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The Indian Child Goes To School



In the preceding chapter a comparison of the achievement of thc pupils in the studs’ was made by race-school groups. It was apparent that, in general, the white pupils in the public schools made higher scores on the tests than did any of the Indian groups. The purpose of this chapter is to discover whether the superiority of white pupils over Indian pupils was equally distributed over all the skills, tested, or whether Indian pupils did better by comparison with their white contemporaries in some skills than in others.


In order to keep the comparison as uncomplicated as possible. two groups have been selected for this purpose: white pupils in public schools and Indian pupils in Federal schools. These are the two largest groups for the entire six-area study. Figure V-I depicts this comparison. In this diagram the relative achievement of the two groups, by areas and by grades is treated for each of the six basic skills. A check mark appears wherever, in any area at any grade level, the average score of Indian pupils in Federal schools was higher than, or not significantly different from, the average score of white pupils in public schools. Because the number of Federal school Indian pupils was too small, no comparisons higher than the sixth grade were possible in the Billings Area. In the Phoenix Area there were insufficient numbers of public school white pupils in the twelfth grade to permit a comparison. .\s a result a total of 47 comparisons were possible for each skill.

The Comparison By Skills

It will be noted that, on the basis described above, reading vocabulary and spelling represent the extremes of the six skills. In reading vocabulary the Indian pupils compare favorably1 with the white pupils in only 4 of 47 possible comparisons. By contrast, the Indian pupils do as well as, if not better than, the white pupils in 29 of 4, possible comparisons in spelling.

The Indian pupils made their second best showing in arithmetic fundamentals where they stood favorably with the white pupils in 14 of 47 comparisons. The comparisons were favorable to the Indian pupils in 12 of 47 cases in reading comprehension. 10 of 47 cases in language. and in only 7 of 47 cases in arithmetic reasoning.

The Comparison By Areas

It is interesting to note that in no skill at any grade level did the Indian pupils do as well as the white pupils in the Aberdeen Area, and that they did as well in only 2 of a possible 18 comparisons in the Billings Area. On the other hand, in the Muskogee Area the Indian pupils were better than, or not different from, white pupils in 24, or 44.4 percent of 54 comparisons. The Indian pupils in the Albuquerque Area did almost as well, comparing favorably with white pupils in 22, or 40.3 percent. of 54 cases. Favorable comparisons or the Anadarko and Phoenix Areas numbered 15 of 54 and 13 of 48. respectively.

Figure V-1

Figure V-1

Inter-area comparisons, such as those made in the preceding paragraph, have been treated in Chapters III and IV and are mentioned again here only to emphasize that differences or similarities of the two racial groups in the several skills were not evenly distributed over all of the six areas.

The Comparison By Grade Levels

It is also of note that of the 282 comparisons shown in Figure V-1, 21, or 27. percent, of the 76 which are favorable to Indian pupils occurred in grade four, and 40 of the 76 were at the elementary level: grades four, five, and six. The intermediate level, grades seven, eight. and nine, shows the Indian pupils to the least advantage, only 15 of 90 compared being favorable to then. At the advanced level, grades ten, eleven, and twelve. 22 of the 84 comparisons show the Indian pupils to be higher than, or not significantly different from, the white pupils.


As has been suggested before, test data show only what is true and not necessarily why it is true. Facts concerning achievement do form a basis for consideration of the differences involved in the teaching of the several skills and of the “out-of-school” factors which may influence learning in one skill differently from that in another.

The performance of Indian pupils in reading vocabulary and in spelling provides a striking contrast. Why, when measured against white children, should the Indian pupils do so much better in spelling than in vocabulary? Many persons, when confronted with such a question. are quick to reply that apparently spelling is being “better taught.’’ Such a statement shifts the emphasis from problems of learning to methods of teaching and implies that several hundred teachers in Federal schools compare more favorably with their public school colleagues in the teaching of spelling than in the development of pupils vocabulary. Are we to suppose then, that if Federal school teachers transferred to public school jobs their white pupils would be “better taught” in spelling than in reading vocabulary Such a conclusion would seem to be absurd.

Differences in the Learning Processes

Reading Vocabulary Versus Spelling. It is undoubtedly true, however, that most, pupils, regardless of race, acquire spelling skills in a more exclusively formalized learning situation than they do word meanings. Spelling has traditionally been taught by drill methods, with lists of words being assigned, “learned,” and reviewed. While word meanings can likewise be acquired by this formal approach to learning, most children, given opportunity, add tremendously to their vocabularies through various media such as independent reading, conversation, radio, television, motion pictures. and in numerous other ways. The child for whom this “out-of-school” learning opportunity is not present, is, of course, at a serious disadvantage when being compared with a child who has such opportunity.

The Spelling Section of the California Achievement Test. At this time it might he well to consider the spelling section of the California Achievement Test itself. This section consists of thirty items at each of the three levels. In taking this test the pupil is not required to actually spell the word. Rather, he is required to identify one misspelled word out of four words presented in each item, or, if the item does not contain a misspelled word to so indicate. Obviously this is not a very direct approach to the testing of spelling. although it is a commonly accepted procedure. Whether it obtains valid results is open to question. The test method is, in fact, a concession to ease and speed of test administration and scoring.

In any case it would seem that visual imagery and form ~ play a significant part in this type of spelling test or, for that matter, in any sort of spelling test or test of word recognition. Most of us from time to time upon writing a word will say, “That just doesn’t look’ right.” Persons with a high aptitude for visualizing the form of words may do relatively well on this spelling test or in spelling generally. This may lie true even though they do not know the meaning of the word, as long as they have had an opportunity to see the word previously. Whether or not Indian children tend to possess this aptitude in a greater degree than white children is a question that awaits further study. Most persons who have worked with Indian children for a considerable period of time believe that there is among them a higher incidence of individuals who can sketch or draw accurately from memory things they have seen than is true of the general population of school children.

Arithmetic Reasoning Versus Arithmetic Fundamentals. The achievement of Indian pupils in the two arithmetic skills presents another interesting contrast. The fourteen comparisons favorable to Indian pupils in arithmetic fundamentals was second highest among the six skills, while the seven favorable comparisons in arithmetic reasoning was second from the lowest.2 How do the learning processes differ for these two skills? It can perhaps he agreed that the learning of arithmetic fundamentals or computational procedures is much more within the control of the school than is true of arithmetic reasoning. Number combinations have been traditionally taught in schools with the aid of drill procedures. Seldom does a child learn these combinations or routine arithmetic procedures in the home to the same extent as we have pointed out may happen in the case of word meanings. If this is true, then the child with the more culturally sparse home and community background is not at as much of a disadvantage, when his achievement in arithmetic fundamentals is compared with that of other children, as he may be in the case of vocabulary. What, however. of arithmetic reasoning or problem solving? Here quantitative concepts come into play as well as the relationships between factors in a problem. The grasp of such concepts and the understanding of such relationships may he greatly influenced by the child’s background of experience. For example, one of the items in the arithmetic reasoning section of the elementary battery reads, “Bob paid $2.25 for a new tire, 75 cents for a seat, and 50 cents for paint. He had $4.00 to repair his bicycle. How much did he have left?” It seems likely that the child who owns a bicycle or some other property and has had the responsibility for repairing it out of his own allowance might have an advantage in solving this problem.

It is evident, too, that the solving of “thought” problems requires some skill in reading comprehension. If the pupil’s skill in reading comprehension is low, his achievement in arithmetic reasoning may suffer to some extent as a result.

It must he pointed out, however, that the arithmetic reasoning section of the California Achievement Test includes items covering such things as Roman numerals, arithmetic symbols, and the conversion of numbers, expressed in words, into figures. Also, at the intermediate and advanced levels some items involving algebraic concepts are included and at the advanced level several of the items require a rudimentary knowledge of plane geometry. It is difficult to believe that cultural factors would place any additional handicap on Indian children in learning such material. However, a comparison of courses of study of Federal and public schools might reveal that the Indian pupils are less likely to he taught algebra and geometry than are the white pupils. This is not to say that the Federal school curriculum should contain more algebra or geometry for all pupils, but it would help to explain the relatively weak showing of the Indian pupils in mathematics reasoning.

Reading Comprehension Versus Reading Vocabulary. It is also significant that the Indian pupils did better in relation to white pupils in reading comprehension than they did in reading vocabulary. This fact may seem strange to many teachers since a knowledge of word meanings is usually considered the most important single element in comprehending what is read. The writers do not claim to know all of the reasons for the differences noted above, but it can be pointed out that knowing the meaning of a word standing by itself is quite a different thing from knowing the meaning of a word which is part of a phrase or sentence. By intelligent and skillful employment of context clues, a pupil may deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar word by noting its relationship to other words the meaning of which he does know. One outstanding teacher who has seen the data } as observed that while a pupil’s vocabulary may he small in scope because of lack of experience. he may have good recognition of the words he does know and thus be able to employ context clues quite effectively. In any case, it would seem that if the reading vocabularies of Indian children can he strengthened their reading comprehension will surely he improved.

The Importance of Thinking About the Problem. It should not be inferred that the writers have attempted in the foregoing paragraphs to make a exhaustive analysis of the factors which caused differences in the achievement of Indian and white pupils as among the several skills. Each teacher will have some ideas of her own on this point and teacher groups may explore the problem together with great profit. The writers have attempted here to make some suggestions which m~ y stimulate the thinking of teachers and prompt them to further investigation, It is clear that differences do exist and it cart scarcely he doubted that they are important in the education of Indian children.

1 The term “favorably” is used to indicate that the average score of Indian pupils was higher than, or not significantly lower than, the average score of the white pupils with whom they were being compared.

2 While it is true that difference between these two skills does not meet the requirement for “statistical significance,” it approaches very nearly.



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Last modified August 17, 2006