The National Indian Education Study (NIES), as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is designed to explain and explore the status of education for Native American and Alaska Native students in the United States. The 2011 assessment results indicated that Native Americans and Alaska Natives performed lower than other racial and ethnic groups in both math and reading, with a growing achievement gap in mathematics and no significant improvement in reading since 2009. One somewhat positive note is that in comparison to 2009, Native students performed higher in Bureau of Indian Education schools than in traditional public schools.
Why might this be the case?
One possible explanation is that Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools may be more sensitive to students’ cultural needs; thus, curriculum also may be more culturally relevant. Teaching curriculum from a culturally relevant perspective enables students to relate more closely to course content. This does not mean concepts and principles should be changed, but context should be added to the curriculum to more fully engage students. When we contextualize information, it becomes easier to learn related concepts. Unfortunately, in a system in which we rely heavily upon standardized testing, the need to teach specifically to material being assessed removes legitimacy of wide scale implementation of culturally relevant curriculum that may be beneficial to every student.
That is not to say that standardized testing does not have its merits. Through these tests we receive valuable information about the current state of student academic achievement on select academic disciplines, such as mathematics and reading. This may be very helpful in developing more effective education policies by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of apparent academic successes and failures. When considering decolonization strategies for the educational system, it is important to acknowledge the current states of affairs and explore various methods to promote student success. Decolonizing education does not have to mean eliminating standardized testing; in fact, standardized testing undoubtedly will remain intact for many years.
Because everyone must operate within the current system and because standardized testing persists, perhaps it would be important to explore other ways to decolonize education. Rather than lamenting the cognitive and cultural inadequacies of such assessments, we should turn attention to the actual process of learning rather than the product-oriented approach prevalent in modern society.
Knowledge acquisition is not simply learning certain information and collecting content within our minds; it also involves learning how to think and engage within a colonial framework that is arduous to Native and non-Native students alike.
One way to encourage process learning is through the adaptation and implementation of interdisciplinary curriculum and teaching methods. There are many subjects and areas of study that can benefit from interdisciplinary explorations, including as Environmental Studies and Indigenous Studies. In many colleges and universities across the United States, these programs consist of a team of faculty from a variety of disciplines such as Anthropology, History, Political Science, and Biology. To study the natural environment or Indigenous issues, one needs to consult multiple branches of knowledge because they provide componential perspectives that contribute to a more meaningful and holistic understanding.
The interdisciplinary method is not new but may be an improvement to the current system. Emerging research points to greater student achievement and long-term learning when interdisciplinary teaching methods are employed in the classroom. Indigenous communities have been teaching in this manner for generations, albeit in a more informal setting. Interdisciplinary teaching is a culturally relevant method integrating theory and thought with practical and technical learning. Curriculum and lesson integration is based on livelihood and dwelling with the land and other natural resources. These systems are made of many different parts including mathematics and reading comprehension. If you, as the reader, do not understand how and why this is the case, then we need to decolonize education.
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation hosts a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary Native land curriculum that aligns with federal and state academic standards. The Lessons of Our Land curriculum represents a variety of disciplines, from the humanities to the natural, physical, and social sciences. The lessons are adaptable, fitting of an education that seeks to increase student knowledge and development while maintaining creativity and rigor. The purpose of this curriculum is to empower, illuminate, and transform through the interdisciplinary exploration of Native land issues. The stories of Indigenous peoples in the United States have not been recognized as essential to the American saga, and Lessons of Our Land addresses this absence for a mixture of disciplines.
Research shows that when students feel acknowledged and appreciated, they achieve more academically. Through the adaptation of a culturally relevant curriculum, we recognize the people. We draw connections from humans to other nonhuman members of the ecosystem. We make our education more personal. We perpetuate a way of thinking that has survived for generations. Whether you are Native or non-Native, you have a claim in the success of others. We are members of the same global community, and the achievement of both ourselves and others means stronger and more resilient nations, both tribally and nationally.
Nichlas Emmons is a Program Officer at the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. Nichlas researches Native American natural resource management and Native land acquisition.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed are those of Nichlas Emmons and not those of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation or Utah State University.