American Indian education was something first implemented when land was acquisitioned by European settlers who promised education as part of the agreement. However, most efforts to educate Native Americans were made by various religious and missionary groups prior to 1870, although a few of the early colleges, notably Dartmouth, Harvard, and William and Mary, were established to include the education of English and Native American youth. Tuition-free admissions were provided for Native American students at Dartmouth and Harvard.
Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, the federal government assumed only limited responsibility for Indian education during this period. The group then established boarding schools in the last century under the assumption that the removal of children from family and tribal life would aid in the attempt to "civilize" the young Indians. The introduction of the Snyder Act in 1921 saw congress give money to the Secretary of Indian Affairs to provide general support for Native Americans, including education, which was provided and managed by the Office of Indian Education Programs (renamed as the Bureau of Indian Education Department in August 2006). Since then, there has been major legislative action to provide American Indian education. The first act of significance was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which supported the teaching of Indian history and culture in bureau-funded schools. Prior to 1934 it had been federal policy to acculturate and assimilate Indian people through a boarding school system.
The next advancement was the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, providing authority for federally recognized tribes to contract with the Secretary of the Interior to operate bureau-funded schools. In 1978, the Education Amendments Act provided funds directly to tribally-operated schools, empowered Indian school boards, encouraged local hiring of teachers and staff, and established a direct line of authority between the education director and the assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The role of culture in teaching Indian students is an area many educators have deemed of great importance. With the introduction of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 many American Indian tribes were worried teachers would not have the ability to explore cultural teachings to Indian students in the public school system. This was due to the introduction of mandated school standardization tests, which led to some Indian educators to claim cultural problems had worsened under the law. A 2002 literature summary conducted by Northern Arizona University education researchers Jon Reyhner and Don Trent Jacobs pointed reasons why culture should be incorporated into Indian student lesson plans. "Many publications address the fact that spirituality and… giving back to others… are vital to Indian learning," they wrote.
By March 4 2005, for the first time ever the National Center for Education Statistics conducted a two-part National Indian Education Study on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Indian Education. The aim was to analyze the progress of Native American students in thousands of schools throughout the nation. However, it is often noted by the Department of Education when it releases statistics about American Indian students that "the small sample (for the sub-population of American Indian and Alaska Native students) means there is a high degree of standard error surrounding the estimates, which limits data collection and possibilities for comparison to other populations. These estimates will vary greatly until a larger population is surveyed."
In 2011 there were approximately 42,000 students being educated in BIE-funded elementary and high schools throughout the United States, with the American Indian and Native Alaskan student population making up approximately seven percent of school pupils in the United States. The BIE fund 183 facilities on 64 reservations in 23 states, consisting of 123 grant schools, three contract schools controlled by tribes, and 57 schools directly operated by the BIE. In addition, the organization also operates two further education institutions, Haskell Indian Nations University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, with a student population for 2009/2010 of 2,405 and 1,818, respectively. The BIE also provided funds for 26 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) and two tribal technical colleges. In 2011, the BIE school system employed approximately 4,224 teachers, administrators, and support personnel in their 57 BIE-operated schools, while many thousands were reported as working in their 126 tribal grant and contract school systems. However, over 90 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were being educated in non-BIE public schools under the supervision of their local education agencies.