The sentiment in this letter can be broadly applied not only to Native students but to all students. Our public schools are diverse. Students deserve to have their cultures recognized and respected. They deserve lessons that engage and speak to them, and they deserve to be evaluated in an authentic way. We must bring the humanity back to our schools.
Big thanks to Robey Clark for sharing this with me and for fighting for the schools our children deserve.
WASHINGTON TRIBAL COMPACT SCHOOL POSITION STATEMENT:
We, the governing tribes of the Washington State Tribal compact schools, hope to break the chronic cycle of failure among schools serving American Indian reservations. We intend to capitalize upon the opportunity presented by this new Tribal Compact School law by promoting the adoption of teaching practices which we believe to be more congruent with tribal cultures. In support of this effort, we intend to foster some important reforms in educational accountability methods that will encourage and reward a change in practice.
In recent decades, state and federal educational policy has focused on raising test scores for poor and minority students up to the general population average by the third grade (or soon after) in an effort to minimize the dropout rate. This policy has been a particular disaster for most public schools serving Indian reservations. The result has been a system that labels Indian children early; subjects them to continued remedial instruction; and fails to keep them engaged after the 4th grade. The over-emphasis on early grade test scores has evolved into a self-fulfilling (and self-perpetuating) prophecy of failure for Indian students. We believe it is this labeling effect, coupled with limited instructional methods that cause many if not most dropouts.
The Iroquois Sachem Canasatego once said to the English colonists of his time, “...you who are so wise must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and you will, therefore, not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had some Experience of it...”.
Our experience has been that our schools have diligently tried to adopt “research based” models and “data based decision making” as primary methods for school improvement for years now. For the past 15 years, federal policy has placed more and higher stakes on test results. So much weight has been placed upon them that, standardized tests have become an end unto themselves. Something must change. We do not accept that standardized testing defines the potential or truly measures the growth of our children in any meaningful way. Therefore, as sovereign tribal governments, shouldering the new responsibilities under the state compact, we feel it is our duty to make a change toward authentic assessment and accountability. If Indian students are motivated, they will succeed. It is our goal to create places where our children and young adults wish to be and where there is an inherent expectation and tradition of success.
In recent years, the state has commissioned and adopted assessments, such as the High School Proficiency Test (HSPE) and End of Course (EOC) exams, which have only served to make the student disengagement and dropout problem worse. Now, with the coming adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) testing will take a quantum leap toward becoming much longer, more difficult, and demanding even greater attention. We believe that we cannot test our way to success. We have walked far enough down this path and are determined to change direction. Therefore, we are proposing a five-year moratorium from standardized testing in Tribal compact schools. During this time, we propose to develop a new evaluation paradigm based on applied learning and public demonstration. During this development period, we will use formative tests and/or other tools chosen by our staff to monitor progress and assist in teaching. We will develop a viable alternative evaluation system equaling or surpassing the rigor of state adopted testing. In addition, we will demonstrate American Indian student attendance and graduation rates that match or exceed state averages. Although intended for reservation-based districts, we hope such a system might be used by any district experiencing this chronic syndrome of failure.
We will call upon our schools to develop ways to teach content and to hone student academic skills through authentic work for real life purposes rather than to depend mainly upon passive and abstract classroom instruction. These methods may further enhance Indian student learning as they more closely resemble historical tribal teaching practices. Traditionally, our children learned specific skills within the context of an immediate and worthwhile task. As students progress toward later grades, authentic instruction should increase and passive classroom instruction decrease. To support these proposed reforms, we intend to provide our schools an evaluation model based upon public demonstration to the community. We will give our professional educational staff the flexibility to re-organize as necessary and to experiment in developing more deeply engaging educational experiences. In addition, we will find new ways to evaluate and award credit for the work completed outside the classroom. The teachers will work in teams to share the burden and include high school students in yearly planning.
We will require our schools to initiate formal public demonstrations of student work that meet the highest level of state standards, so that the tribe and community may appreciate the quality and value of the school. The demonstrations may include but are not limited to: individual or group projects in science and applied math; performance in music and dance; displays of art and literary work; student enterprises and worthy deeds for the school, tribe or community. The demonstrations will be challenging enough to show high skills and/or thorough understanding by students. Such demonstrations will also serve to help WOSPI to evaluate student accomplishments in terms of the state standards. We anticipate that the institution of such events will not only serve as a new method to evaluate student work but will also help rally our communities to support their schools.
To us, making sure all students graduate “on time” is not as important as making sure that all do indeed graduate as mature capable individuals with knowledge and skills to go forth in their chosen path. Our students will receive a diploma when each is ready to present herself or himself before the community with a portfolio that shows she or he is ready for college, skilled career training or the everyday work world. By the same token, this also means a student may graduate early by petition if they demonstrate extraordinary ability or talent and can meet the standards. As the vision stated in: From Where the Sun Rises: Addressing the Educational Achievement of Native Americans in Washington State--Delivered to the Washington Legislature, December 30, 2008--"Indian education dates back to a time when all children were identified as gifted and talented. Each child had a skill and ability that would contribute to the health and vitality of the community. Everyone in the community helped to identify and cultivate these skills and abilities. The elders were entrusted to oversee this sacred act of knowledge being shared. That is our vision for Indian education today."
*This blog post is dedicated to Ada May Smith McCormack, my beloved sister-friend who I know would be fighting with me if she still walked in this world.