This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

The Educational Achievement of Indian Children


During the dozen years following the Meriam Survey of the Indian Service published in 1928 significant modifications were made in the curricula of many Federal Indian schools. The fact that many children were entering school unable to speak English, caused greater emphasis to be placed on teaching spoken English in the early grades; the fact that Indians in many areas needed to learn new vocational skills in order to form successfully, derive maximum profit from livestock, take advantage of employment opportunities in non-Indian areas, or provide themselves with more satisfactory living conditions, led to the introduction into the elementary and high school grades of pre-vocational and vocational training suited to the needs of each area; the fact that changed diets, newly introduced diseases, and new types of clothing were inevitable results of living in areas surrounded by an alien culture, led to school emphasis on instruction in home economics and health education, even in the primary grades.

Non-Indian children attending public schools in adjacent areas seldom had need for as much school instruction of this kind, for they were exposed in their homes to daily experiences by which they adjusted to the culture pattern of their parents, which already included many of these knowledges and skills. It was assumed by Indians and non-Indians alike, that the Federal schools would prepare their pupils adequately in the standard subjects of the public school curriculum. Few persons besides the school employees realized that the Federal schools were undertaking this dual job, or knew that when this new program was introduced, more than 80 per cent of the pupils in Federal Indian schools were retarded by from one to six years in reaching the academic standards of the public schools.

By 1943 it appeared desirable to invite a qualified, impartial, outside agency to join with the Indian Service in measuring whether pupils in Federal schools were in fact learning the essential subject matter of the public school curricula of the several states, and were or were not gaining the vocational, health and social adjustment goals designed to bring them abreast of the public school children who were being raised in typical American non-Indian homes.

Dr. Ralph Tyler, Chairman of the Department of Education of the University of Chicago and his associates had achieved nationwide recognition in the field of educational measurements during the preceding decade, so it was proposed that they undertake the direction of a study of Indian school achievement. A contract with the University was signed in 1943. The University staff first sought commercial tests of reading, arithmetic and language, which might produce valid results

when used in rural areas; second the staff began to devise special tests to measure important aspects of the Indian school program which were not common to the average public school. These studies were completed during 1944. In 1945 and 1946 the selected tests were given to all pupils in the fourth, eighth and twelfth grades in Federal Indian schools, and to pupils in the same grades of many cooperating mission and public schools. While several members of the University of Chicago staff served as coordinators of the Indian school study during the period of the contract, Dr. Shailer Peterson actively directed the administration and evaluation of the tests during these two years, and prepared the monograph How Well Are Indian Children Educated?1 which summarized the findings of the study.

The Peterson monograph recorded the first full-scale evaluation of the schoolwork of Indian children. It was therefore impossible to refer to previous data, to confirm or explain certain apparent trends. For verification, it was decided to apply the same tests to eighth and twelfth grade pupils in 1950 (four years later), when many of the same pupils who had been tested in 1946 would again appear at the next higher level of the testing pattern. Unfortunately World War II intervened, and many eighth grade pupils who might have been expected to appear four years later in the twelfth grade became diverted into war work, and many younger pupils were taken out of school for varying periods while their parents engaged in war work. The 1950 tests therefore do not constitute as complete a comparison as it had been hoped that they might. However, the number of children who had appeared in the 1946 tests and who reappear in the 1950 scores is sufficient to make the restudy highly informative.

The earlier cooperation with the University of Chicago, which had begun while the Indian Bureau was headquartered in Chicago, became less convenient when the responsibility for the educational testing program was placed in the hands of L. Madison Coombs at Haskell Institute. Discussions with the staff at the School of Education at the University of Kansas revealed that Kenneth E. Anderson, Director of the Bureau of Educational Research and Service, and E. Gordon Collister, Director of the Guidance Bureau, would be willing to undertake the responsibility for continuing the planning and interpretation of the work of the Indian Service testing program. A contract with the University of Kansas was signed in 1950. This monograph summarizing the data growing out of the 1950 follow-up tests, is therefore the work of these gentlemen.The Peterson study brought out certain facts about the Indian population and about the work of Indian school children. It permitted certain conclusions to be drawn, but it also raised some questions which could not be answered until further tests were made. The present study affirms some of the earlier conclusions and supplies answers to some of the questions.

It has become clear that there is considerable difference between the Indians living in different parts of the country. It is also clear that mixed bloods often differ considerably from full bloods?but not because of the infusion of blood from non-Indian parents. To the extent that the home environment and the language spoken in the home resemble that of the non-Indian community, the children coming from that home will resemble their non-Indian associates. To the extent that children live in a home where habits, traditions and beliefs are those of the Indian group, and one of the many Indian languages is spoken customarily, the children will find it more difficult to master the English language and to adjust to the culture patterns of non-Indian life. Cultural experience, not blood-quantum, influences assimilation; the confusion grows out of the fact that the two often go together.

In general, the Indians of the Mountain States and the Pacific Coast have inter-married freely with non-Indians, and the proportion of full bloods is small. In Oklahoma, the inter-marriage with whites has been much more general on the east side of the state than on the west. Few full bloods remain among the members of the original Five Tribes; while considerable numbers of full bloods are found among the woodland and plains tribes. For the most part, the mixed blood Indians live among whites. It is usually the children of the less assimilated Oklahoma Indians who are still found in Federal schools.

In the Dakotas, intermarriage has occurred largely between the Indians living on the fringes of the reservations and their non-Indian neighbors. Their children attend nearby public schools. Many completely full blood Indian communities remain. They are usually in the heart of the reservation where there are no public schools and their children attend Federal day or boarding schools.

Among the Pueblos, Navajos, Apaches, Pimas and Papagos of the Southwest, intermarriage with non-Indians seldom takes place. Among each of these tribal groups, there are many Indians who have little contact with non-Indians. For the most part, their children are in Federal schools.

The Peterson study showed that the ratio of full bloods in any area bore a direct relationship to the non-use of English in the Indian home.

This in turn influenced classroom instruction, because it takes a year or more to develop the use of English upon the part of a pupil who has no use of the language when first enrolled.

In the Peterson study, the foregoing facts led to a division of the schools studied on geographic lines. The geographic distribution of 1945-46 scores has been retained in the present study.

The 1945-46 study also established that the Federal day schools enroll a large proportion of full bloods; the non-reservation boarding schools a smaller proportion. Indian children enrolled in public schools are mostly mixed bloods. Because other environmental factors which influence the educational program also differ greatly in the several types of schools, it seemed wise to segregate the 1950 test scores by the same school types.

This subdivision of results by geographic areas as well as by types of schools, permits certain comparisons between the educational achievement of Indian children in the several areas, and in the different types of schools. For these differences to be meaningful, however, it is essential to remember that the children themselves also differ greatly. Due to continued cooperation by many mission and public schools enrolling Indian children, it is possible again to compare the educational success of Indian children with rural white children in similar areas.

In presenting the 1945-46 study, Peterson in his initial chapter attempted to answer certain specific questions which had been raised by Indian Service administrators. The present study sheds further light on some of these questions.

1. Has there been any progress in Indian Education since the report in 1928 of the Meriam Survey? Peterson's answer was "yes," and he showed a substantial reduction in retardation. While 42 per cent of the Indian children had been retarded four or more years in 1928, by 1946 this percentage had been reduced to 6 per cent. For the 21 percent who had been not more than one year retarded in 1928, Peterson found this proportion to have increased to 64 per cent in 1946. As at least one-third of the children in Federal schools continued to enter the first grade without any knowledge of English, at least a year of retardation is not surprising.

The figures, such as they are for 1950, show no great change in these proportions.

2. Is there any difference in educational accomplishment between the Indian children in non-reservation and reservation boarding schools, mission boarding schools, Indian day schools and public schools? The 1946 tests showed that Indian children (mostly mixed bloods) who were attending public schools with non-Indian children did better on reading, arithmetic and language tests, than Indian children attending other types of schools. The accomplishment of Indian children in the other schools shows that those in non-reservation, mission, reservation boarding, and Federal day schools follow in that order.

Briefly, the 1950 study shows the same rank order of achievement.

3. Is there any difference between the performance of Indian and non-Indian children in the rural public schools? Peterson found a slight difference in favor of the Indians in some tests; a slight difference in favor of non-Indians on others.

In 1950 we find slight but significant differences in favor of the non-Indian children in all of the standardized tests.

4. Is there any difference in the relative performance of Indian children at the different grade levels? Peterson found that the fourth grade group made consistently better scores in comparison to standardized norms and in comparison to public school non-Indians, than the pupils in the upper grades. This conclusion may be integrated with question 6, Is there a difference between the students in the lower grades and those in the higher grades? To which the answer also was "yes." "Comments by teachers all indicate these younger students to be better, and some teachers believe the difference between two classes one year apart is very marked. It is probable that the more systematically organized program of instruction, keyed to Indian needs, accounts in large part for this clear-cut superiority."

As there was no previous report of achievement with which to compare these fourth graders, Peterson had to depend on the better comparative scores made by fourth graders, and the subjective testimony of teachers, to conclude that better teaching had caused the better results. In 1950, no fourth graders were tested, but the "superior" fourth graders of 1946 were eighth graders in 1950. Another measure has been chosen to determine whether or not the apparent superiority of this group has been maintained. In 1950, using the same tests for both eighth and twelfth graders, the percentage of overlap has been studied. "The percentages of overlap . . . are quite considerable, indicating that the students in the eighth grade had achieved higher standards than their counterparts in the twelfth grade. This seems to indicate that an upsurge is taking place in Indian education."

The remainder of the 1946 questions dealt with problems not specifically touched on in 1950. In general the 1950 study of cultural factors, as they affect the education of Indian children, lends support to the statement: "that as the cultural and educational backgrounds of Indian children become more like those of white children in public schools, the more closely will the educational achievement of Indian children match that of white children."

The wider curricula and the better teaching in Indian schools in the years which followed the publication of the Meriam Survey are clearly contributing to a more rapid assimilation by the Indian children in Federal schools, of the educational and cultural patterns of the surrounding majority, which is generally agreed by both Indians and non-Indians to be a desirable development.

Another study of the work of Federal Indian schools, "Education for Better Living" by George A. Dole, which evaluates the program of practical education on the Pine Ridge Reservation since 1936, in terms of the reactions of the students who took part, will be published in 1953.

In introducing these several studies of educational work in Federal Indian schools, it may be well to quote again from Peterson's report, for his statement is as true today as it was in 1948. "The Bureau of Indian Affairs is not competing with the public school system. Wherever public schools exist, the Indian Service has taken advantage of public education and placed Indian children in public schools. Where public education has not been able to accept the responsibility of educating Indian children, the Federal schools have performed an effective job, as indicated by the findings of this survey. The data available prove that Indian education has progressed far toward its goals, which combine an understanding of and respect for the Indian tribal lore and art, with the full educational opportunities of the non-Indians."

Through critical self-examination, progress is possible.

Willard W. Beatty.

1 How Well Are Indian Children Educated? by Dr. Shailer Peterson, Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kansas. 1948.



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 14, 2006