Expert Interview

Education Equity Insights Part 3: Better Serving Native Students

November 4, 2021

Across the U.S., Native students face opportunity gaps as a result of structural and institutional barriers that impact their educational experiences and trajectories. Opportunity gaps exist for many reasons, including ineffective curriculum and instruction, deficient social and emotional supports, inadequate educator preparation and training, lack of programs focused on college and career readiness, and the need for more meaningful partnerships between organizations, such as state education agencies (SEAs), local education agencies (LEAs), and tribal education departments (TEDs).

Amy Bitterman

To help build SEAs’ capacity to more comprehensively support Native education, the U.S. Department of Education, in 2019, awarded funding to the National Comprehensive Center (National Center), directed by Westat, to develop resources to enhance the learning of Native youth. The National Center established the Native Education Collaborative (NEC) to create these resources and bring together SEAs, LEAs, and TEDs to find promising strategies to improve Native students’ academic achievement. Amy Bitterman, a Westat senior research associate who co-led the project, discusses the evolution of this work.

Q: Why has academic achievement for Native students been beyond their reach for so long?

A: Historical and ongoing trauma including poverty, neglect, poor health conditions, discrimination, and biased disciplinary policies have impacted their educational progress. State curriculums often exclude Native history, language, and culture; and there are not enough Native teachers to serve as positive role models. Tribal education leaders are not always included in discussions to address these issues; however, they must be part of the conversations on how to best serve Native youth, as Native Americans and Alaska Natives have repeatedly demonstrated resiliency and an ability to overcome barriers.

Q: What impact has the pandemic had on Native youth?

A: COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Native population, exacerbating their difficulties. With many reservations remotely located, connectivity is often nonexistent, making remote learning challenging.

Q: How is Westat helping move the needle forward to advance the education outcomes for these students?

A: When we were awarded this project, our first step was to bring the Native voice to this work. This voice was critical to identifying the gaps in Native student learning and the improvements needed to help them excel. We interviewed 15 Native experts across the country—superintendents and directors of Indian education and education advocacy leaders—to determine the project’s direction, education strategies and practices to highlight, and overarching categories to focus on. We retained 6 Native consultants to design, develop, and implement a framework and process to help SEAs, LEAs, and TEDs engage in collaborative and deeply reflective discussions about Native student learning. The framework—a series of guided discussions named Circles of Reflection—had 3 goals: (1) reveal what states and localities were doing or not doing to ensure high-quality, relevant, and stimulating learning experiences for Native students; (2) determine priorities; and (3) guide the creation and implementation of promising strategies to improve Native students’ education.

Q: What capabilities did Westat bring to this process?

A: Collaboration was key to the success of this project; and it was important to meet our clients where they were in the process of change. Our organizational and project management skills supported the consultants’ efforts as did our capacity-building expertise, equity mindset, and best practices.

Q: What can you tell us about the Circles?

A: Our Native capacity leads piloted 3 circles with 4 states: Oklahoma, North Carolina, Idaho, and Washington. In the First Circle, high-level SEA staff from these states discussed their state’s current level of effort to support Native student learning. Answers were prompted by reflection questions, organized by 6 overarching categories: Native culture and language; tribal consultation and sovereignty; effective teachers and leaders; college and career readiness and access; physical and behavioral health; and identification of promising programs and practices.

In the Second Circle, representatives from LEAs and TEDs with significant populations of Native students joined the First Circle members. These representatives validated, added to, or clarified the results of the First Circle.

In the Third Circle, First Circle SEA participants and Second Circle members refined priorities, created a 90-day action plan, and identified longer-term goals.

Q: What was the tenor of the discussions?

A: These were hard discussions for all parties. For many tribal representatives, it was the first time they had had an audience from the SEA who actually listened to them. It was an emotional experience for them, having been marginalized for so long; and, at first, some were distrustful of the process. It was a difficult experience for SEAs and LEAs, too. It opened their eyes to the gap in support for these students.

Q: Are states working on plans to remedy this situation?

A: Yes, all 4 states are working on plans, and we continue to monitor their progress.

Q: Will there be additional Circles of Reflection?

A: Yes, we will hold discussions with other states and continue dialogues with the initial group.

Q: How can other SEAs, LEAs, and TEDs learn about this work?

A: We created The Idea Bank—which offers resources developed by our Native experts covering the overarching categories of state support, the 90-day action plan, and the more ambitious longer-term goals.

Q: How does this work help other underserved students?

A: This work is an important step in providing a mechanism to enable advocates of these students to be heard and brought into the decision making process.


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