Closing the Achievement Gap for Native Students

07/17/2012 09:50 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Last week, we celebrated the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- a document that established not only our nation, but also the principles of equity and fairness at its foundation. But on the eve of that anniversary, the U.S. Department of Education issued a new report that shows just how far we are from living up to those principles in our nation's schools.

While achievement has gone up for other groups of students, we are not making the same kind of progress for our American Indian and Alaska Native students. In fact, their performance overall in both fourth and eighth grades hasn't budged since 2005 -- in either reading or math. What's worse, the gaps in math achievement between them and their non-Native peers have actually gotten bigger.

The news isn't all grim, though. Native children in Oklahoma schools, for example, improved in math in both fourth and eighth grades. That's especially good news for a state in which about 1 in 5 students is American Indian. Similarly, their counterparts in South Dakota schools made gains in eighth grade math, as did American Indian eighth graders in Montana schools in reading. But those bright spots are not enough to mask the ugly reality that our schools as a whole are continuing to shortchange the future of our Native young people through poor education, as we have for generations. Indeed, the proportion of American Indian and Alaska Native adults who are high school dropouts is still about 50 percent higher than the rate for the country as a whole.

These data reflect a shameful reality about the inequities in the American education system, one that too many people conveniently explain away as the inevitable result of the burdens of poverty or family problems. But while no one would deny that the achievement gap has roots outside of schools that we must address, the biggest part of the solution lies inside our schools.

Over the years, I have met thousands upon thousands of educators who refuse to let a student's family or community circumstances become an alibi for poor performance. These educators know in their hearts what they do can literally transform the trajectory of students' lives. And their work shows that kids of all backgrounds can achieve at high levels when they are taught at high levels.

Can-do educators like these have turned around schools like Calcedeaver Elementary in Mount Vernon, Ala., where about 80 percent of the students are MOWA Choctaw. Calcedeaver used to be just another dilapidated building in an impoverished rural community better known for high school dropouts than academic success. But that was more than a decade ago, before the principal decided it was time to change her students' prospects.

The staff worked hard to improve reading and math instruction, and closely monitored their data to identify students who needed extra help. They also expanded efforts to teach the Choctaw language and culture to their students -- whose ancestors stopped speaking their native tongue in public and hid in the region's pine woods rather than join the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma in the 1830s. As changes in the school began to take hold, achievement started to rise.

Through two leadership changes, the school has consistently produced among the highest rates of proficiency in reading, math, and science in the state. Calcedeaver is now seen as a model not only for Native education, but for all public schools.

Nicole Williams -- the teacher who runs the school's Native language and culture program -- grew up in the community and attended Calcedeaver Elementary herself. Back then, her fellow students often dropped out after finishing sixth grade. Now, nearly all the school's alums graduate from high school on time, and among those who graduated in 2011, 60 percent enrolled in college. And Williams knows that the expectations she and her colleagues have for their students are a big part of that change. "If the bar is set low, they'll go low," she says of her students. "If it's set high, they'll go high."

The practices of successful schools like Calcedeaver teach the lessons we must learn to help improve outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students throughout the country -- indeed, for all students who need more from their schools. Among them: holding high expectations for all students; analyzing student data to track progress and identify individual student needs; providing a rich, rigorous curriculum; and using purposeful professional development to improve teachers' skills.

To ensure that all kids get the kind of education they need, and to manifest the ideals intrinsic to our nation's founding, we have to apply these lessons everywhere. Only in that kind of purposeful action will we help make prosperity a reality in every community and turn the achievement gap in our schools into a historical footnote.