If One-Size-Fits-All isn’t a Great Idea, You Better Have a Damned Good Tailor! How the New Education Law Can Impact Indian Education.

There is no doubt that education can be trans-formative. Trans-formative for the individual, their families (current and future), as well as their communities. As income disparity increases throughout the country, educational opportunity and quality are increasingly important. Just last week, the Obama administration, the House and Senate, reached an unusually bi-partisan agreement to strike down or, more accurately, soften, key aspects of the No Child Left Behind act. Named the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” another name that only a politician or first year marketing student could love, it reverts much more control back to the states for educational decisions and many standards. What this entails for Tribes?  Section 6006, reports the efforts to address native youth suicide outbreaks in elementary and secondary school students, shall be prepared by the Secretary’s of Education, Interior, and Health and Human Services, where the response from Federal level as well as feedback from Tribes to their response. More information to be discussed further! There is, of course, a spending cut of about 7 billion dollars in there, but it is less than the difference of what was authorized in the previous bill (32 billion) and what was actually appropriated (23 billion in 2015). But, that is another blog!


It is important to note that many Tribal schools are federally operated through the Bureau of Indian Education. So, reversion of resources and authority to the states is of little use. However, thanks to the hard work of those advocating for native education and sovereignty issues, the bill also reverts a significant amount of authority (in principle), to Tribes. This is a big win and, a huge responsibility.

Tribal schools have many challenges. Poverty, Tribal politics, scarce resources, high staff-turnover (or, sometimes, the opposite) are just a few of these many challenges. But, they also have a more complicated mission. Education should adapt the student for success in their own community and prepare them to compete in the larger world so that they have the freedom to pursue any goal they may dream of.  Too much emphasis on local needs hobbles the potential for achieving dreams in the broader context (college or careers off of the reservations), and too much focus on skills less relevant to thriving in the local community leads to a feeling that education is irrelevant, potential brain drain, and perhaps a sense of shame for your culture. That last part, culture, is an added responsibility of Indian education. We must thread the needle between developing the skills to thrive in our own communities, compete in the world beyond our community, and preserve the very essence of what it means to be Native American: Our history, our language, our culture and values.

In principle, local control could be a boon for Tribal education. After all, there are many different Tribes with many different communities and cultures. A one-size-fits-all approach cannot possibly work in such widely disparate and diverse contexts. However, for a custom-made suit to fit, you have to have good material to start with and a skilled tailor. Further, as we all know, tailored outfits are more costly than those we buy off-the-rack. Thus, the reversion of control must be balanced with the strategic focus of resources. If it is not, we risk sinking, rather than elevating, an already challenged Tribal educational system and isolating problems. Further, we risk playing on old game: Blaming those that fail rather than supporting them.

We need to make sure that each community has the right materials and the best tailors to develop the educational goals, pedagogies, policies necessary to empower communities, allow for mobility, and to strengthen culture.

This blog-post is just a heads up. With every “win” you can lose. It is all in the details and follow-up. As Spiderman’s grandfather so wisely stated: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If things move local, we need to be ever vigilant that resources, standards, and training do as well. The health and education of our children is a sacred responsibility and they deserve the very best we can give them. If the feds are no longer in control, that is great news! We now need to rise to this challenge and develop an educational system that serves our unique needs in powerful and innovative ways. To do that, each community must have access to highly talented people in all three areas: local needs, cultural needs, as well as developing the skills, talents, abilities and perspectives necessary to succeed in college or anywhere any of us may want to live. That is an awesome responsibility. One I hope that we are ready to meet and transcend.





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