Promoting School Achievement among American Indian Students throughout the School Years

By Powers, Kristin | Childhood Education, August 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Promoting School Achievement among American Indian Students throughout the School Years


Powers, Kristin, Childhood Education


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.

THE RESEARCH PROJECT

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. …

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