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Accountable to Culture? The Role of Research and Relevance in U.S. Tribal Education Policy

by Kendra A. Strouf & Yadana Nath Desmond - March 10, 2016

This commentary presents an analysis of the educational marginalization of AI/AN students against international contexts with similar histories of colonization, and offers recommendations to better serve this student group.



Native youth in U.S. classrooms continue to endure through a struggle not of their making. American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students have staggeringly low academic outcomes. Gaps in reading and mathematics achievement have only widened over the last decade. They are as high as 19% behind non-Native students (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences [IES], 2011), and dropout rates are “twice the national average—the highest rate of any U.S. ethnic or racial group” (Demmert, 2006). President Obama first visited Indian country in 2014, six years into his presidency (Executive Office of the President, 2014). The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), together with the United States Department of Education (USDOE), established a type of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability reform, tying teacher performance to student test scores that same year. On the tail of the proposed BIE reforms (U.S. Department of the Interior/U.S. Department of Education Indian Education Study Group, 2014), President Obama announced the Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, which purports to embrace a culturally appropriate approach to improving the lives of Native youth (The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2014). Gen I aims to solicit student voice on how federal policies can improve their situation, yet those same reforms include no practical provision for a proposed cultural relevance piece, an oversight not missed by Tribal Leaders (Maxwell, 2014).


Culturally relevant pedagogy and curricula (CRPC) are materials and practices that have been developed to address gaps in language, history, politics, and cultural representation in formal education spaces. They tie directly to the needs of a specific ethnic group and have historically evolved largely at the community, school, and teacher-researcher levels. The defining characteristic of this material is that it is developed with the community that is intended to benefit. It takes into account multiple ways of understanding, learning, and teaching. Gen I's language demonstrates an acceptance of what many educators, governments (Ministry of Education Ontario, 2014), and researchers already know (Brayboy & Castagno, 2009; Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, 2014; Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute and the National Congress of American Indians, 2015; Gilbert, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1995a, 1995b). More specifically, CRPC improves learning outcomes for students when minority groups collaborate, participate in, or fully own the creation of classroom resources that represent their identity and educational goals (Burford, Kissmann, Rosado-May, Alvarado Dzul & Harder, 2012; Gilbert, 2011; Schroder, 2008).


Can society be truly developed without acknowledging its history or supporting its members? Marginalization need not be a consequence of membership within a minority group. This commentary aims to revisit and re-expose some of the ways in which U.S. government policies and institutions have systematically ignored Tribal requests for empowering policies and sidelined AI/AN communities in discussions about relevant education for minorities. Why is it that access to CRPC is not provided to all Native students in all schools when only 10% of enrolled Native students attend BIE schools, ostensibly with basic access to CRPC and native teachers, and the remaining 90% attend non-BIE schools (National Caucus of Native American State Legislators, 2008)? Why is this curriculum not better articulated and developed to meet actual needs of real populations? We examine CRPC policies in several international contexts and localized practices in the U.S. as accessible models for shaping policy for all Native youth in the U.S.




Minority groups across many societies share experiences of neglect within, and marginalization from, the same social spaces taken for granted by the majority, perhaps most importantly within the public school system and its curriculum. Cultural relevance and representation become doubly imperative for minority students in order to preserve ancestry and support achievement. Multiple cultures are often lumped together in the literature and blurred into broad African American, Latino, and Asian non-ethnic groups within American educational discourse and policy (Carter, 2006; Hastie, Martin & Buchanan, 2006; Howard, 2001; Seidl, 2007). Government documents, achievement score reporting, and research often presume a single, unified culture and experience for each of these groups which may have more to do with a federal or state view of immigrant experiences than with cultural realities. Academic and policy discourse on cultural relevancy in classrooms subsequently follows these broad groups, focuses largely in urban settings, and often leaves out AI/AN communities.


These trends converge two very different approaches to cultural relevance in U.S. educational settings: one is isolated and persecuted pre-colonial AI/AN groups and the other is multiple immigrant, refugee, and forced diasporic populations. Each group arrives at different times into different political contexts, and subsequently has different histories of assimilation. This confounds and hinders a granular investigation of the educational needs of the multiple minority groups that exist within U.S. classrooms. This has resulted in struggles by teachers and policy makers to characterize cultural relevance in urban school contexts where CRPC generally refers to urban black and Latino minorities and is often developed in largely non-participatory ways. This is just one piece of the political landscape where AI/AN education policies and initiatives have been introduced and the homogenization of Native communities mirrors that of other minorities.

Non-American examples of CRPC show that governments, non-governmental organizations, districts, and communities advocate for, develop, and integrate CRPC across learning environments. The South Africa government’s educational reforms incorporate Indigenous knowledge into sciences and professional development reforms incorporate interculturality training (Msimanga & Shizha, 2014; Ogunniyi, 2007). Te reo language instruction is available to all New Zealand students (Simon, 2015). CRPC models have been developed and supported in Australia through a Cultural Standards Framework (Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, and Education Services Australia, 2010). Similar CRPC models have been adopted in Indonesia through a mandated 20% localization of curriculum (Theisen, 1990). Intercultural bilingual education also has a long history in Bolivia and other Latin American countries (Lopes Cardozo, 2013; Lopez, 2009; Luykx, 1999; Quispe, 2014). These examples demonstrate that manifestation of CRPC within educational settings is not immutable, but needs to be adaptable to its specific context. CRPC can take on different forms depending on what is appropriate and necessary for a given population, and complementary to prevailing national standards; bilingual or mother-tongue instruction is just one articulation of this phenomenon. While we do not believe there is a simple algorithm for replicating policies, these examples illustrate how Indigenous knowledge has been valued in formal educational spaces through successful development and implementation of CRPC and show how nation states with diverse populations have created access to cultural and linguistic programming. American Native youth remain a hidden minority existing within the intentionally blurred landscape of cultures within politically convenient boundaries. Low student achievement is continually cited as a problem among Native students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), and achievement for minority ethnic groups has been shown to correlate with inclusive curriculum (Brayboy & Castagno, 2009; Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, 2014; Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute and the National Congress of American Indians, 2015; Lipka et al., 2005). Unfortunately, policy reform toward equitable reach of cultural relevance for these vulnerable youth has not changed.


Lack of accountability towards Tribal nations has resulted in certain policies extending linguistic and cultural rights to Native students, while others simultaneously contradict, undermine, negate, and retract such rights (Zehr, 2010). Although perhaps it is not labeled as such, accountability measures first arose in discourse surrounding Tribal nations in 1831 with the Federal-Indian Trust Responsibility, which was both a moral and legal obligation the U.S. federal government assumes toward Tribal nations. The trust requires that federal law be carried out with respect to AI/AN tribes and is an important aspect of federal Indian law. One of the main components of Trust Responsibility includes protection of educational services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is tasked with carrying out these responsibilities in accordance with the trust (Schilling, 2015). The first officially recognized piece of evidence documenting the need for CRPC for Native students was published nearly 100 years later. The Meriam Report (1928) firmly criticized U.S. federal policy and inaction towards Tribal nations. This lack of action was tantamount to the denigration of culture, identity, and rights to land, in both policy and action, and the resulting consequences for students and Tribal communities. Legislation and federal reports were written during the following decades that articulated the need to improve education for Native students by calling for cultural and linguistic programming and more Native educators. The amount of scholarly literature on CRPC grew by the 1980s and demonstrated academic awareness of, and concern for, the negative consequences associated with a lack of CRPC and its positive impact on student outcomes. CRPC needs to have a presence in BIE and non-BIE schools both legally and practically. Despite nearly a century of efforts to illuminate the detrimental effect a lack of CRPC has had on Native students and their communities, current research and policy efforts have stagnated and Native students’ needs continue to go unmet.

Mother tongue language instruction is one component of CRPC that is recognized as an indispensable element of education and a core component of identity (Global Campaign for Education, 2016). Native children are more likely to speak a non-English language at home (National Indian Education Association, 2013) than the rest of the country as of 2011, yet only Montana (Martin, 2015) and Hawaii (Hawai’i State Department of Education, 2015) fund Native language instruction in public schools. The Language Act of 1990 granted the right to academic instruction in Native languages, yet solicitation for cultural and language revitalization was still needed in 2012 (National Indian Education Association, 2012). With Native student population per state ranging between 0.1-23.4% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), an indicator of both historical destruction and educational need, federal education policies and implementation were still not aligned to the 1990 Act (Table 1) even twenty years later (National Congress of American Indians, 2015). Tribal leaders have condemned the current administration’s efforts to push improvements in education along the historical route of one size fits all remiss of Native students’ needs (Maxwell, 2014). Previous administrations have demonstrated no better record. They have asked Congress for the same solutions with plaintive advocacy briefs and proposals repeatedly ignored or forgotten.

Table 1. Distribution of Native Student Populations, United States

Percent of State’s Student Population



Alabama 0.8%, Arkansas 0.6%, California 0.6%, Colorado 0.8%, Connecticut 0.3%, Delaware 0.4%, District of Columbia 0.0%, Florida 0.3%, Georgia 0.2%, Hawaii 0.5% (AI/AN, does not include NH Native Hawaiian), Illinois 0.3%, Indiana 0.2%, Iowa 0.4%, Kentucky 0.1%, Louisiana 0.7%, Maine 0.8%, Maryland 0.3%, Massachusetts 0.2%, Michigan 0.7%, Mississippi 0.2%, Missouri 0.4%, New Hampshire 0.3%, New Jersey 0.1%, New York 0.5%, Ohio 0.1%, Pennsylvania 0.1%, Rhode Island 0.6%, South Carolina 0.2%, Tennessee 0.1%, Texas 0.4%, Vermont 0.3%, Virginia 0.3%, West Virginia 0.1%


Arizona 5%, Idaho 1.3%, Kansas 1.1%, Minnesota 1.8%, Nebraska 1.4%, Nevada 1.1%, North Carolina 1.4%, Oregon 1.8%, Wisconsin 1.2%, Wyoming 3.2%, Utah 1.2%, Washington 1.5%


North Dakota 9.0%

10.1% and higher

Alaska 23.4%, Montana 11.6%, New Mexico 10.1%, Oklahoma 16.6%, South Dakota 11.6%

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2012, http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

The CRPC that currently exists does not occur equitably for all Native students across the U.S. Some local districts and statewide departments of education are working to create CRPC materials and make them available to, and even required for, students and educators alike. The South Dakota Department of Education Office of Indian Education mandates that students enroll in language and cultural awareness courses, and teachers are required to take courses on traditional tribal education and Indian learning styles (South Dakota Department of Education, Office of Indian Education, 2015). The Oceti Sakowin South Dakota Consortium published native core curriculum for educators in its districts in 2012 (South Dakota Office of Indian Education, 2012). The Oregon Department of Education offers grants to schools for improving or creating new CRPC programs (Campbell, 2014), which reaches some students but ultimately turns what should be a right into a privilege. The Miccosukee Tribe in Florida won a waiver from NCLB after developing CRPC, raising standards above state requirements in 2015 (Lee, 2015), and becoming the first tribally controlled education system to determine student academic progress assessment tools. Why do these initiatives not appear in every state, for every tribe, and for every student? Policies that comprehensively address the issue of low Native student achievement must mandate guidelines for developing and integrating CRPC to provide equitable, relevant access to all Native children and youth; they should not just be provided to those whose local school districts advocate on their behalf or who belong to large urban minority demographics.


A toolkit was made available (Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, 2014) to students attending the 2015 Gen I Tribal Youth Gathering at the White House (Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute and the National Congress of American Indians, 2015), offering advice on how these youth could create change and become leaders in their communities, including through educational programs and initiatives. While 1,000 native students representing 230 of 566 Tribes attended, it is unclear how information was disseminated among students, how many students pursued toolkit projects, or how results will be shared. State funding structures may be one constraint, but government leaders must follow through and be held accountable for efficacy and dissemination, otherwise Gen I will be yet another example of weak advocacy, unfulfilled promises, and inattention to whether results show the intended improvement. One student proposed “expanding [the Miccosukee] program…[and] introducing legislation that can increase the flexibility and adaptability for Native students and curriculum” (Schilling, 2015) at the event as a means to give more autonomy regarding Tribal decisions concerning CRPC for Native students. Gen I is not the perfect solution to a lack of CRPC because it does not comprehensively reach every Tribal community. This kind of optional initiative creates yet another layer of patchwork programming and does not shift educational practices without systems in place to share practices and viable ideas like the one suggested above, and without representation within and from all communities. Initiatives like Gen I do not guarantee change or implementation of even the most effective CRPC proposals or efforts.




Arguments against allowing CRPC in classrooms have centered around difficulties in standardization and measurement, and claim conflict with current policies focusing on academic assessment. There is little room for continued inaction given the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015) that supports decentralizing responsibility of school, student achievement, and growth to individual states, and against increasing evidence from local and non-local CRPC initiatives improving student outcomes (Gilbert, 2005, 2011; Global Campaign for Education, 2016; Lee, 2015). Measures for similarly complex learning goals such as attitude and citizenship already exist (International Association for the Evaluation of the Educational Achievement, 2014), and the examples cited above have already developed assessment strategies in tandem with content; arguments centering around difficulty or importance of implementation are consequently invalid. Organizations both within and outside the U.S. already advance Indigenous knowledge (Native Nations Law and Policy Center, UCLA Law, 2015) and engender support for inclusion of Indigenous perspectives on global, national, and local issues, and these can be used as models to develop more (Indigenous Peoples’ International Center for Policy Research and Education, 2015). Proposed reforms suggest that schools, teachers, and the BIE need greater accountability, yet diagnosis is more complex; poor test scores are merely a symptom of a larger problem. The 2009 Government to Government Models of Cooperation between States and Tribes (Johnson, Kaufman, Dossett & Hicks, 2009) highlights that while policy development and sharing is not yet equitable between Tribal and federal government leaders, it is possible and should be strived for. Both Tribal and federal government leaders have a responsibility to help Native students succeed, and can collaboratively create policies that mandate CRPC in U.S. classrooms, and provide follow-up support to ensure effective development and implementation.


Approximately 13% of Native students continue on to higher education, compared to 29% of the U.S. population, according to 2014’s Native Youth Report (Executive Office of the President, 2014). Native youth are the least likely demographic group to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, resulting in fewer Native scholars (Brown, 2015). As researchers in the field of comparative and international education, we must consider how knowledge is prioritized and who is defining it for whom. Repeatedly calling for the same policy measures has not resulted in novel solutions. Policies and research must reflect what works in classrooms and is needed comprehensively and collaboratively to address U.S. Native student educational needs and definitions of achievement. U.S. policy and research marginalizes CPRC, resulting in unequal distribution of this type of curriculum, although international and localized examples and models show that prioritizing it can lead to success. Research, curriculum building, and initiatives that feign collaboration and representation do more harm than good. Accountability must be distributed equally on the shoulders of policy makers, researchers, and academicians; our responsibilities cannot neglect the hidden minority. We must be held accountable to intercultural policy making, understand and advocate for the needs of all students in all contexts, including where multiple cultures overlap and converge, and conduct Tribally-driven participatory research (TDPR) (Mariella, Brown, Carter & Verri, 2009) that is internally initiated, inclusive of recognition promotes respect, and fosters full participation and empowerment of, and capacity building for, the community. We must acknowledge Native populations when speaking about minorities, and guard against excluding them and politically co-opting cultural relevance language only for urban minorities.


A new system built on accurate representation of Native student educational needs is only possible when research is fully integrated with the relationship of policy and practice. This commentary has not been a call to eliminate a core curriculum, but for a broader definition of achievement within the decentralized U.S. state system that includes, supports, and leverages cultural knowledge and identity through participatory development of CRPC. We do not claim this to be a comprehensive review of existing initiatives or policies, but rather a framing of local issues through a comparative education lens that focuses on current issues that the incoming administration will need to address. While the new ESSA law (U.S. Department of Education, 2015) may open up more space for individual states to develop and assess new CRPC, it remains unclear whether Gen I or BIE reforms are targeted to culturally appropriate curriculum and pedagogy, to truly solve issues of engagement and representation, or whether they are merely public relations moves delaying real change. We have a responsibility to seek out and hold ourselves accountable to accurate representations of minority culture and history whether as a demographic, political, or academic majority, regardless of, or perhaps precisely because of, violent, colonized pasts. Similar to other countries emerging from comparable histories, we must understand that growth toward advanced, developed, democratic status requires representation and accountability to all members of the communities they comprise. U.S. policy and research discourse must pull culture from the historical ashes to sincerely serve and remain accountable to Native students and honor the Trust doctrine (Friends Committee of National Legislation, 2007; U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs, 2016).

Authors’ Note

The discussion presented here is a preview of a broader literature review currently underway, exploring AI/AN CRPC initiatives in the U.S.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 10, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19597, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:55:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Kendra Strouf
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    KENDRA STROUF is part of a transnational group of students, working with immigrants, migrants, and refugees in Mexico City and New York City to co-construct resources that will create public access to the female immigrant narrative. The project is grounded in feminist participatory methodology and human rights education and aims to cultivate tolerance. She recently worked for a nonprofit, managing volunteer programs and facilitating adult literacy workshops in public schools throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.
  • Yadana Desmond
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    YADANA NATH DESMOND currently supports science teacher training and community STEM programming in Thailand through the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Teachers College. Prior to that she managed education programs at the New York Hall of Science, bridging non-formal and formal learning environments across grade levels. Research interests include ethnic group and intercultural education, and collaborative science curriculum developed around blended local and non-local ways of knowing.
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