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Promoting school achievement among American Indian students throughout the school years.

American Indian students as a population are not achieving high academic standards. For example, only 57 percent of American Indians who took the 8th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test in 2003 scored at or above the basic level, and only 16 percent scored at or above the proficient reading level (versus 83 percent and 41 percent, respectively, of white students) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). Yet school failure appears to be acquired rather than inherent at the onset of schooling. Many researchers have reported that American Indian children function at an average range academically until the 4th grade; by 10th grade, however, they are, on average, three years behind their non-Native peers (Hornett, 1990; Rampaul, Singh, & Didyk, 1984; Safran, Safran, & Pirozak, 1994). The reasons for this "crossover" effect are not clear, although a combination of school, family, and student characteristics most likely is at work.

Underachievement among Native students often is attributed to culturally incongruent school settings. At school, many American Indian students must negotiate unfamiliar discipline, instruction and evaluation methods, rules for forming interpersonal relationships, and curricula that diverge from those promoted by their family, tribe, and community (Chrisjohn, Towson, & Peters, 1988; Lomawaima, 1995; Snipp, 1995). If cultural differences between home and school are the source of academic failure among American Indian students, the decline in achievement would suggest that these differences widen as youth age. Elementary curricula and instructional methods may be more aligned to Native cultural values (e.g., cooperation, thematic or holistic learning, oral recital) than those in the later grades. Hornett (1990) suggests that developmental changes within the child contribute to the cultural gap. He argued that as American Indian children develop, they gain social awareness and their cultural identity becomes stronger; thus, they become more cognizant of the cultural disconnect between their non-Indian school and their Indian culture. The challenge, therefore, is determining how to bridge the cultural gap while maintaining high standards and promoting a positive climate for school learning.


Extant survey data collected from 240 urban American Indian youth (primarily Ojibwa, Lakota, and Dakota) from two large urban Midwestern cities, ages 9 to 18, were examined to identify educational variables that were negatively correlated with students' age (Geenen, 1998). Fifty-eight survey items were combined into 11 scales that measured 10 educational variables (e.g., student achievement, home-school collaboration, and achievement motivation) and the respondents' affiliation with their Native culture.

A negative correlation between age and student achievement (r = .379; p [less than or equal to] .001), as measured by self-reported grades and overall achievement, was found, which supports the "crossover" effect. Similarly, American Indian students' school attendance and participation were negatively correlated with age (r = -.248; p [less than or equal to] .001). Thus, older American Indian students were less likely than younger American Indian students to report passing grades, consistent attendance, and high levels of engagement with school activities--all important indicators of educational attainment and success.

The hypothesis that declining student achievement is associated with increasing discontinuity between the culture of the school and home was not supported by these data. Neither the respondents' affiliation with their Native culture (e.g., how important Indian values are, speaking a tribal language in the home, participation in traditional activities and rituals) nor the extent to which their school embraced Native culture (e.g., teaching Indian cultural values, history, stories, and tribal languages at school; attending school with other Native youth) was correlated with age. While this study is very preliminary and based only on cross-sectional survey data, it does suggest that the crossover effect is not simply a result of cultural discontinuity. Some of the educational factors that were negatively correlated to age may deserve greater attention as school personnel attempt to combat underachievement among older American Indian students. These efforts are described next.

Student Achievement Motivation

Like non-Native students, American Indian students' achievement motivation is central to their academic achievement and persistence in school (McInerney & Swisher, 1995). McInerney and Swisher hypothesized that the presence of achievement motivation may indicate that American Indian students have successfully negotiated the cultural discontinuity of the school by adopting some of the mainstream strategies for school success without feeling that they have abandoned their cultural heritage. Conversely, the absence of a desire to achieve, attend, and participate in school may be symptomatic of what Ogbu (1981) described as the demand to develop alternative competencies. Faced with a long history of racial discrimination, some American Indian adolescents may discredit the importance of school and develop alternative competencies and motivations that are in opposition to school values.

In the present study, student achievement motivation, as measured by such items as "I try to do my best at school" and "It is important to me to be proud of my school work," was negatively correlated with student age (r = -.169; p = .009). This suggests that American Indian students may become less motivated to do well in school as they age. Therefore, primary, elementary, and secondary teachers should strive to provide engaging instruction for their American Indian students by adhering to universal principles of effective instruction while incorporating native culture and content into the curriculum (Powers, in press). Culture-based educational programs, such as the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) (Goldenberg & Gallimore, 1989) or the inquiry-based Rough Rock program (McCarthy, Wallace, Lynch, & Benally, 1991), which incorporate Native themes, languages, and Elders in the content and delivery of instruction, may serve as viable models for keeping American Indian students academically motivated. Efforts to increase student achievement motivation also should be directed at decreasing remediation. Repeated exposure to remedial activities that lack a cognitive and a cultural emphasis is likely to deplete students' desire to commit to academic tasks.

Teacher Expectations

Some evidence suggests that teacher expectations for American Indian students' success declines as the students progress through the grades (Rampaul, Singh, & Didyk, 1984). In the present study, students were asked whether they thought their school work was too easy, too hard, or just right; whether people at their school expect them to do well; and whether the adults at their school encourage them to do the best that they can. The American Indian students' responses to this teacher expectation scale were not correlated with age, suggesting that youth of all ages in this sample reported similarly about teacher expectations. Ideally, this finding would indicate that teachers maintain high and attainable expectations for their American Indian students across the various grades. Yet, failure to find a statistically significant correlation between teachers' expectations and age may also be due to either insufficient sample size or indicate low teacher expectations across the age groups. Teachers of American Indian students should constantly ask themselves: "Am I holding my American Indian students to the same rigorous standards that I expect from my other students?" Again, an overreliance on remediation activities rather than in-depth, inquiry-based instructional activities should be a signal to teachers to reconsider their expectations for American Indian students.

Teacher Supportiveness

American Indian students' ability to access the social capital of school personnel also may be compromised by their divergent cultural competencies. Plank's (1994) in-depth study of Navajo reservation school teachers illustrates how intercultural communication differences impede social bonding between teachers and students. For example, an experienced teacher of Navajo students stated:

If I'm walking with ... a Navajo, we may not say anything, and they are comfortable with that. Me, on the one (sic) hand, I feel like I should be saying something (Plank, 1994, p. 8).

Teachers may misread American Indian students as being uninterested in developing a relationship with them, or as overly shy, rude, or immature; this misperception is likely to impede the formation of interpersonal relationships between school staff and Indian students (Hornett, 1990; Kasten, 1992; Plank, 1994). A lack of interpersonal relationships with school personnel puts American Indian students at a disadvantage because those social bonds are critical to fostering a sense of belonging to school that leads to students' confidence in their own academic abilities and the availability of educators to provide academic support (Finn, 1989; Goodenow, 1993). Corner (1984) has observed that "when the school staff fail to permit positive attachment and identification, attachment and identification take place in a negative way" (p. 327). Interviews conducted with American Indian dropouts suggest that de-identification with school personnel and the norms of the school is a part of the drop-out process (Dehyle, 1992). The cross-over effect in American Indian student achievement may be the result of declines in school staff accessibility and supportiveness as American Indian students develop.

In the present study, teacher supportiveness was negatively correlated with student age (r = -.183, p = .004), which suggests that older youth found their teachers to be less available and supportive than younger youth. Items on this scale include: "Do you get along with your teachers?" "Has a teacher gotten to know you really well?" "Would you turn to a teacher for help if you were depressed?" These results raise the possibility that improved interpersonal relationships with teachers may help middle childhood and adolescent students remain committed to school. Teachers' and students' relationships will be strengthened through meaningful mentoring, extracurricular, and community-based programs, such as the American Indian Reservation Project, in which student teachers provide "academic tutoring, companionship and role modeling" while boarding with their Navajo students (Stachowski, 1998).

Family Involvement

Parents' presence and participation at school may buffer American Indian students from declining teacher expectations, supportiveness, and accessibility by promoting greater cultural consistency within academic programs and by offering additional academic assistance. Parental involvement is critical to assisting American Indian students in negotiating the mainstream culture of public school (Friedel, 1999). Surprisingly, older American Indian students did not report lower rates of parental involvement in school than younger students in the present study. It is possible that the attempts made by the districts in this study to incorporate Native culture into the curricula and instruction fostered greater parental involvement. For example, most of the respondents indicated that they had learned about Indian culture (86 percent) and Indian legends (75 percent) at school.

Including Native American culture in the curriculum design and instruction may entice American Indian parents to remain involved in home-school collaborations as their children develop; yet, some American Indian parents may need assistance in helping their older youth meet academic demands. Historically low rates of educational attainment among American Indians make it more likely that American Indian parents lack the content skills necessary to assist their children as the curriculum becomes more advanced. For example, a study of over a thousand 5th- and 6th-grade students found American Indians to be twice as likely as African American or Anglo students to report that they had no one to ask for help on their mathematics homework (Mather, 1997).

Safe and Drug-free Schools

Older students in this study reported the occurrence of much more fighting and alcohol and drug use than did younger students. Urban American Indian youth may experience even greater risks associated with violence and alcohol and drug use than their rural or reservation dwelling peers because they have lost the support of extended kin who often assist in mentoring and disciplining adolescents (Machamer & Gruber, 1998). Parental involvement and a sense of belonging to the culture and norms of the school protect adolescents from deviant and potentially harmful behaviors such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drug (ATOD) use (Hawkins, Guo, Hill, Battin-Pearson, & Abbott, 2001). Rather than embracing "zero tolerance" policies, which Watts and Erevelles (2004) argue give "schools new ways to justify the expulsion, exclusion, shaming and labeling of students who need professional help rather than punishment" (p. 281), schools should improve parental involvement and students' sense of belonging to the culture and norms of the school in order to protect American Indian adolescents from school violence and ATOD use (Hawkins et al., 2001).


Teachers should consider, first and foremost, strengthening their interpersonal connections with their American Indian students. Strong relationships between students and teachers promote a sense of belonging, freedom to take academic risks, and investment in academic learning (i.e., academic motivation), and may help American Indian students negotiate cultural discontinuities between school and home. Teacher training on Native cultural competencies is a positive step toward increasing teachers' understanding and commitment to forming positive relationships with their students. School-wide anti-bullying, anger management, and substance abuse programs also may curb declines in student achievement. Finally, school-wide screenings may be effective in identifying American Indian students before underachievement becomes entrenched. An individualized intervention plan for American Indian students when they begin to fall behind in achievement or attendance should be implemented, monitored, and revised until the desired outcomes are achieved. This plan should be based on ecological assessments that consider developmental imperatives and individual assets (e.g., native cultural affiliation, parent support for learning) and vulnerabilities (e.g., insufficient teacher support, violence, and ATOD use at school) in selecting from among various intervention options.

Achievement data on sub-populations of students, such as American Indian students, should be examined regularly for signs of underperformance at each grade level. However, school personnel should understand that not all American Indian students identify with their Native culture in the same way. Cultural differences exist within and among the different tribes; thus, some students, particularly urban students who are three or four generations removed from their tribal homeland, may identify more with the mainstream culture of their school than with their Native culture. Accordingly, addressing cultural discontinuity may or may not improve achievement among older American Indian students. However, sufficient access to meaningful learning opportunities, supportive teachers, and safe schools is likely to propagate school success.


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Author:Powers, Kristin
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2005
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