State-Tribal Institute

Striving To Achieve: Helping Native American Students Succeed


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Executive Summary

The state of education in our nation’s K-12 schools for Native students is distressing.  Native students perform two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and mathematics.  They are 237 percent more likely to drop out of school and 207 percent more likely to be expelled than white students.  For every 100 American Indian/Alaska Native kindergartners, only seven will earn a bachelor's degree, compared to 34 of every 100 white kindergartners.  These statistics represent a snapshot of the current problem facing Native students.

One contributing factor to this achievement gap is that most American Indian/Alaska Native students are not prepared to learn when they walk through the doors of their school.  In addition, the effects of poor economic conditions in many Indian communities add to the challenges facing families and schools.  Low-income homes, lack of adequate health care, and other factors create challenges that add to the achievement gap.

The North American continent once was home to at least 500 distinct Native cultures.  Now, many cultures have disappeared or are struggling to survive.  Native people throughout the United States have attempted to regain the practices that helped define them as a people.  Many tribes have created dictionaries of their languages, elders have been asked to record their knowledge and memories, and countless other efforts have been made to connect the past with the present. Educational systems have been vital in many of these efforts, as tribal colleges and public schools have worked to restore and catalog this knowledge.

This report details the overall school experience for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students.  Included are discussions of the Native student and information about where Native students live and attend school.  Because defining the Native student is difficult,  many rely on federal recognition to identify them.  Information also is included about where these students live.  American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students are not evenly distributed across the country; many live on reservations, while others live in urban areas.  Data showing the number of students in specific states is included, with information about which states have the largest populations of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students. 

Closing  the achievement gap is of key importance to state legislators because 90 percent of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students attend public schools, and state legislators ultimately are responsible for appropriations and policy that govern a state's public schools.

The National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASL-the Caucus), with assistance from  education policy experts and other stakeholders, developed a series of policy recommendations.  The recommendations  provide options for all state legislators to consider as they contemplate policies to help close the achievement gap between American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students and their non-Native peers.   The following policy recommendations are further discussed in this report, with additional supportive policies.

  • Ensure access for Native students to a curriculum that prepares them for the rigors of a new economy and college, thus enabling them to fully participate in the workforce.
  • Address the multi-dimensional, contextual problems associated with decreased achievement in schools before students begin school, thereby helping them arrive at school ready to learn.
  • Offer an outstanding teaching force to American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students.
  • Increase the voice of Native peoples and their participation in the work of schools, and make schools more culturally relevant places for Native children.
  • Increase awareness on the issue of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian student achievement by sharing best practices and research on Native students.
  • Ensure adequate distribution of resources to Native students.

The Caucus feels strongly that a commitment to these goals, together with consideration of the specific strategies proposed, will lead to better, more equitable education for all students in the nation’s public schools. 

Although the Caucus is mindful of the importance of culturally based education, the purpose of this report is to provide information to the nation's state legislators about the existing educational achievement gap facing American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students and to offer policy recommendations for consideration when identifying possible solutions to the problem.

This report represents a call for assistance from the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators to our colleagues in every state—regardless of the size of their American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian student population—to close the achievement gap between these students and their non-Native peers.  It  also is an effort to reach out to the many partners—on state boards of education, on tribal councils, and in education agencies—we have as legislators in the hope that they will redouble their efforts to support our goal of higher educational achievement.  Collaborative efforts are required, and we invite all to join us in the pursuit of educational excellence and equity for Native students.