FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of leading civil rights organizations focused on high school education reform, reported recently that less than half of American Indian and Alaska Native students graduate each year, compared with more than 70 percent of all students nationwide.
U.S. Department of Education data indicates that more than 70 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native twelfth graders read below grade level, compared with 57 percent of white twelfth graders.
Northern Arizona University's College of Education is hosting a conference on what kind of preparation Indian Nations need and want for the teachers of their children to help accomplish the goal of closing the achievement gap between the academic performance of American Indian students and the rest of America on June 11-12.
Conference keynote speakers include Arizona turnaround principals Mary Quinnan and Celeste Enochs who are working with failing Arizona schools to improve students' academic proficiency.
A central concern of educational improvement on Arizona Indian Nations is how to get teachers to appreciate and respect traditional tribal values while at the same time giving their students a world-class education that prepares them to live and work in today's global society. An ideal teacher for American Indian students needs content knowledge about mathematics, science, history and other subjects, and knowledge of teaching methodologies, including methodologies that acknowledge tribal forms of learning and are congruent with how their students learn to learn at home.
The Navajo and other Indian Nations have rejected the historically common educational policy of devaluing tribal cultures. The Navajo Nation's "Diné Cultural Content Standards [for schools] is predicated on the belief that firm grounding of native students in their indigenous cultural heritage and language, is a fundamentally sound prerequisite to well developed and culturally healthy students." Empowering values of the Diné individual to be taught include being "generous and kind," "respecting kinship," "being a careful listener," and "having a balanced perspective and mind" as well as not being lazy, impatient, hesitant, easily hurt, shy, or mad. Diné individuals are to respect the sacred, have self-discipline, and prepare for challenges.
Two innovative schools working to improve student learning are the Tséhootsooí Diné Bi'ólta' in Window Rock and the Puente de Hózhó dual language school in Flagstaff that seek to revitalize and maintain the Navajo language while providing their students with educational excellence. Part of their success is based on parent buy-in as well as students learning traditional values that include respecting their teachers and working hard. Without parent buy-in the chance for success of any educational program is very limited.
However, parents often have a very limited knowledge, based on their own youthful school experiences, to judge what educational approaches will help their children the most and can believe that traditional values are best left behind. Educators must be both responsive to what parents want while at the same time helping them to better understand what we know about how to make schools better.
We need to develop teachers who can engage their students in a rigorous study of local issues that tribal communities face, ranging from diabetes and other health issues to issues of economic development, while at the same time broadening their students' horizons and engaging them to learn more about both our nation and our world. And we won't get or keep these teachers we need unless we respect them and teach our kids to respect them.
More than ever, particularly during these hard economic times, we need teachers who are committed to innovative and intellectually challenging approaches to teaching Indian children as well as to an underlying set of social and tribal values, including encouraging Indian students to act on their values. In addition, we need teachers who can help students learn how to collect reliable data, to sift through that data for relevancy, and to draw logical conclusions. We need teachers that motivate their students not only to reason but to act on their values in order to create a better world for everyone, but especially for themselves and their children.
Conference co-chairs are Joseph Martin, NAU Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and former Superintendent of Kayenta Public Schools and Arizona State Superintendent of the Year, and Jon Reyhner, NAU Professor of Education. Reyhner's books include Teaching American Indian Students, American Indian Education: A History and Learn in Beauty: Indian Education for a New Century.
To learn more about Northern Arizona University's Indian Education Conference visit their website at http://nau.edu/AIE or contact Martin at Joseph.Martin@nau.edu (phone 928 523 5933) or Reyhner at Jon.Reyhner@nau.edu (phone 928 523 0580).
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