National Indian Education Study – more culture = lower math scores & we expected that



This post is was written on  by Dr. Erich Longie, Senior Cultural Consultant for 7 Generation Games. Erich is part of the founding team of 7 Generation Games and oversees our cultural staff to ensure all cultural content is vetted and historically and culturally accurate. He is a long-time educator – having taught at every level from elementary school to college – and an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota.

As my good friend AnnMarie wrote in her blog I “…hypothesized that schools that had more cultural activities would have lower academic achievement,” prior to leaving to DC to take a look at the yet to be released data from the National Indian Education Study.

Over the years I have always been involved in promoting our culture in the classroom, as a Tribal College academic dean and president and later as a high school board member. Why? Because numerous studies have shown the more an Indian child knows about his or her culture the higher their test scores will be.

Therefore, I could never understand why college instructors and high school administrators would not put a serious effort into promoting culture in the classroom. Other board members who also wanted to see more culture in the classrooms shared my frustration.

Why did I change my mind?

This past year I had the opportunity to teach “The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Oyate” to the fifth and sixth graders at Tate Topa Middle School. The experience was rewarding. I had always said I wanted to end my career in Indian Education back in the classroom, preferably, back to teaching third grade.

My close-up, hands-on experience of teaching culture revealed an equation that I wasn’t aware of. What actually happens in a classroom and in the school on a daily basis?  Here are my observations:

  •   Why don’t administrators push for more culture classes? Because most administrators believe there is no real learning going on in culture classes.
  • Why? The majority of culture teachers don’t have a teaching degree, which in the mind of an administrator make them poor teachers.  It is one thing to know the culture and another to know how to teach it.
  • What happens then? The lack of teacher training by culture teachers gives a bad impression to students and other professionally trained teachers.
  • Why are they allowed in the classroom? Because who else will teach the culture? Indians with teaching degrees are needed and wanted in the regular classroom.
  • What is the result of this lack of professionalism?  The administration does not view culture classes as important as other disciplines. Their academic expectations are lower. As a result, the quality of instruction is not as good as the other disciplines.
  • What is the final outcome? Culture instruction can actually have an adverse impact on student learning. The students pick up bad habits in a culture class; no respect for teacher, low motivation to learn, not finishing assignments, etc.. These bad habits spill into other classes.

(I would say the exceptions to my observations are the language teachers. It is almost impossible to find a college graduate who speaks the language)

Is there hard data to support my observations? Yes there is. Let me refer you my friend and colleague AnnMaria’s blog title: More cultural relevance = lower academic achievement: WHY? 

There is another reason why I think we are having a difficult time teaching culture.  As I stated earlier, I had the opportunity to teach culture to the 5th and 6th graders this past spring. Having been out of an elementary classroom for over twenty years it took me a while to get organized and adjusted to the classroom again.

Shortly after starting I begin to suspect the students had no idea what “Being Indian” meant.  One day, I gave them a simple assignment. The students were to write down the answer to this question.

What does it mean to be Indian?

Most of them had no answers. Those students that did answer, their answers weren’t satisfactory. I disregarded my lesson plans and set out to teach them what I thought “Being Indian” meant.

The first thing I did was explained to them that our culture could be divided into three parts: language, customs, and value. A person has to speak the language to teach it.  I didn’t speak the language other than a few words. The customs, which I identified as the dances, homes, clothes, history, etc., can be taught in any social studies class. I told them would focus on the values: courage, honesty, generosity and perseverance I would try to incorporate the other two aspects into my instructions as well.

Why did I choose to focus on the values? Because it was the most effective method of getting them to understand what “Being Indian” meant.  For example, I pointed out many Indians wear clothes with “Native Pride” and “Proud to Indian” on them. What does Native Pride mean, I would ask them? It means a person who is courageous, who is honest, who is generous and who perseveres… just like our ancestors did, I pointed out.

And I would refer to our values when I had to discipline a student. For example, when a student was talking when he or she should have been working I would tell him to be quiet. “I wasn’t talking”, the student would most often say. I would then remind him or her that a Dakota was honest…

I had them watch a documentary on about a High School Indian basketball team. The team was exceptional but they lost in the state finals. Why did they lose, I asked the students at the end of the documentary? Because they (players) smoked weed, most to them said. I explained to the class when a student signs up for basketball they give their word they will follow the rules. Did those players follow the rules, I asked them? No they didn’t, was the reply.  What values does it relate do, I asked them. HONESTY! They yelled.

Was my method of teaching culture successful? The last week of school I asked the same question, what does it mean to be Indian? Here are responses from three students:

“Dakota means to be honesty, respect(ful) and generosity. And if you lie all the time no one would ever believe you even if you’re telling the truth. Back when Indians were roaming the lands if you lied you would die. The Dakota followed the seven values. We take care of our people. And we are always proud of who we are.”

“I feel proud to be an Indian because we don’t steal. We respect other people and we (are) honest. Indians show courage and wisdom. We fight in wars to protect our country and tribe. We show generosity by helping our relatives and elders.”

“It means generosity which means sharing with people. It means respect which means respect your parent and teachers. It means persevere which means don’t give up. It means courage which means stand up which you think is right.”

I think I was on the right track.

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