Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference

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Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference

December 5, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Hill, for delivering that wonderful opening invocation. I can't tell you how pleased and honored I am to join you again for the fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference.

This convening is both a demonstration of our Administration's commitment to tribes and a reminder of the distance we have yet to travel. It's an opportunity to take stock of our progress together, and to plan how we will address serious challenges that lie ahead.

During the first term, I've had the privilege of visiting tribal communities in Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and, most recently, in New Mexico.

Visiting reservations is among the most rewarding, uplifting—and sometimes heart-wrenching—opportunities I have had since taking office.

I am always struck by the dignity, strength, and pride of our American Indian and Alaska Native peoples. I've learned from you that this strength of character comes from the land that you know and love—and the culture and language that shaped you and that you work so hard to preserve and protect.

But I've also seen first-hand the real challenges that Indian Country faces: high rates of unemployment, crime, and drug addiction, poor housing, lack of technology, crumbling school facilities, and difficulties attracting and retaining teachers. And these symptoms of concentrated poverty have often taken a deadly and tragic toll on Native youth.

You know the shortcomings of the schools and social support networks in Indian Country better than anyone. You know that American Indian children are more likely to be abused, have the highest rates of emotional and physical neglect, and that too many tragically take their own lives.

Their capacity to rebound and regroup from adversity has been worn down by the weight of generations of poverty, trauma, and cultural devastation.

Our school systems—both Federal and State—must do dramatically better. We have to work together—none of us get a pass.

The Department just released a report detailing graduation rates data for 47 states, Washington, D.C., and the BIE. Across the board, Native American graduation rates are unacceptably low. And there were nine states—Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington—that have graduation rates lower than 60 percent for American Indian students. How many good jobs are out there for a high school dropout? Virtually none.

This data is yet another sobering reminder that our children aren't receiving the world-class education they need to be the future leaders of our tribes and communities.

Together, we must do more to nurture the next generation. Native youth need, and absolutely deserve, safe homes, safe communities, and an education system that prepares them for success in college and careers. They need and deserve an education system that prepares them for leadership and service to their communities, tribes and country.

Education is the surest, most powerful path for breaking the cycle of poverty on tribal lands. In America, education must be the great equalizer, the one force that enables people to overcome differences of birth and bank accounts and of power and privilege.

We must prepare our students to preserve the proud heritage and vibrant cultures that have shaped America's history for centuries. Your children are ready—they want to be challenged, they want to be successful. They just need a light to show them the way. And that is why we must be their champions now, so they can lead in the future. Children only get one shot at an education. They can't wait for reform to materialize a decade from now.

Yet for all the challenges and heartbreak, you give me reason to hope. Just a few months ago, I had the chance to speak to hundreds of tribal university students who embody that dream. I was the commencement speaker at Navajo Technical College.

I had an amazing two days on campus there, and it was a tremendous honor to join those promising representatives of the Navajo Nation, as they celebrated an important milestone in their lives, with family, friends, and tribal leaders.

That day I talked to them about persistence, about meeting challenges head on. I talked with them about the powerful example of academic achievement and success they set for their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.

I urged them to draw upon the strength of their ancestors, who overcame even greater odds to rebuild their lives—and preserved their culture and language for them. I said that if they remembered who they were and where they came from, that their culture could help protect them as they headed out into the world.

Some of their elders are here today—the legendary Navajo code talkers of World War II. On behalf of the American people and the Obama administration, thank you for the example of service and courage you set for all of us.

There are other promising signs. Our Department has taken several steps to close the opportunity gap in Indian Country. At last year's Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. And under my friend Bill Mendoza's strong leadership, the Initiative is working to fulfill its charge to help expand educational opportunities and improve educational outcomes for all Native students. Bill is a passionate educator—and I know how lucky we are to have him on our team.

The Initiative has worked closely with the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services to tailor federal educational programs that meet the specific needs of Native youth. And the White House Initiative has also supported programs and projects to include instruction in, and preservation of, Native languages. We know how important that is.

Earlier this year, I announced the launch of the "State-Tribal Education Partnership"—or what we call the STEP program. This is a first-of-a-kind program that elevates the role of Tribal educational agencies by providing tribes with greater opportunities to meaningfully participate in the education of their children. That idea came not from us, but from you—and I thank you for it.

The STEP program aims to promote collaboration between Tribes and States, and to build the capacity of tribes as they develop and enhance their roles, responsibilities, and accountability in Native education. As part of this novel program, we've funded projects through collaborative agreements between Tribes and States that allow Tribes to perform some state-level functions.

To cite a few examples, the Nez Perce Tribe is working with the State of Idaho to provide technical assistance to tribal schools receiving School Improvement Grant funds and to improve educational opportunity in communities that have for too long been underserved.

The Navajo Nation is working with New Mexico to collect student achievement data on Navajo students that will help the Tribe and the State design targeted interventions for Navajo students.

And the Chickasaw, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Tribes are partnering with the State of Oklahoma to help administer the Department's 21st Century Community Learning Center grant to public schools located on tribally controlled lands.

This unprecedented collaboration between Tribes and States, and additional educational innovation is what our Native youth need if they are to receive a world-class education. They don't need anyone to affirm the value of a broken status-quo.

And our School Improvement Grants have made a real difference in several schools located on Indian reservations. The town of Pryor, Montana, on the Crow Indian Reservation, has many of the symptoms of a community suffering from deep, concentrated poverty. In 2010, Pryor's homicide rate was more than double the rate in Detroit, and 50 percent higher than in New Orleans—which I visited yesterday.

But I see early, promising signs of change there. After receiving a $1.5 million grant, teachers and schools leaders in Pryor Elementary and Middle Schools have significantly boosted student achievement for Native students. Levels of reading proficiency have risen 15 percent, and levels of math proficiency doubled.

The truth, though, is that we all know we still have a great deal of work to do to provide that world-class education to every child. And as we continue to work to meet that urgent challenge, we'll continue our close collaboration with those people who know their students and communities the best—tribal leaders.

As I've said many times, real change does not come from Washington, but from leaders like you. It grows from grassroots solutions, designed to meet local challenges and build on your unique strengths.

That's why I've made sure that our Education Department talks with, and not at, tribal leaders—that we continue to collaborate beforehand, rather than consult afterwards. We'll make sure that this continues in the second term.

Thank you for your leadership, your partnership, your honesty, and 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.