The State of Native American Education


The current education climate is devastating the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) community. Historically, the group has suffered from various education reforms targeted specifically for their cultural group. Recent research suggests today’s education system has done little to help the AI/AN population. AI/AN students have seen poor improvements in several education achievement indicators (graduation rates, achievement gap, drop out rates, NAEP scores). Just as these education indicators highlight the devastating results the AI/AN population experiences, other social measures show an even more complete picture of how the education system is disproportionately effective to different groups.

According to the recent the Diplomas Count 2013 Report conducted by Education Week, AI/AN students have experienced a decline in graduation rates from 2000 to 2008. This is in stark contrast when compared to the significant gains other disadvantaged groups have experienced. According to the same report, “the White-Latino gap has been cut in half in the past decade, while the Black-White gap shrank by almost 30 percent.” When comparing AI/AN and Asian (the lowest and highest performing groups nationally), there is a 30-point graduation gap. Perhaps an even more distinctive statistic is the percentage of AI/AN dropouts per year. In 2006, the National Center for Education Statistics published a study that examined the dropout rates of AI/AN students in contrast to other identity groups. Compared to other groups (Black, 11%; White, 7%; Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 7%; and Asian, 3%;), AI/AN young adults were “status dropouts” with the highest dropout rate of 15%. This pattern is still seen in more recent research; though the AI/NA dropout rate has decreased to 7%, it still is 5% higher than the White average of 2%.

The low graduation and high dropout rates are reflective of the low NAEP scores. According the US Department National Indian Education 2011 Report, though AI/NA students experienced modest increases in both math and readings scores, large achievement gaps still exists. In reading scores, fourth grade AI/AN students scored an average of 202, while the non-AI/AN student average was nineteen points higher at 221. The same pattern is seen in fourth grade math scores. For AI/AN students, their math average was 225, while their non-AI/AN peers scored an average of 241 (a sixteen point difference).


Courtesy of

These disparities extend farther than just the school system. According to the 2012 US Department of Education research on Gaps in Access and Persistence, only about 12% of AI/NA young adults (ages 25-34) held a bachelor’s degree, compared to 37% White and 31% all. The study also observed the 2010 median full-time annual earnings for individuals ages 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree, in which AI/NA adults earned only $38,100 in contrast to their White ($50,000/yr), and other peers (all: $50,300).

What do these statistics say about the current state of American Indian/Alaska Native education? Student poverty may be a persuasive causal narrative as to why AI/AN are suffering desperately. However, when examining the student poverty of other marginalized groups and comparing them to standard education measures, the disparities are not as exaggerated as the AI/AN case. Though invisible in popular acknowledgement, the group holds a very visible story of educational inequity.

To learn more about American Indian/Alaska Native education and advocacy work within that area, visit The National Indian Education Association website.

by Lynda Nguyen

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  1. Victoria

     /  February 26, 2014

    I once stayed with a Navajo elder on a reservation in Northern Arizona. Every morning before dawn we woke up, had breakfast and then took the fields with his herd of sheep and goats. The desert was beautiful, with clear skies, canyons and wild horses. We rarely saw other people or heard modern-day sounds. He didn’t have running water and I slept in a hogan; it was one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve had to date. The land, which is occupied by the Navajo tribe, but is actually owned by the Hopi Tribe, is being sold off to the coal-mining industry. And because of government pressure the Navajos are being steadily sent to a nearby town built on sand dunes. One afternoon, the elder’s daughter and granddaughter, who was about to graduate from high school, drove me to this nearby town and gave me a tour. They showed me the homes of Navajos who had attempted to recreate the life they’d had on the reservation. Cattle were kept in backyards and scraggly dogs roamed free. I had the chance to speak with his granddaughter about typical teenage stress- boys, friends and going to college and the not so typical teenage stress- her grandfather losing his land and her family’s high-rate of diabetes. This blog post reminded me of that family and the problems that arise when communities are forced into living a life unfamiliar to their own culture. And I can’t help but attribute the state of Native American education to government greed.



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