a native american girl with her hands clasped together smiles


Every student deserves high-quality education. This certainly includes half a million American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students, who make up 1 percent of U.S. public school students. In 2007, the Education Committee of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASL) reported, “The state of education in our nation’s K-12 schools for Native students is distressing.”

Its study (www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/ documents/statetribe/strivingtoachieve.pdf) suggested that Native American students performed two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and math. They were two times more likely to drop out of school than their white peers.

In 2020, this disturbing trend in education for AI/AN students has not changed since the 2007 NCNASL study.

As usual, the recently released congressionally mandated annual report—The Condition of Education 2020—warns readers that the relatively small sizes of the AI/AN populations pose many measurement difficulties when conducting statistical analyses. While small sample size is a technical issue in statistical reporting, it should not be an excuse to neglect AI/AN students and the condition of their education.

Difficult to define

“Data on American Indians/Alaska Natives are often subject to inconsistencies in how respondents identify their race/ethnicity,” according to the 2020 report. The census data used three separate race categories in 1990, namely American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut. In 2000, the three categories were combined into one group called American Indian and Alaska Native, with an option to write in a tribal affiliation.

Generally, AI/AN students have some degree of Native American blood and are recognized as tribal members by the U.S. government. However, the more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. represent different cultures, different languages, and different homelands. Therefore, it is difficult to define a typical AI/AN student in the sense that every native student has unique culture and heritage.

Small sample sizes and difficulties in defining the student population are serious limitations for studying AI/AN students. Despite the limitations, largescale national data are critical to help policymakers and the public to see the big picture and new trends of this significant minority student group. Data from the 2020 report shows the continuing, discouraging learning environments and performance of AI/AN students. It also impels school leaders and educators to seek improvement and better educational services for this population.

Digital divide challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to accelerate transformation from traditional brick-and-mortar education to technology integration. This transformation means every student must have access to an internet-accessible device and broadband.

However, the poverty rate for AI/AN children was 31 percent in 2018, and only 19 percent of AI/AN children lived in households where the highest level of education attained by either parent was a bachelor’s degree or higher. Lack of internet access and technical support is an obstacle to online learning at home for AI/AN students. According to The Condition of Education 2020 and other current reports:

  • In 2018, AI/AN students had the lowest percentage of students with home internet access (80 percent). In 2020, 34 percent of AI/AN households had no high-speed internet access at home, and almost 16 percent had no computer.
  • One-tenth of 3- to 18-year-old AI/AN children had home internet access only through a smartphone, and one-fourth of AI/AN children in this age group reported that their main barrier to home internet access was that it was too expensive.
  • This digital divide is a major problem for students in all 50 states and all types of communities. However, it is most pronounced in rural communities and households with Native American students, besides Black and Hispanic students.

Low achievement: unsolved issues

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is the largest nationally representative and continuous assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. In 1994, NAEP started to report the academic performance of AI/AN students. From the data collected, the reading and math scores for fourth and eighth grade AI/AN students have been the lowest in the nation, compared with students of other races/ethnicities.

The achievement gap in reading and math between AI/AN students and the national level is not the only concern. Between 2010 and 2018, the college enrollment rate for AI/AN students decreased by 33 percent (from 179,000 to 120,000 students). One-tenth of AI/AN students could not complete K-12 education. The school dropout rate for AI/AN 16- to 24-year-olds is the highest in the nation.

In school year 2017-18, the national adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for public high school students increased to 85 percent. However, the ACGR of AI/ AN students was 74 percent, the lowest compared with other racial/ethnic groups.

  • The high school graduation rates for AI/AN students ranged from 50 percent in South Dakota to 90 percent in Alabama, Maryland, and Tennessee.
  • In nine states (Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Maryland, and Tennessee), the high school graduation rate for AI/AN students was higher than the national level.

Other facts about the condition of education for AI/AN students include:

  • In the 2018-19 school year, the percentage of students served under IDEA was highest for AI/AN students (18 percent), compared with students of other races/ethnicities.
  • Among students ages 14 to 21 served under IDEA who exited school in school year 2017-18, the percentage of exiting students who dropped out in 2017-18 was highest for AI/AN students (24 percent).
  • In 2017-18, about 1 percent of public school teachers were American Indian/ Alaska Native. The average base salary for AI/AN teachers ($49,000) was lower than the average salary for all other racial and ethnic groups.

Reflect languages and cultures

Approximately 95 percent of AI/AN students attend public schools. In 2018, 17 percent of AI/AN students were enrolled in public schools that were predominantly composed of AI/AN students. While some AI/AN students attend public charter schools, the numbers of students who were AI/AN enrolled in those schools decreased from 2 percent to 1 percent between 2000 and 2017, according to The Condition of Education 2020.

Many scholars and Native American educators recommend that schools serving AI/AN communities, regardless of public traditional or public charter, should promote Indigenous identities in the classroom. They also should design curriculum intended to include AI/AN cultures and languages.

As described by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2019, “American Indian and Alaska Native communities are looking for high-quality educational opportunities that also reflect their languages and cultures.”

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