segmented into a series of discrete "basic" skills which are taught mechanically resulting in student boredom. In Deyhle's dropout study, Indian students "spoke of the boredom of remedial classes, the repetition of the same exercises and uninteresting subjects" (1989, p. 44). Glasser (1986) viewed cooperative education as the method to get potential dropouts to become interested again in what schools have to offer. In a study of Alaskan education (Senate, 1989), seniors included the following reasons for their classmates dropping out of school: not being good at memorizing facts, boredom, larger class sizes, and unsupportive teachers.

4. Inappropriate curriculum

In addition to inappropriate teaching methods, Indian schools are characterized by an inappropriate curriculum that does not reflect the Indian child's unique cultural background (Coladarci, 1983; Reyhner, in press). Textbooks are not written for Indian students, and thus they enlarge the cultural gap between home and school. In the INAR Task Force hearings, many Indian educators pointed out the need for teaching materials specially designed for Indian students. Despite vast improvement in the past two decades, there are still reports that "too many textbooks are demeaning to minorities" (Senate, 1989, p. 28).

Michelle Stock, education director of the Seneca Nation, in the INAR Task Force public hearings called for a "concerted effort to promote and provide accurate depictions of Indian people, past and present" and criticized the negative images that textbooks and the media give Indian people (Eastern Regional Public Hearing, October 2, 1990, Cherokee, NC). At the Task Force's Great Lakes Regional Hearing (St. Paul, MN, September 20, 1990), Cheryl Kulas of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction testified that of 1,369 teachers who took a North Dakota Indian Studies course, 99% indicated that they did not have books about American Indians in their classroom, and 72% claimed that they had not developed or used methods that have worked successfully with American Indian students. Testimony from the INAR Task Force hearings indicated that too often superficial attempts are made in schools to provide an Indian curriculum through a Thanksgiving unit or an American Indian Day rather than developing a culture-based, culture-embedded curriculum that permeates both the school day and the school year.

Not only are American textbooks largely inappropriate in cultural content for Indian students, there is an over-reliance on commercial textbooks in most classrooms. Cummins (1989) gave evidence that teaching methods that rely less on textbooks work better with minority students. In mathematics, this means more use of manipulatives (real objects that students can use to do mathematical operations with) such as those use in the Math Their Way program (Davison, in press). In science, this means a hands-on, laboratory approach, including using the natural environment as a laboratory (Ovando, 1988). In reading, this means Whole Language methods where students can read and study literature from both the dominant society and their Indian culture (Reyhner & Garcia, 1989; Brown, in press). Deyhle (1989), in her dropout study, noted how teachers too often tell their Indian students to read the chapter and answer the questions at the end. This excercise is an uninteresting task to students who can read well, and an impossible one for students who cannot read at all.

Schools also need an anti-racist curriculum. At the INAR Task Force hearings there was repeated testimony about Indian students facing racial prejudice in their schools. John Bresulieu, chairperson of the Minneapolis public schools Indian parent committee testified that,

students felt threatened or ashamed to be identified as an Indian in schools with few Indians or supportive services for Indian students. Other students, who cannot hide the fact that they are Indians, often face merciless teasing and ridicule from others who openly make fun of their names and appearances. Too many Indian students are often forced to defend themselves from such racial and physical harassment and are suspended and expelled from school as a result (INAR, Great Lakes Regional Hearing, St. Paul, MN, September 20, 1990).

Related to the lack of Indian-specific curriculum and multicultural curriculum, which increases the cultural distance between the Indian student and school, is the use of standardized tests to measure how well students learn that inappropriate curriculum. The use of these tests, which do not reflect either Indian subject matter or ways of learning, is discussed below.

5. Inappropriate testing/student retention

The way tests are designed in this country, with an emphasis on standardized testing, a built-in failure is produced (Oakes, 1985; Bloom, 1981). In addition to the built-in sorting function of standardized tests, they have a cultural bias that has yet to be overcome (Rhodes, 1989). Some of the changes made to improve education in American schools recommended in A Nation at Risk (National, 1983) and other studies have hurt rather than helped Indian students.

The use of standardized tests to measure school success leads to more Indian students being retained in a grade, and retention leads to over-age students who drop out of high school. The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88) reported that 28.8% of Indian students have repeated at least one grade, the highest percentage of any racial or ethnic group reported (National, 1990, p. 9). The research on failing students (retaining them in grade for another year) indicates that it only creates more failure and more dropouts (Weis, et al., 1989). Even retention in kindergarten does not help students who are having academic problems (Shepard & Smith, 1989). With current practices, schools can make themselves look better by pushing out Indian students since they are evaluated on their average test scores. The more "at risk" students educators push out, the higher the schools' average test scores (Bearden, Spencer, & Moracco, 1989).

Without realizing they are comparing bilingual students' test scores with monolingual English student norms, school administrators and teachers use the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) and other standardized test scores to show that their present curriculum is not working. It is also common sense that achievement tests given to Indian students be aligned with what they are being taught in their schools. Testimony given at the INAR/NACIE joint issue sessions in San Diego gave instances of the inappropriate use of tests in schools. For example, tests designed for state mandated curricula were used on students who were not taught using those curricula in BIA schools. Cummins (1989) and Oakes (1985) give other examples of the misuse of standardized tests.

The result of this misuse of tests is that educators keep changing the curriculum in a futile attempt to get Native language speaking students in the early grades to have English language test scores that match the test scores of students of the same age who have spoken English all their lives. Research indicates that it takes about five to seven years for non-English speaking students to acquire an academic proficiency in English which will give them a chance to match the English language test scores of students whose native language is English (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1989).

6. Tracked classes

Teachers often have low expectations for Indian students and put them in a noncollege-bound vocationally-oriented curriculum. This "tracking" of students is a common practice in secondary schools. The student body is divided into high achievers, average achievers, and low achievers, and each group is put in separate classes. Oakes (1985) described the negative effects of tracking in our nation's high schools and how ethnic minority students are disproportionately represented in the lower tracks where they receive a substandard education. She documented how, in tracked classrooms, "lower-class students are expected to assume lower-class jobs and social positions as adults" (p. 117) and that "students, especially lower-class students, often actively resist what schools try to teach them" (p. 120). Data from the NEL:88 show that less than 10% of Indian students are in the upper quartile of achievement test scores in history, mathematics, reading, and science whereas over 40% are in the lowest quartile (National, 1989). The low expectations of teachers for low track students, already unsuccessful in school, make a serious problem worse. The different treatment teachers give high and low track students has been described above under the heading of "passive teaching methods."

Useem (1990) described how many students, including many Indian students, get tracked out of advanced mathematics classes. However, she found some schools with more advanced mathematics classes and more flexibility in allowing students into these classes. She emphasized the need for counselors and teachers to take an advocacy role in encouraging students to try advanced mathematics courses.

Historically, tracking students into vocational programs has been used as a way to reduce the number of dropouts. Vocational programs for Indian students have had a racist tinge. The Jesuit priest, Father Palladino, wrote that "a plain, common English education, embracing spelling, reading and writing, with the rudiments of arithmetic, is booklearning sufficient for our Indians" (1922, p. 113). Father Palladino and others felt that Indians were lazy, and that an academic education would encourage their "natural indolence." After World War II, Indian workers were considered as suitable for "close, tedious, repetitive work requiring great dexterity and fortitude" (Senese, 1985, p. 76). Gloria Kootswatewa, vice-chair of the Kickapoo Tribe, testified at the INAR Task Force hearings how,

All Indian students are geared toward vocational education, they are never counseled for college-bound courses. I had a problem with my son and asked the school to change his courses. I was told all Indians go to voc-tech (INAR Plains Regional Hearing),

Oakes (1985) documented how vocational education programs for poor and minority students "limit their future opportunities and, in fact, relegate them to low-level occupations and social status" (p. 150). Her review of the research "strongly suggests that participation in vocational programs has not enhanced the employment opportunities of participants," rather vocational education segregates poor and minority (and, presumably, Indian) students "in order to preserve the academic curriculum for middle- and upper-class students" (pp. 152-153). Schools in upper income neighborhoods have vocational programs that prepare students for higher income jobs more so than vocational programs in low income schools; for example, bookkeeping versus cosmetology. Rather than specific job training, employers want to know if potential employees are trainable. This is especially true in this era of rapidly changing technology. Students who are able to read, write, compute, and reason are trainable.

7. Lack of parent involvement

The last factor to discuss is parent involvement. Greater Indian parent involvement can reduce the cultural distance between home and school. Often school staff say they want parent involvement, but what they really want is parents to get after their children to attend school and study. In the words of one INAR hearing witness in San Diego,

They [school officials and teachers] really want parents as cake bakers and cops. That is their idea. They send home recipes and say "This is what we want your kid to look like. You feed him and clothe him, you bathe him-make sure he doesn't have any lice–send him to school on time, pick him up, come to back-to-school night and open house, and let us do our song and dance. We will send home the homework and you can sign off. You are the cop." So your kid is on probation at home. This sets up a very negative relationship.

Although getting parents to get their children to school is important, parent involvement also means educating parents about the function of the school and allowing parents real decision making power about what and how their children learn. Cummins (1989) noted that "although lip service is paid to community participation through Parent Advisory Committees (PAC) in many school programs, these committees are frequently manipulated through misinformation and intimidation" (p. 62). He goes on to list a number of studies supporting the need for minority parent involvement in schools.

Promising Remedies

Both educational literature and testimony at INAR hearings recommend solutions to the problems that result in Indian student failure. The following suggestions for improving Indian schools are targeted at the seven factors described above and involve restructuring schools, promoting caring teachers, using active teaching strategies, having culturally-relevant curriculum, testing to help students rather than to fail them, having high expectations of all students, and promoting community involvement.

1. Restructure Schools

The problem of large, impersonal schools can be solved by building smaller schools and restructuring older large ones to allow for more teacher-student contact. Examples of Indian schools working to solve the problem of bigness include Crazy Horse High School in Wanblee, South Dakota, and Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Arizona. At Wanblee, English and social studies classes are integrated in the high school across grade levels. At Kayenta, subjects are blocked together so that students change class less and stay longer with each of their teachers. The recent U.S. Department of Education sponsored study on preventing dropouts found block programming was successfully used "to create a 'family' environment for students" (Sherman & Sherman, 1990).

Restructuring large schools to create schools within schools, and larger blocks of time for some classes, can allow individual teachers more time to form human relationships with individual students. Currently in large schools, it is difficult for caring teachers to interact with any one student long enough to know that student personally and to form the kind of supportive relationship described in the section on teachers below that can help a student stay in school.

2. Promoting caring teachers

Once schools are restructured to allow teachers the time to interact on an individual basis with students, there needs to be a program to recruit caring teachers and to promote positive teacher-student interaction. The importance of warm, supportive, and caring teachers is documented in the Indian student dropout research (Coladarci, 1983; Deyhle, 1989; Platero, et al., 1986). Caring teachers are willing to learn about their students and their students' cultures as well as to teach students. From what they learn, caring teachers adjust their teaching to fit the cultural background of their students. Goodlad (1990) and Bowers and Flinders (1990) described necessary changes in teacher training programs to make them more culturally sensitive.

A detailed account of how caring individual attention to students leads to academic success is given in Kleinfeld's 1979 study of an Alaskan school, St. Mary's. This Catholic boarding school for Alaska Native students succeeds despite what would be generally considered inadequate funding. From her study of the school, Kleinfeld concluded that,

The most important kind of education happening at the school is not happening through subject matter instruction or through teaching technical skills. It is happening through the communication of values, of principles for organizing one's life despite the disorganizing pressures of cultural change. This system of values is communicated only in small part by direct teaching. Rather, it is lodged within the structure of student and staff relationships at the school. These standards are communicated above all through the intimate associations that develop at St. Mary's between teachers and their students (pp. 27-28).

St. Mary's volunteer teachers interact with students both in and out of the classroom. The school is "a village society with a structure of social relationships similar to that of the students' own communities" (p. 32) and "most classes taught by the volunteers were a mixture of factual information, personal experiences of the teacher, references to Eskimo village life, delightful in-jokes, and broad humor" (p. 34). Kleinfeld finds that,

St. Mary's students entered college with low scores on standard academic tests, doing no better than other village freshman. . . . Yet, St. Mary's students did exceptionally well in college (p. 1).

She attributed this unexpected success to the experience and self-confidence the students gained from interacting with caring adults.

The characteristics of another successful school reinforce some of Kleinfeld's conclusions. Rock Point Community School on the Navajo Reservation draws many of its non-Indian high school teachers from returned Peace Corps volunteers. These teachers care about the community as well as their jobs and see education in a more holistic way. Teaching subject matter is only a part, and not necessarily the major focus, of their jobs (Reyhner, 1990).

Time and again in the INAR Task Force hearings Indian parents testified about the need for more Indian teachers who will stand as role models for their children. These instructors would offer students a unique cultural knowledge and would maintain the ability to identify with the problems their students face.

3. Active teaching methods

Obviously, just caring is not enough. Teachers also need to learn culturally appropriate teaching strategies in their teacher training and inservice programs and use these instructional methodologies in their classrooms. The lack of student interest in education, their boredom with school, needs to be further examined, but Cummins (1989) maintained that it is the way children are taught in school that produces this boredom. He advocated an experiential-interactive teaching methodology that involves students in their education as active participants. McCarty and Schaffer (in press) advocate an "explorer" curriculum for Indian students. In such a classroom, students "interact with their environment, their peers, and their teachers as they learn about the world" (Freeman & Freeman, 1988, p. 4). Ovando (1988) described a similar type of problem-solving curriculum for science, and gave an example of its successful application with Alaska Native students in Gambell, Alaska (see also Guthridge, 1986). These approaches fight the problems of boredom and lack of interest that are prevalent in classrooms focused on students listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and memorizing information.

Other studies of Indian students show the need for teachers to know more about the home culture of their students. Swisher and Deyhle (1989) analyzed a number of these studies to show how teachers can improve the instruction of Indian students; unfortunately, unless certification requirements are changed, most teachers are unlikely to receive this type of instruction in their teacher training programs.

4. Culturally-relevant curriculum

Beyond using active and culturally-appropriate teaching strategies, research (see for example Reyhner, in press) showed the need for a culturally-appropriate curriculum. Extensive material exists to produce elementary and secondary culturally appropriate curriculum for Indian students, however, there is little incentive for publishers to produce material for the relatively small market that Indian education represents. Books such as Jack Weatherford's (1988) Indian givers: How the Indians of the Americas transformed the world indicate the wealth of information that could positively affect Indian students' understanding and self-concept. This information, however, does not seem to be reaching Indian students at the elementary and secondary level.

5. Advocacy testing

The report of the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America (1990), focused on the issues of too much standardized multiple choice testing in our nation's schools and on how the results of that testing are used inappropriately. As the title of the National Commission's report suggests, and Cummins (1989) maintained, tests should be used to pinpoint student weaknesses in order to help them rather than to fail them, give them inferior high school "attendance" diplomas, and track them out of a college preparatory curriculum as described in the section on tracking.

In the January 29, 1992 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) coauthored an article tided "The Shortcomings of Standardized Tests." The article reported that after a national forum on testing research, the AERA passed a resolution "urging the nation to slow down and think differently about measuring school success by students' scores on standardized tests" (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, p. B 1). Darling-Hammond and Lieberman noted that the way tests are constructed "place test takers in a passive, reactive role, rather than a role that engages their capacities to structure tasks, produce ideas, and solve problems" (p. B2).

6. High expectations

The experiences of Jaime Escalante, as portrayed in the movie "Stand and Deliver," illustrate how teachers who have high expectations for their students, and who can bring their subjects alive for their students, can produce high achievement in minority students who are normally written off in our schools. This supports the research of Bloom (1981) that, given proper teaching, 90% of the students can master classroom subject matter.

Organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) that encourage high school students to take more mathematics and science courses can make the difference in whether Indian students consider science and engineering careers and enter college with adequate preparation. High school AISES chapters provide peer support for academically-oriented students and bring in successfully employed role models to speak to students about possible careers. AISES's Winds of Change magazine and national conferences for students also encourage Indian students to pursue careers in the sciences.

7. More parent and community involvement

The best way to get schools to reflect parent and community values and to reduce cultural discontinuity between home and school is to have real parent involvement in Indian education. At many successful Indian schools, the school board, administrators, and teachers are Indian people. The extensive parent involvement at Rock Point Community School in Arizona is one example of how parents can come to feel ownership in their children's school and to translate that feeling into supporting their children's attendance and academic performance. Parent involvement at Rock Point includes quarterly parent-teacher conferences, a yearly general public meeting, and an eight-member elected parent advisory committee that formally observes the school several times a year (Reyhner, 1990). In addition, the Indian school board conducts its meetings in the Navajo language and each classroom has special chairs reserved for parents.

Parents need to have effective input as to how and what their children are taught. This is best achieved through Indian control of schools. However, curriculum restrictions placed by states on public schools, and even the BIA on BIA-funded schools, limit the effectiveness of Indian parent involvement. State and BIA regulations force Indian schools to use curriculum and textbooks not specifically designed for Indian children and to employ teachers who, though certified, have no special training in Indian education.


Supplemental, add-on programs such as Indian Education Act, Johnson-O'Malley (JOM), Bilingual Education, Special Education, and other federal programs have had limited success in improving the education of Indian children. However, add-on programs are only a first step in making schooling appropriate for Indian children. There is a need to view Indian education holistically rather than fragmented with basic skills, Indian heritage, and other classes taught in isolation from one another.

In addition to treating the curriculum holistically, dropout prevention needs to be treated holistically. As the research reported in this article indicates, students do not drop out of school just because of academic failure, drug and alcohol abuse, or any other single problem. Dropout prevention starts in schools structured so that caring teachers can give students every chance for success in the classroom through interactive and experiential teaching methodologies and relevant curriculum. In addition, at risk students need peer support through cooperative instructional methodologies and peer counseling programs. Dropout prevention also includes support services outside of the classroom from school administrators and counselors who work closely with parents. Another important need is to keep track of dropouts so that attempts can be made to get them back into school or into GED programs. The Navajo Students at Risk study found that many students who dropped out were interested in returning to school:

Fully 46% of all dropouts expect to return to school and graduate, while another 45.1 % say "maybe" when they are asked if they expect to return to school and graduate. Only 8.8% have no hope or expectation of returning to school or graduating (Platero et al., 1986, p. 33).

If educators continue to get inadequate or inappropriate training in colleges of education, then local teacher-training programs need to provide school staff with information on what works in Indian education and information about the language, history, and culture of the Indian students. Tribal colleges are beginning to develop teacher training programs to fill this need. Parents and local school boards also need on-going training about what works in Indian education and what schools can accomplish. Head Start, elementary, and secondary schools need the support of tribal education departments and tribal colleges to design and implement effective educational programs that support rather than ignore Indian cultures.

Much testimony was given in the WAR Task Force hearings on the importance of self-esteem for Indian students. It is sometimes unclear that self-esteem is not an independent variable but is a reflection of how competent an Indian child feels. Having students memorize material to show success on standardized tests, a common element of the transmission model of teaching previously described, is a poor way to develop self-esteem. However, if students interact with caring, supportive adults, if students are allowed to explore and learn about the world they live in, including learning about their rich Indian heritage, if they are allowed to develop problem solving skills, if they are given frequent opportunities to read and write and to do mathematics and science in meaningful situations, and if they are encouraged to help improve the world they live in through community service, it is likely that Indian students will feel good about themselves and will be successful in life.

Although much of the attention given to dropouts focuses on high schools, students are deciding in the primary grades whether school is something for them. If they are failed, if they do not find school interesting, if school is something alien and foreign, then they are "at risk" of dropping out. Teachers of Indian students need to have special training in instructional methodologies that have proven effective with Indian students and in using curriculum materials that reflect American Indian history and cultures. They also need to build on the cultural values that Indian parents give their children if teachers want to produce a strong positive sense of identity in their students.

Attempts to replace Indian identity with a dominant cultural identity can confuse and repel Indian students and force them to make a choice between their Indian values or their school's values. Neither choice is desirable or necessary. Students can be academically successful and learn about the larger non-Native world while at the same time retaining and developing their Indian identity. Indian students need to attend schools that reinforce rather than ignore or depreciate Indian cultural values.


1. This article is a revision of a paper the author wrote for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force under contract with the U.S. Department of Education.

2. The Indian student dropout problem is not of recent origin. Only a small percentage of students attending the famous Carlisle Indian School in the nineteenth century actually graduated (Eastman, 1935). The Kennedy Report (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969) also found dropout rates for Indians to be twice the national average.

3. School counselors are usually certified teachers as state certification departments tend to view counseling as an endorsement to be added to a teaching certificate. These teacher-counselors are unlikely to have an in-depth knowledge of the Indian community or special training in dealing with Indian students. They are also unlikely to have the time, with their academic counseling and class scheduling duties, to give intensive help to troubled youth.

4. Passive teaching methods are not new in Indian education. The 1928 Meriam Report found that in some schools Indian children were forced to "maintain a pathetic degree of quietness" and that almost all schools had locked rooms or isolated buildings used as "jails" for unruly students (Meriam, pp. 332 & 329).

Jon Reyhner, Ed.D., is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern Montana College. He has twenty years of experience in Indian education and is editor of Teaching American Indian Students, forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press.


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