Working With Indigenous Communities–Evidence Blast


April 2014


Cover image from the Indian Reading series

Our Evidence Blast series provides research, data, and resources to help practitioners and policymakers make important decisions about schools and students.

Education Northwest has a long history of working to improve reading and language development, particularly for Native students. Projects such as our 1972 Indian Reading Series, which is still widely used today, demonstrate our commitment to partnering with Northwest tribes to develop resources that reflect indigenous culture, traditions, and values.

In more recent examples, the Northwest Comprehensive Center at Education Northwest (NWCC) is building state education agencies’ capacity to serve Native students. The NWCC recently convened state Indian education coordinators to share information and lessons learned, particularly on how indigenous language and culture can be incorporated into the education system.

Last fall, our regional educational laboratory, REL Northwest, joined with REL Central and REL Pacific to organize a convening of tribal representatives from across the country to examine how our education system can incorporate indigenous language and culture and what research can increase and improve those efforts. As Education Northwest’s Steve Nelson said at the convening, “The time is long overdue for the educational R&D community to provide a venue for Indian educators to share their current knowledge of policy, research, and practice supporting the use of indigenous language and culture for the education of their children and create a meaningful road map for carrying out future research that will benefit Native American communities.”

In other REL Northwest projects, the Alaska State Policy Research Alliance works with Native organizations to define postsecondary success for all Alaskan students and the Bureau of Indian Education High School Alliance seeks to increase graduation rates for Native students in Washington and Oregon’s BIE schools.

What Does the Research Say?

One of the first large-scale studies to look at how culturally based education influences academic performance was published by Education Northwest (Demmert &Towner, 2003). They identified six critical elements associated with Native American student success for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students. The elements include the recognition and use of heritage languages; pedagogy that stresses traditional cultural characteristics and adult-child interactions; pedagogy in which teaching strategies are congruent with the traditional culture, as well as contemporary ways of knowing and learning; curriculum based on traditional culture that places the education of young children in a contemporary context; strong Native community participation in the planning and operation of school activities; and knowledge and use of the social and political mores of the community.

Analyses of the literature have acknowledged the lack of rigorous, experimental research on culturally based education, which points more to the difficulty in conducting such studies in public schools than to the validity of culturally responsive practices. A recent review (McCarty & Wiley, 2011) notes that “there is compelling empirical evidence that strong, additive, academically rigorous Native language and culture programs have salutary effects on both Native language and culture maintenance/revitalization and student achievement, as measured by multiple types of assessments.” (p.14).

Strong programs that have the most effect, they found, are Native language and culture immersion programs that enhance student motivation, ethnic pride, and self-esteem; provide varied opportunities for parent and elder involvement; and provide investment in teacher professional development and “community intellectual resources,” as evidenced by “grow your own” approaches to Native teacher preparation.

Learn more

Below is a sampling of publicly available studies and resources on American Indian and Alaska Native education. We have deliberately included research and practices within Native communities and by Indian educators.

For customized literature searches on this or other topics, including a search of peer-reviewed research databases not available to the general public, please contact Jennifer Klump, Ask A REL Reference Desk librarian, 503.275.0454 or 800.547.6339, ext. 454.

National Indian Education Association (NIEA) Native Research and Evaluation Methods

NIEA encourages the use of research and evaluation approaches that respect Native cultures and values; permit the involvement of Native people in the development of research and evaluation design, implementation, and reporting; promote tribal self-determination and sovereignty; and build the capacity of tribes and Native communities to conduct their own research and evaluations. They provide a selection of materials for both Native and non-Native researchers and evaluators conducting research or evaluations in Native communities.

National Indian Education Study (NIES) 2011

The NIES provides educators, policymakers, and the public with information about the reading and mathematics performance of American Indian and Alaska Native fourth- and eighth-graders, as well as their exposure to Native American culture.

Voices of Native Educators: Strategies That Support Success of Native High School Students (2010)

This report highlights discussions during a 2010 convening of Native educators representing various tribes across the mainland U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii. A core belief of participants was that the best practices implemented in Native communities are also of value to non-Indian educators as they work to increase opportunities for Indian adolescents. The report highlights such practices in an attempt to promote meaningful conversations across communities engaged in secondary school renewal.

Achievement Gap Patterns of Grade 8 American Indian and Alaska Native Students in Reading and Mathematics (2009)

This REL Northwest study compared gaps in performance on state achievement tests between eighth-grade American Indian and Alaska Native students and all other eighth-grade students in 26 states serving large populations of American Indian and Alaska Native students. The study found that AI/AN students’ achievement in reading and math improved over the study period or at least held stable. In the majority of states with three or four years of continuous data, American Indian and Alaska Native students’ proficiency rates increased, either because their deficits decreased or because their lead over other students increased.

Indian Education Policies in Five Northwest Region States (2009)

This REL Northwest study categorizes five Northwest Region states based on their Indian education policies. The researchers found that six key policies had been implemented by all five states: adopting academic standards for teaching students about the history and culture of America’s indigenous peoples, involving Native Americans on advisory boards, promoting Native American languages through teacher certification, allowing students to learn their native language as part of their education program, and providing tuition assistance for college-bound Native American students.

Examining American Indian Perspectives in the Central Region on Parent Involvement in Children's Education (2008)

This 2008 REL Central study examines American Indian parents’ perceptions of parent involvement in their children’s education and factors that may encourage or discourage involvement.

Journal of American Indian Education

This professional journal publishes papers directly related to the education of American Indian/Alaska Natives. Full-text articles are available for free download on a variety of topics.