Promoting Equitable Education for American Indian Students

Cora Goldston

This blog post was published as part of the work of the Midwest Comprehensive Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Comprehensive Centers Program, during the cycle which ended on September 30, 2019.

Here at the Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC), we know that change has the strongest effect when we learn from our partners and support their goals rather than trying to drive the work. Over the span of our current grant, MWCC has elevated the expertise of American Indian community members and state education agencies to support more equitable opportunities for American Indian students. This means ensuring our stakeholders are equal partners in the work. The Midwest and Plains Equity Center outlines four levers of equity: access, meaningful participation, representation, and quality. By listening and responding to the perspectives of our stakeholders, MWCC is working to improve all of these levers for students.

Nara Nayar, technical assistance consultant for MWCC, shares the importance of prioritizing stakeholder voice in our work: “Ultimately, our goal isn’t to direct the work; it’s to support our partners in getting the knowledge and resources they need to move forward. Amplifying the voices of our partners and empowering them is key for lasting change.”

Empowering partners to assess and respond to their own needs is crucial for sustainable change at the state level. In 2015 and 2016, MWCC worked with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to develop a self-assessment tool for districts and schools. The tool is intended to help school systems evaluate their internal capacity to provide equitable opportunities and support the educational success of American Indian students. After completing the rubric, schools and districts can use the results to consult with tribal leaders, community members, and parents about ways to strengthen services and programs.

The self-assessment tool was driven by MDE’s strong commitment to equitable education. MDE has a formal definition of educational equity and ten commitments (PDF) to increase equitable education. The MDE equity definition not only emphasizes the need for access and inclusion, but it also recognizes the societal and historical barriers that students from certain groups face. MDE calls for systemic change to address those barriers and ongoing support for affected students.

The partnerships between MWCC and state partners evolve organically as states engage different stakeholders in understanding and addressing the needs of American Indian students. For example, MWCC has been working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) over the past few years to create resources and materials for educators to learn about American Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty. Wisconsin has a unique state context that provides many opportunities to strengthen American Indian studies and education.

Wisconsin’s legislature requires all agencies in the governor’s cabinet to consult with each of the state’s 11 recognized American Indian tribal nations. In April 2019, the Governor of Wisconsin signed Executive Order #18, which further bolsters meaningful collaboration with American Indian tribal nations. However, in Wisconsin, the State Superintendent is a separately elected position and is not included in the governor’s cabinet. DPI is currently working to establish agreements or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) between the department and each of Wisconsin's American Indian Nations. Former State Superintendent and current Governor of Wisconsin Tony Evers asked DPI staff members David O’Connor, American Indian studies consultant, and Jennifer Kammerud, senior policy advisor-executive, to lead the agency’s efforts in working directly with each tribal nation to establish agreements similar to those formed by other state cabinet agencies. Currently, DPI has MOUs in place with five American Indian Nations with the goal of establishing an agreement with each tribal nation in Wisconsin. The MOUs provide the framework for collaboration between the state and tribal nations.

MWCC and DPI already were engaged in a project about best practices for working with tribal nations when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took effect. ESSA requires that all states consult with American Indian Nations as part of their Title I plans. To inform collaborative efforts, MWCC developed guides for state/district staff and American Indian tribal leadership on understanding meaningful consultation under ESSA.

Wisconsin Act 31 requires that all public school districts and preservice education programs provide instruction on the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized American Indian Nations and tribal communities. MWCC supports culturally responsive education at the classroom level by collaborating with DPI to develop high-quality educator resources and materials.

As Traci Karageorge, technical assistance consultant at MWCC, explains, this work has changed over the years. “We began by co-developing a training module around tribal sovereignty. As DPI went out into the field and spoke with teachers, they learned that tribal sovereignty is a topic teachers are unsure about how to teach in their classrooms.” The need for resources around teaching tribal sovereignty is supported by administrator and teacher responses from Wisconsin’s Act 31 Survey in 2014.

As part of the sovereignty module work, MWCC collaborated with both DPI and MDE to create a curated resource list for teachers that includes reliable and accurate information about American Indian nations and tribal communities in the Midwest for multiple grade levels. “One challenge is that it’s easy for teachers to find resources that look useful, but those resources may not be culturally accurate or might otherwise be problematic,” Karageorge explains. “This resource list not only provides teachers with links; it also helps teachers evaluate the quality of instructional materials that they’re finding on their own.”

MWCC’s work to support American Indian students extends beyond the Midwest region. MWCC is working with the Northwest Comprehensive Center (NWCC) to facilitate the Indigenous Education State Leaders Network, a community of practice (CoP) for state education agency (SEA) American Indian Education directors. This work grew out of a collaboration between other comprehensive and content centers; MWCC connected with that network based on requests from MDE and DPI for additional support. As comprehensive center capacities shifted, MWCC and NWCC began facilitating the group. Currently, SEA American Indian education directors from more than 18 states participate in the CoP, which meets on a monthly basis to discuss a range of issues and topics impacting work in their states.

Nayar notes that the CoP allows members to learn from each other’s expertise. “In many states, American Indian education offices are very small―the directors are the ones doing the work, so the people in the room are the experts. We occasionally have external speakers join us, but directors mostly want to learn from each other.” In addition, many of the CoP’s SEA American Indian education directors are also enrolled members of American Indian Nations, so they have dual perspectives as state education staff and community members.

To improve educational opportunities for American Indian students, organizations like MWCC need to cultivate cultural understanding and work collaboratively with American Indian education experts and community members to develop relevant and responsive programs. By learning from our partners about their strengths and needs, we can work together to improve opportunities for all students.