Education in Indian Country: Prepared Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Town Hall/Listening Session with Tribal Officials

Archived Information

Education in Indian Country: Prepared Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Town Hall/Listening Session with Tribal Officials

December 15, 2010

(Speaker deviated from prepared remarks)

I'd like to extend a special welcome to the many tribal officials here today who have made the long trip to Washington- – it's an honor to have you here as we get ready for tomorrow's White House Tribal Nations Conference.

This morning, I want to discuss briefly our ongoing efforts to improve educational opportunities in Indian Country and then open the discussion for questions.

Strengthening the education of Native American students is absolutely essential not only to the long-term prosperity of tribal communities, but to our overall competitiveness and success as a nation in the twenty-first century.

I want to leave you with two takeaway messages today.

First, I'm absolutely committed to improving the relationship between tribes and the Department of Education. For too long, the federal government and our Department failed to meaningfully consult tribal leaders on policies affecting Indian Country. That is starting to change. I am determined to forge a better balanced federal-tribal relationship based on regular and meaningful consultation.

Second, I want you to know that over the last year and a half, we've listened to your concerns. And we've heard you. At consultations and listening sessions throughout Indian Country, our senior leadership has gotten its own education about the challenges to accelerating student achievement in your communities.

Now, consultation alone isn't a solution. Now is the time for concrete action that will improve student outcomes in your communities. That's why we've begun implementing policies, with your support and guidance, to expand educational opportunities and boost student learning throughout Indian Country.

It is no secret that the Federal government often shirked its educational obligations in Indian Country during the last 150 years. Too many times, it failed to meet its responsibilities in the unique government-to-government relationship or fulfill its trust responsibilities.

Instead of working with tribal leaders to improve public education, Washington has often ended up working at odds with them; instead of talking to tribal leaders about the needs of their communities, Washington has often talked at them.

In the early days, the federal government sought to eradicate Native American culture by funding harshly paternalistic boarding schools for Indian students. Then, for half-a-century, it was the policy of the federal government to assimilate Native American students.

Only since the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, has the federal government begun to support self-determination and the critically important preservation of Native American language and culture as federal policy.

Unfortunately, even during the last 35 years, the Federal government and this Department sometimes took a "Washington-knows-best" approach to Indian education. Tribal leaders weren't meaningfully consulted on decisions that affected the education of their children. Consultations were hollow gestures that created an illusion of collaboration. And tribes were not treated as full and equal partners.

Native American communities across Indian Country bear the burden of that tragic legacy.

Native American students have some of the lowest college matriculation rates and highest high school dropout rates in the country. In a 2010 study of 12 states, the high school graduation rate among American Indian students was under 50 percent — the lowest rate among any ethnic group surveyed. And we know that many of those students drop out even before they reach ninth grade. With graduation rates that low, it's little wonder that nearly 25 percent of all Native Americans live in poverty.

The terrible toll of those numbers became even more real to me the first time I visited a reservation. A year ago last May, I spent an unforgettable afternoon at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Dear, Montana.

I've seen poverty all my life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, but the deprivation I saw at the reservation was even more haunting. Families were living in dilapidated housing and there wasn't enough housing for teachers. The community had a 70 percent unemployment rate—70 percent--and had been wracked with meth abuse.

In six years, the high school had produced only eight college-bound graduates. Only a single student, the teachers told me, had graduated from college during the previous six years.

Yet for all the apparent hopelessness, what struck me the most – what sticks with me today– was the hope and resolve I saw on the faces of the children I met. These children had every reason to be pessimistic about their situation, but they weren't. They had every reason to give up on their future, but they hadn't.

It was that hope which I saw in students like Teton Magpie – who, at the time, was a freshman at Lame Deer High School.

When I visited his school to answer questions and talk with students and teachers, Teton told me that he wanted to take more demanding courses and have more mentors so that he could be the first member of his family to attend college. Teton and other students wanted to be challenged. They were asking for higher expectations. And they were tired of adults telling them they would never make it.

I'll never forget Teton's composure, courage, and commitment. That's one reason why Teton and I have stayed in touch over the last year and a half. And I was glad to see that the Northern Cheyenne Nation Boys and Girls Club won a highly-competitive Promise Neighborhoods planning grant to design a comprehensive cradle-to-career child development and education program for the tribe and three school districts.

Teton's concerns and ambitions aren't unique. He's no different than countless Native American youth who live in difficult circumstances but who want to be challenged, who desperately want to succeed. It's our job to help those children fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential.

A few days after returning from the reservation, I said at the National Press Club that if we can't help those Native American children be successful over the next couple of years, "I personally would have failed." Today, I still feel that same sense of urgency.

We owe our children the chance at a better future-- and we know that education can provide that chance. It is the one sure path to a more equal and prosperous future for all children, no matter their background, race, or zip code.

This bedrock belief, that education can be the great equalizer, is very personal for me. I learned that truth firsthand growing up in my mother's after-school tutoring program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago.

From the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I went to her program almost every day. When we were little, the older students tutored us, and as we grew up, we tutored the younger students. She believed everyone should both teach and be taught at the same time. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

Every child in her program, except for my brother, my sister, and I, were low-income minority students, and many of them came from very challenging situations at home. And the dividing line between those who made it out, and those who didn't, was whether they got an education.

I know education can be the game-changer that breaks down the status quo of low expectations, poverty, and high unemployment in Indian Country.

The work of dramatically improving public education in your communities cannot wait. We can never forget that children only get one chance at an education.

So the question today is: How do we improve the system so that it accelerates achievement and attainment? How can we ensure that students like Teton go to schools where they will all acquire the skills they need to succeed in today's knowledge economy?

These are questions that are very much part of our institutional mission at the Department. Today, more than 90 percent of Native American students attend regular public schools, instead of BIE-funded schools.

Over the last year, my senior staff and I listened to your concerns and ideas at consultations throughout Indian Country – in places like Shawnee, Oklahoma; Pine Ridge, South Dakota; Window Rock, Arizona; and others.

Unlike in some previous administrations, senior officials have been soliciting your input in your lands--and not at the conference room at the airport hotel.

We heard your concerns about tribal sovereignty and the urgent need to expand tribal control over the education of Indian students, especially in schools located on tribal lands.

I am pleased to tell you that the Department will pursue a pilot program to enhance the role of tribal education agencies and tribes in the education of their members on an experimental basis.

This pilot program would be part of our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Act, or what's known as No Child Left Behind. Our hope is that Congress will pass reauthorization next year.

The pilot program would allow a small number of Tribal Educational Agencies to enter into collaborative agreements with state educational agencies to assume responsibility for some state-level functions in administering ESEA programs.

Under this TEA pilot program, eligible TEAs will have an opportunity to act more like state educational agencies, work closely with districts and schools located on reservations, and play a direct role in the education of their own children. As President Obama has said, "tribes do better when they make their own decisions."

I would add that our ESEA reauthorization blueprint and budget reflect your input and advice in many, many ways. For example, our ESEA proposal provides greater flexibility in the use of federal funds for Native language immersion and Native language restoration programs.

Other provisions greatly expand support for high-quality teacher preparation programs, including grow-your-own programs in rural areas and tribal communities.

We also heard your concerns about Indian Country's access to funding opportunities, especially in cases of competitive awards. As a result, our Promise Neighborhoods competition included an absolute priority or separate competitive pool for applicants who proposed to serve Indian communities.

At the same time, the Department created a competitive priority in the Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3 program, for applicants serving rural areas. The i3 program had far more applicants than any program in the history of the department. And one of the successful grantees that responded to the rural priority was the Parents as Teachers National Center, which received a grant to replicate its Family and Child Education program in 24 BIE schools.

Overall, our budget maintains the current funding levels for Indian education programs, instead of consolidating those funds as we proposed in other areas. Our fiscal 2011 budget proposed $104 million in formula grants for Indian education and $23 million in competitive grants for innovative programs to improve student outcomes, including early learning initiatives and preparing Native Americans to enter the teaching profession.

I'm especially pleased to see that several officials from tribal colleges are here today as well. We were excited that Congress enacted President Obama's request for more than $275 million for Indian school construction in the Recovery Act and an additional $300 million for Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act.

Boosting resources is a necessary first step. But we're also going to make sure you have a much bigger voice when it comes to education policy.

Early next year, we will create a new, permanent, senior level position within the Department of Education. And that appointee will be responsible for making sure the unique educational and cultural needs of Native American students are met.

All of us here know that many challenges lie ahead in transforming education in Indian Country--and these are challenges not just for our Department but for tribal educators and leaders as well.

We are excited about our pilot TEA project to shift some aspects of supporting schools and districts to tribal education agencies. But for those pilot projects to succeed, TEAs will need to take ownership of their expanded role. And they will need to develop more institutional capacity for overseeing tribal education, improving student learning, and preparing students for the rigors of the global economy.

I have no illusions about undoing generations of failed policies and broken promises overnight. The educational challenges tribal communities face were generations in the making--and it will take courage, commitment, and collaboration to undo the status quo.

Yet the scale of the challenges we face is no excuse for inaction. Working together, we have a unique chance to get this right – to fundamentally change the way our Department engages tribal communities.

Working together, we have a unique opportunity to make sure that all Native American children get a quality education and a fair shake at pursuing their dreams.

Many of the people in this room – and many more who will be at tomorrow's conference – have worked tirelessly in pursuit of that goal. I can't tell you how much your passion and commitment mean to me personally.

And so I ask you to continue the extraordinary work you've done on behalf of Native American communities all across the country. With your collective will and dedication, we will see the day when all Native American children get the world-class education they deserve. This country owes them nothing less.