Educating the Next Generation of Native Leaders

Archived Information

Educating the Next Generation of Native Leaders

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference

December 2, 2011

Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to join you again this year, to take stock of our progress thus far together, and to set our sights on the road ahead.

At the Tribal Nations Conference in 2009,—President Obama's first year in office, and the 40th anniversary of the landmark Kennedy Report on Indian Education—the President signed a memorandum directing federal agencies to follow the Executive Order on tribal consultation.

In response, our Department launched a plan of action for engaging Indian Country. Together with all of you, we've pursued this plan with dedication for the past three years, and I'm especially proud of the work that the Department has accomplished in the past two years.

The President and I both believe the future of Indian Country, and the future of the United States, rests on transforming our public education system. Improving academic outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students has never been more important. Every single student deserves a world-class education—one that prepares them for success in college and careers; for leadership and service to their communities, tribes and country; and for fulfilling lives.

But today, we all know that far too many Native students drop out of high school. Far too few go on to college. Together, we must do more to nurture the next generation. The status quo is unacceptable, and we have to improve, faster than ever before. We must work with urgency, for dramatically better outcomes.

We must prepare these students to preserve the proud heritage and vibrant cultures that have shaped America's history for centuries. We must be their champions now, so they can lead in the future.

As Secretary of Education, I have had the privilege of visiting the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. I've seen the devastating challenges Indian Country faces: high unemployment rates, high crime rates, poor housing, and inadequate school facilities. But the children I've met on those reservations have moved and inspired me. These students are smart, committed, and passionate. They want to be challenged. They want to be held to higher expectations.

One of these students is Teton Magpie—a young man of extraordinary composure and courage, from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Teton wants to be the first in his family to attend college. And he knows that he and the rest of Indian Country can do better if we believe in the unlimited potential of our students.

Teton and I have stayed in touch since we met two and a half years ago. He is a leader of the next generation, looking forward to receiving his diploma and going on to achieve his dream of obtaining a college degree.

And, this August, I spoke to ninety-six tribal university students who embody that dream, when I served as commencement speaker at Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota. It was an amazing day—and Tribal Colleges are working wonders with limited resources, every day.

It was a great honor to join these promising representatives of the Lakota Nation, together with elected officials, tribal and Sinte Gleska University leaders, as well as family and community members, as they celebrated an important milestone in their own lives—and with it, the continuing legacy of great Americans like Spotted Tail, for whom Sinte Gleska University is named.

We have a profound obligation to these students, and countless others like them—an obligation to give every student in America the education that unlocks their boundless potential, so they can master the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Tribal Colleges and Universities—or TCUs—play an irreplaceable role in educating new generations of First Americans. That's why TCUs are essential to the future prosperity of all Americans. In short, real transformative change does not come from Washington; it comes from leaders in your communities, and from grassroots solutions designed to meet your unique challenges and build on your unique strengths.

That's one reason for the Obama administration's strong commitment to strengthen and honor the trust responsibility between our governments.

We're doing everything we can in Washington to build a new future for Indian education. We realize that, to better serve Native students, we must partner with and learn from those who know their children and communities the best: tribal leaders.

We've tried to talk with, and not at, Native communities. We've looked to collaborate beforehand, rather than consult afterwards. Our Department is committed to strengthening the government-to-government relationship with tribes, and my team at the Education Department will honor the federal government's trust responsibility.

To that end, we've consulted with tribal leaders and educators on tribally-controlled lands throughout the country, in 2009 and 2010. I've visited tribal communities in Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota to learn from tribal officials about the challenges their students face. And I sent my senior staff to engage in consultations with tribal leaders in New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Washington.

My team at the Education Department also held several listening sessions—including two at tribal colleges.

Over the course of our travels, we have had meaningful discussions about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA; the teaching of Native languages, cultures, and history in our schools; and tribal sovereignty and self-determination. In fact, just three days ago the Department issued a new report on the State of Indian Education—the Rose Report—to document what we heard during those consultations.

Yet, we know consultations and reports aren't an end in themselves. We need to follow up with meaningful reforms. So, as a result of those consultations—and strong advice from the National Advisory Council on Indian Education—we've been working to ensuring that our programs truly address the needs in Indian Country. We've developed new funding priorities to address specific issues, like awarding extra points for applications with plans to reduce the tragic suicide rate among Native youth. And, we've awarded grants to American Indian partnerships through our most competitive programs.

For example, the Investing in Innovation—or i3—Fund, awarded more than $14 million to the Parents as Teachers National Center. They're using the funds to replicate a program called BabyFACE. It's a data-supported, home-based expansion of the successful Family and Child Education, or FACE, program, in 24 Bureau of Indian Education schools. The program will serve about a thousand children each year, through our five-year grant.

And, one of the highest-rated applicants in our latest i3 round—the Metropolitan Education Commission—proposes to transform a low-performing middle school, high school, and alternative school on the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona. They are working to secure private-sector matching funds to help ensure continued support after federal funding ends. Once they do, this project will receive a $3 million Development Grant.

This Administration has also secured $40 million over the past two years for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative. Promise Neighborhoods helps communities build a continuum of services—from cradle to career—to help children meet educational challenges. In 2010, the Department included a priority for tribal communities, and we awarded a $500,000 Promise Neighborhoods Planning Grant to the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

And, we've provided technical assistance, to help build information and capacity among tribal representatives, so that teachers, school and community leaders, parents and other stakeholders can access the Department's programs easily, and compete even more successfully for federal funds.

We're also making policy changes for the programs we administer, as a result of our consultations with tribal leaders. Our Office of Indian Education, which implements the Indian Education programs authorized under ESEA, provides funding to meet the unique educational needs of over 475,000 Indian students in more than 1,200 public school districts, as well as students attending the schools funded by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Education.

And, as part of our proposal to reauthorize ESEA, we have proposed a new pilot authority to elevate the role of tribal educational agencies (TEAs). Under this authority, TEAs would work collaboratively with State educational agencies to have a stronger role in the education of their own children.

In numerous policy papers and consultations, tribal leaders and educators emphasized the importance of giving tribal communities a voice at the highest levels of our Department. In response, we will create a new senior Indian Affairs position at the Department. That appointee will be responsible for ensuring that the educational needs of Native students are met across the Department's education programs, and will ensure that our consultations with tribal leaders continue.

We're also collaborating like never before with the Interior Department, to support Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools. Secretary Salazar and I have held multiple meetings focused solely on coordinating and implementing reforms to support BIE-funded schools.

Overall, our job is to support innovative strategies that lead to academic achievement for every Native student. We need your help to finds ways to provide a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every school. We need your ideas to help transform tribal schools so they all offer high-quality, culturally-relevant education, from cradle to career.

Throughout his time in office, and across the federal government, the President has made a sustained commitment to increase job growth and foster economic development in Indian Country. These initiatives range from grants, loans and projects through the Departments of the Treasury, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Department of the Interior, to specific proposals to benefit Native American students and workers in his recent American Jobs Act bill.

But we all know that strengthening education for every student lies at the heart of this nation's economic strategy. An excellent education is the one true path out of poverty for all children. Providing that education is our economic, civic and moral imperative.

And, later this afternoon, the President will announce a significant new step to advance the comprehensive cradle-to-career education agenda, honor tribal self-determination, and encourage even greater interagency collaboration in support of Indian and Alaska Native students.

I want to assure you that the Department understands—and will continue to work with you in fulfilling—its trust responsibility to improve educational outcomes for all American Indian and Alaska Native students.

Thank you for your leadership, and for your invaluable efforts and contributions. I am confident this will be a very productive conference, and I look forward to our continued work together, on behalf of all our children.