How can we improve Navajo Nation schools?

Congratulations to the Navajo Nation Council for approving the Navajo education amendments to Title 10. Fortunately, a majority of the council accepted the amendments on the premise there is a need for a better system.

In an earlier article I mentioned small schools and local control as key elements for improving schools. I received several requests asking if I would elaborate on these two items.

The hunger to be better has to come from within the school and each site must work at getting better through its own efforts. Schools get better when there is a high degree of consensus of how to improve among everyone at the school.

Private foundations

Across the country, a small schools movement is gaining momentum. Private foundations are key players. The biggest catalyst is the Bill Gates Foundation. It has invested more than $1 billion in five years in promoting smaller schools and local control in large cities, and in many rural communities including reservations.

It is quite simple to understand that almost all the problems we face on Navajo and other communities – crime, poverty, unemployment, brain-drain, shrinking tribal revenues, and leadership concerns – have their roots in a fading education system.

Largely relevant for Navajo schools are the findings revealed in a recent study by the Rural Schools-Community Trust, funded by the Annenberg Foundation. These schools show lower dropout rates, higher average scores on standardized tests, and higher graduation rates. Children in high-poverty schools see an even more pronounced improvement.

Smaller systems – like smaller classes – can operate more efficiently on a results-per-pupil basis. Like smaller schools, they can be more responsive to the needs of parents and individual students and they do a better job of empowering teachers. Smaller classes are better equipped to educate children who need special attention.

Gates advocates high schools of 500 students or fewer, arguing that they can “provide a personalized learning environment where every student has an adult advocate. Students in small schools feel less alienated and tend to be more actively engaged in school activities.”

The findings from this study show that schools do make a difference. The things that set effective schools apart have to do with student-teacher ratios, focus on classroom instruction throughout the school, a culture emphasizing continuous learning and two-way accountability and other quantifiable factors.

Ironically, these schools bring something of the same solidarity and sense of mission to academic activities that many Navajo schools bring to athletics. They are not places of anonymity and impersonality, but genuine communities where educators really get to know each other and their students.

My point is the effectiveness of smaller schools is getting a large boost from a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of smaller school environments. The research has been motivated at one end by the concerns of rural communities losing a grip on their youth and families and at the other by advocates for smaller and more manageable schools.

If we are serious about advancing a real Navajo education, it would be much easier in a smaller school environment to accomplish these ideals. A former colleague, Theresa Ritchhart, put it best: “There’s no comparison. Small schools have humanity. Students and faculty have first names. They are not numbers. And kids respond to school staff if there is a feeling of family.”

Formula for success

Although these findings tell us what to look for, they do not tell us how to create it. We have not yet found any formula for turning an ineffective school into an effective one – much less for mass-producing hundreds of such schools. One of the surest ways to get an effective school is to find effective leaders.

Get leaders who can deal with the bureaucratized management structures that tend to provide fragmented directions, often reinforced by the demands of funding and regulatory agencies

Because of the demands placed on us from all sides, new kinds of skills and knowledge are definitely required from our education leaders including skills that many current leaders have not mastered. Chief among these is instructional leadership, the ability to recognize and foster good teaching and high-level learning.

However, there are skills that must be developed as extensions of these qualities for a leader to be productive in a reservation school. They are: the ability to listen for understanding; the ability to work in teams; the ability to gather, distribute and utilize the collective wisdom of a system and its constituent parts and people; the ability to be a peacemaker and a coordinator of compromise; the ability to bring disparate people and teams into cooperation and respectful settings for communication and work; and the ability to work through unexpected problems positively and productively.

As a leader seeks to bring these qualities into their life and persona, they will enhance their leadership capacity if they also arm themselves with skills in school-community development approaches. The disconnect between Navajo-schools and communities keeps getting wider and surely our leaders are key to closing those gaps. Education doesn’t just take place in our schools.

Local control

As for local control, the worst example we’ve seen of local control to date is the No Child Left Behind legislation. NCLB, which the Bush administration claims as its proudest achievement in domestic policy, directly contradicts the principle of local control.

The NCLB statute virtually guarantees massive evasion of its own intent, ordering state and local education agencies to do things that they know do not work as well. For me NCLB is merely delaying the day when this administration is able to recognize that poverty and adequate funding are major deterrents, for by ignoring it, we severely limit our thinking of school reform.

The structural basis for failure in our schools is political, economic and cultural, and must be acknowledged before meaningful school improvement can be successfully implemented.

Local control is something we should not give up! I have always believed in the time-honored principle that the best decisions are the ones made closest to home. Ideally we want Navajo schools and communities working together to solve real-life problems, and in doing so, making life better in the communities and schools – which by Navajo ideals should be the standard as a result of local control.

The Rural School-Community Trust study reported the development of a grassroots movement that linked academic achievement with a sense of place and respect for community. Educators were able to turn students around to love learning by rooting it in the place they come from, and make rural communities better by engaging their schools in finding solutions to their problems. Imagine this as a model to implement teachings of sovereignty and self-determination in our schools?

However, as we know all too well, improving our schools is not the only key to making life better for all.

Eliminating the problem

Educators know what it takes to work towards closing the achievement gap, and new research and strategies on the topic become available all the time. But as many of you have pointed out at the hearings conducted by the Diné Education staff, the actions of educators alone are not sufficient to close what we call the achievement “cliff” over which too many Navajo children fall.

As educational leaders, the achievement cliff may be our inheritance, but it is not our responsibility alone. When we try to eliminate the cliff only by improving schools, we will, in fact, ensure that the cliff remains. I agree with those who advocate the proper place to begin solving the problem of low-achievement in our schools is by making families less poor. Good employment that will give our people the dignity and hope needed to function admirably, allowing them to raise their children well and demanding the best from schools. Poverty does affect student achievement!

Daunting as things might appear to be, there is evidence in Navajo schools that careful and sustained attention to the quality of instruction and the conditions of learning can make a difference for Navajo children. A growing number of Navajo schools can document successes with Navajo student populations.

However the question we seem unable to raise and debate in this effort, is this: Why do we put so much of our attention into trying to fix what goes on inside low performing schools when the causes of low performance may reside outside the school? Is it possible that we might be better off devoting more of our attention then we do now toward helping families that are served by those schools?

The issue today is not whether it is possible for Navajo students to learn well, but rather how good teaching and learning can become the norm rather than the exception in these schools. The problem is taking powerful teaching and learning to scale in all Navajo schools.

It will be difficult to achieve this plan without organized support for a new form of education leadership training and teacher preparation to support Navajo’s goal.

It would be a mistake to proceed without systematic reference to this new vast body of research and increasingly refined practice especially those that focus on learning/teaching styles, Navajo forms of knowing like identity, curriculum, assessment, school organization, leadership, finance, governance, etc.

If our leaders are not cautious and wise in these decisions, we will find ourselves needlessly stumbling blindly across plowed ground and reading headlines we don’t want to see. The hard reality vs. hope and theory to changing Navajo schools has not been easy.

(Dr. Martin is an associate professor at Northern Arizona University.)

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