United Tribes News Speech Archives

A New Challenge for Indian Education 2010

By Gerald E. Gipp, Ph.D.
National Indian Education Association Annual Conference

October 8, 2010, San Diego, CA


Gerald E. Gipp, Ph.D.

During this past weekend, I had an opportunity to view the 2009 movie “The Only Good Indian,” produced by actor Wes Studi. Mr. Studi played the central figure in the movie that depicted the experiences of Indian children in the federal boarding school system. You are aware of the negative experiences endured by Indian children from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s. The movie was a vivid reminder of where we’ve been and where we are today working with the same lumbering federal systems that cause our students to continue to fail. The movie reignited my interest and commitment to promote a new initiative beyond what has been accomplished in the past 40 years.

Suffice it to say that the failures of formal education for Native children have been well documented. Despite new initiatives that grew out of the Kennedy Report of 1969, Indian students continue to fail miserably, far beyond national standards. This includes the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) funded schools and public sector schools where over 90 percent of Native students receive their education in 2010.

This begs the question: Where are we going with the current Administration and Congress?

The election of President Obama was strongly supported by Native America; it brought the hope to Indian leaders and Native educators that greater understanding and new initiatives for Indian Education would be forthcoming from the federal government and Congress. But as recently as last week, when President Obama and other national leaders voiced their concerns about the failures of public education in America, Indian Education was not in the forefront of that discussion.

As a longtime educator, I’ve had the opportunity to work in four federal agencies: the Departments of Interior, Health and Human Services and Education; and the National Science Foundation. I have provided leadership in the national offices of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the National Indian Education Association. Based on those experiences, and judging from today’s environment, it appears that we are destined to see only incremental changes in Indian Education if we fail to act, and education for our children will continue to languish.

This is my concern today. Since the President’s acknowledgement of Tribal sovereignty in a national gathering of tribal leaders and subsequent educational meetings with the various federal agencies, a “Blueprint for Reform” was released to guide the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) along with the Administrations priorities. In addition, a number of tribal consultation meetings were conducted by the Department of Education (DOE). I understand our friends there, and in the BIE, are open to some changes that will be helpful. But I also understand there is a reluctance to promote deeper changes as recommended by the National Indian Education Association Board of Directors and Tribal leaders at the National Congress American Indians (NCAI) Mid-Year Conference in June 2010.

Given recent developments, I believe we need a national initiative, a national strategy, a transformation to begin to turnaround Indian education at a faster pace. We appreciate the DOE commitment to provide resources for pilot programs and other small grant initiatives, and to continue a collaborative dialogue about Indian education. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that these actions will culminate in a national strategy to address the continuing failures for the majority of our students in 2010. Recent studies reported that fewer than 50 percent of native students entering high school will graduate, and only one out of ten students entering college completes a four-year degree. These results are unacceptable. Indian education continues to be a national tragedy, not a national priority.

It’s understandable that the attention of the Administration and Congress is focused on the big picture of our global society: the wars, the economy, the threat of terrorism, mid-term elections, etc. It’s also troubling that the Administration has to deal with the difficulty of budget deficits. Nevertheless, the amount of money to support Indian programs is but a minor commitment in comparison to other programs.

As we look to the future we tend to focus on the gaps and failures. But we have to remind ourselves of all the progress that has occurred over the past four decades. We have a good foundation to build on. We have greater control and participation in schools than ever before. We have more Native professional educators, superintendents, school principals, teachers and Indian professionals in a wide range of professions than ever. Some districts have accepted the option to take over the governance of schools, but many are still operated by the BIE federal system because communities are not prepared to govern. Our young people have far greater opportunities and access to higher education and we now have 36 tribal colleges, chartered and governed by tribal communities that represent an important tool to prepare our people to take ownership. Yet there is much more to accomplish.

I believe we have a new challenge if we choose to address it: to bring to the attention of our President and national leaders to make Indian Education a national priority. With two years remaining for the current Administration, and hopefully four more after that, there is still hope to call upon President Obama to acknowledge the need to declare American Indian Education as a national priority.

It is my opinion that without a presidential declaration, it is proving to be difficult for the federal agencies and Congress to consider any major changes to improve Indian education in the DOE or BIE because Indian issues historically get caught up in national priorities when budgets are frozen and new initiatives are curtailed. When this occurs, Indian programs with limited funds and options are often devastated.

The goal of declaring Indian Education a national priority requires support from all of us and our allies, especially our tribal leaders. We need a groundswell calling upon the President to declare Native Education a national priority, and to direct his policymakers and responsible federal agencies to support Indian educators to develop options to create and redesign programs that are coordinated and cooperative to achieve more effective and efficient programs. You folks – teachers, parents, administrators, community leaders, members of NIEA – are central to voicing a movement to activate a “call for action” to President Obama.

The following can be a starting point for developing a new strategy for Native Education:

My challenge to you, the members of NIEA and the Board of Directors, is to get involved and take action to develop a groundswell of support urging President Obama to declare Indian Education as a national priority, with the goal of taking ownership of Indian education to create more efficient and effective programs. If change is to be complete, Indian people must have the opportunity to represent their schools at the national level with appropriators and policy makers.

Each of you has worked hard at improving schools and education for our youth and I salute you for your dedication; you represent the backbone of quality education for Indian students. We must create a new movement to ensure a national strategy is planned and implemented with the Obama Administration. We have waited long enough. Indian communities must be encouraged to engage and take the responsibility of running our own schools, not the federal government. To do so, we need the help of our allies in the Federal Agencies and those in policymaking positions, to act more judiciously in establishing policies and programs for improving culturally relevant education for our children. My greatest hope is that you will join with NIEA to establish Indian Education as a national priority. That is the challenge today.  Thank you.