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 Indian Child Goes To School



This is a report on Indian school children; their school achievement, and some of the cultural and environmental factors related to it. Herein Indian children are studied by comparison with their white schoolmates and neighbors. Each succeeding year finds a greater proportion of Indian children attending the public schools of the States in which they reside, as arrangements are concluded between the Federal government and the several States and local school districts.

There are probably few dissenters from the general policy behind this trend. The education of children has traditionally been a function of State and local governmental unit in America. And most persons would agree in principle that the children of Indian American citizens should have the opportunity of attending the public schools.

A large number of Indian children (approximately 10,500 in 1956) chose to attend schools maintained by the various religious denominations. This, too, is their established American right. From the earliest days the mission schools have made a signal contribution to the education of Indian youth.

It would be idle and less than honest, however, to pretend that the transition from Federal to State and local responsibility is being, or can be, brought about without certain strains and tensions. Some of these revolve around the question of the financial support of schools. Some are concerned with the matter of timing the transfer of Indian pupils to public schools; opinions vary from those who would effect the transfer, completely and immediately, to those who would postpone it indefinitely. Sometimes disagreements arise as to which type of school is doing the “better job.” Usually such controversies "generate more heat than light." Amidst this welter of conflicting opinion, what of the Indian child himself? What are the facts about his school achievement, particularly as compared with that of his white neighbors? What are some of the facts about his language background, his age in relation to his grade, his attendance, his friends, and his aspiration for further schooling? What difference does it make in his learning whether he lives on a reservation rather than off, or in a town rather than in the country?

It is the earnest hope of the writers that this report will help to put the problem in perspective—will substitute fact for fancy, and lead to a sounder understanding of the influences which affect the learning of Indian boys and girls.


During the past several decides teachers have become more and more aware of the differences between individual children and have tried to adjust their teaching to accommodate these differences. Professional educators have had less occasion, however, to understand the cultural differences which characterize whole groups of pupils and affect their learning in school. Often, in local school systems, it has seemed impolitic to raise such questions for fear of being misunderstood. The present study admits and discusses such cultural differences frankly; no good purpose is likely to be served by pretending that they do not exist. The fact that they do exist does not necessarily reflect discredit on anyone. But if such cultural differences adversely affect learning we need to know what they are and how large they are so that we can ameliorate the effects or at least understand them.


This study came about through the joint efforts of a great many people. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the University of Kansas guided the study but it was made possible only by the generous and interested help of hundreds of workers in public and mission, as well as Federal schools.


Information was gathered on a total of 23,608 pupils. Fifty-eight percent of these pupils were Indian and forty-two percent of them were white. Of the Indian pupils, 8,564 or 62.6 percent were attending Federal schools; 3,144 or 23 percent were attending public schools; and 1,978 or 14.5 percent were attending mission schools. Of the white pupils, 9,353 or 94.3 percent were attending public schools. A scattered few were attending mission schools or community schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and are not treated in this study.


The children lived or went to school in the following States: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Mississippi, arid Kansas. The great majority of them attended schools in the communities in which they lived, but a few of them who attended boarding schools lived in other communities or even other States. They were virtually all rural children in that the study was confined generally to communities of 2,500 population or less, except for a few of the non-reservation boarding schools. Even in these schools the great majority of the pupils came from rural homes. The public schools which participated were located close by the Federal and mission day schools and reservation boarding schools and enrolled a considerable number of Indian pupils as well as white pupils.


For purposes of making comparisons, the pupils were grouped at various times in the following ways:

(a) By administrative areas of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These areas were: Albuquerque (New Mexico and Colorado); Phoenix (Arizona); Aberdeen (North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska); Billings (Montana and Wyoming); Muskogee (Eastern Oklahoma and Mississippi); Anadarko (Western Oklahoma and Kansas).

(b) By school grades. All pupils in grades four through twelve were included.

(c) By race and type of school attended. Thus, there were four such groups: white pupils in public schools; Indian pupils in Federal schools; Indian pupils in public schools; and Indian pupils in mission schools.

(d) In relation to certain cultural and environmental factors as will appear later.


Most of the tribes represented are mentioned in Chapter Ill. There were no Navajo or Hopi included since these tribes were under the jurisdiction of another area office. A list of the schools that participated is shown in Appendix A. In all there were 319 of them and they are shown by administrative types.


The pupils were all given the complete battery of the California Achievement Tests. This battery measures achievement or learning in what are commonly called the basic skills: reading vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic reasoning, arithmetic fundamentals, mechanics of English and grammar, and spelling; when put together these yield a total score.

It must be made clear that limiting the testing to such highly academic areas of learning does not imply a reaction or retreat by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from its long established conviction that Indian children need to be taught functional, social, and vocational skills—far from it. The teaching of these latter skills continues without loss of emphasis in the schools operated by the Bureau. But the basic skill subjects have always been taught in Bureau schools also. It was recognized in the present study that these basic skills are the fundamental tools which pupils must have in order to acquire most other leanings satisfactorily. Most important of all, the basic skill subjects represented an area of similarity and agreement among the three administrative types of schools; all taught them and would agree that they were indispensable.

It is clear, then, that when we speak of school achievement we are referring to the basic skills mentioned—nothing more. And we are not implying that these skills are more important than other educational goals that the schools may have set—that is a matter of educational philosophy into which we will not enter. We simply assume that these skills do represent highly important goals for all the schools concerned.


It was expected that differences in achievement would occur among groups of pupils of different races attending different types of schools. This proved to be true as we shall see presently. It may be more surprising to many readers to learn that achievement among the several areas differed widely and significantly, even though the pupils of both races and all three types of schools were grouped together in each of the areas.

As is described in Chapter III, a general hierarchy or order of achievement of the areas was established. This hierarchy proved to be as follows: 1) Anadarko. 2) Billings. 3) Aberdeen. 4) Muskogee. 5) Albuquerque. 6) Phoenix. Except as between Anadarko and Billings, all the differences were statistically significant. Thus, with the exception mentioned above, the hierarchy is quite clear-cut.

One can scarcely observe such sectional differences without becoming curious as to the reasons that lie behind them; and the reasons are indeed hard to define. It is easy enough to say that these area groups differed from each other culturally. It can be shown that a much greater infusion of white blood has occurred among Indian groups in some areas than in others, and that more English is spoken by the Indians of some areas than by those of others. But how, for example, does one explain the fact that the white pupils tested in the Dakotas achieved higher at every grade level than the white pupils tested in eastern Oklahoma? An insignificant proportion of either group spoke any language other than English. Without any desire to wound local or sectional pride, it seems fair to surmise that some subtle socio-economic or cultural influences are operating here to cause such differences. It must be quickly and forcefully pointed out that the findings of this study do not purport to be characteristic of all the pupils of an area, but rather of the rural pupils tested in the vicinities where the Federal government operates Indian schools.

The differences in average level of achievement among the areas had been noticed since the beginning of the testing program in 1951 and led to the decision to establish a separate set of norms for each area.

It had also been observed in the first areas tested that, whereas the mean scores of the area groups were close to the published norms of the California Achievement Tests at grades four and five, they tended to fall progressively farther below the “national” norms as the higher grades were reached. This phenomenon has characterized the scores of every area group in the study. It has been particularly true of the Indian groups but has tended to be true of most of the white groups as well. Numerous explanations of this phenomenon have been offered by teachers whose opinions have been solicited. It has been suggested that because many Federal schools stress vocational training in the upper grades, instruction in the basic skills is slighted. This, if true, would not explain why the same thing tends to happen to most of the mission school Indian groups and to white public school pupils, particularly in the Albuquerque and Muskogee Areas. It has even been claimed that teaching is generally of a better quality in the elementary grades than at the intermediate and high school levels. Again, if this were so, there is no evidence that it is any more true of the schools participating in this study than of those upon whose pupils the “national” norms were based.

It has been observed that in the higher grades it becomes increasingly difficult to motivate poorly acculturated pupils to an academic type of study. The immediate needs of their lives do not seem to require it and it is difficult for them to envision a long-range need that might or could occur later in life and in a different socio-economic setting. Herein may lie an answer for those persons who marvel that so few Indian young people, relatively, enter the professions.

One astute and thoughtful teacher has commented that in the elementary grades nearly all learning experiences center around life experiences which most children hold in common—home, family, the community, and the natural things which surround them. As learning moves into more abstract areas or experiences farther removed from the daily life of the child, the underacculturated home and community contributes less and less help to the learning process.

Whenever one makes comparisons between groups in terms of the “average,” he is faced with the ever-present facts of “range” and of “overlap” and must not ignore them. Within each of the area groups there was a large range of achievement, with some individuals in even the lowest achieving area making higher scores than some of the pupils in the highest achieving area. Furthermore this range of achievement becomes greater the higher we go into the grades. Twelfth-grade pupils, as a whole, are less similar in achievement than are fourth-grade pupils.


As was indicated earlier in this chapter, there were differences in average achievement among groups of pupils of different races attending different types of schools. These groups were then arranged into a hierarchy or order of achievement as was done for the area groups. The following clear-cut general hierarchy emerged:

1. White pupils in public schools

2. Indian pupils in public schools

3. Indian pupils in Federal schools

4. Indian pupils in mission schools

There were two exceptions to this order. In the Aberdeen Area the mission school Indian pupils were tied with the public school Indian pupils for the second and third positions; in the Albuquerque Area the Federal school Indian pupils were in the second position; and the public school Indian pupils and the mission school Indian pupils were tied for the third and fourth positions. There were no mission school pupils in the Anadarko and Muskogee Areas.

There is a popular off-hand assumption that the quality of a school can be determined by the amount its pupils learn in a given period of time, by comparison with other pupils and other schools. This assumption is both persistent and pervasive. It is indulged in not only by the lay public but also by teachers who should know better. It is as though all pupils were considered to be equally blank and equally impressionable sheets of paper which are sent to school and upon which no one is ever permitted to mark except the school itself. If such were the case, the school should indeed be held entirely accountable for the amount and rate at which pupils learn, but the facts are something quite different. The facts are that children do not learn everything they know in school, although some are far more dependent upon the school than are others; they do not all start even in point of ability, or interest, or experience, or health; and they certainly do not remain even throughout their school careers in terms of learning advantages outside the school. Most persons know, of course, that this is true of individual pupils, but they forget sometimes that whole groups of pupils may be characterized by such differences.

It is not to be wondered at, then, that the white pupils in the study, as a group, consistently made higher scores than Indian pupils, considering the great cultural advantage they enjoyed with respect to such things as language, motivation, and out-of-school learning opportunities. Nor is it surprising that the Indian pupils who attended public schools achieved better on the average than Indian pupils who attended Federal and mission schools since culturally they were more advanced, as later evidence will reveal.

There is no intent, of course, to try to minimize the school’s role in the educative process. The school is the instrument that the community employs to give formal shape and direction to the education of its children. But it cannot and must not get too far out of joint with the community it serves and from which it receives its support. The school is a reflection of the community even while it seeks to lift the community gradually to a higher level. Its curriculum and the level of difficulty of its instructional program must suit the needs of the people it serves. The private preparatory schools of the East which specialize in preparing the students for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, fine as they are, would not work on the Papago Reservation, for example, or in most of the strictly rural communities of America.

For these reasons it is true that schools differ in “quality” but communities usually get from their schools what they want and are willing or able to pay for. In the light of this, it behooves the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take a close look at each public school to which it may be contemplating the transfer of pupils, to be sure that the school is prepared to offer the Indian pupil what he needs and at a level at which he can function successfully.


We have seen that, on the average, the white pupils in the study achieved better on the tests than did the Indian pupils. The further question then arises of whether this superiority was equal for each of the several skills or whether the Indian pupils did better, by comparison with white pupils, on some skills than on others. This question is explored and discussed in Chapter V. Specifically the comparison was made between Indian pupils in Federal schools, and white pupils in public schools, these being the two largest race-school groups.

It was found that the Indian pupils compared best in spelling, and least well in reading vocabulary. There was a wide difference between these two extremes, with the comparative achievement of the Indian pupils in spelling being significantly higher than for any of the other five skills. In reading vocabulary they were significantly lower than in reading comprehension, arithmetic fundamentals, and spelling.

By comparison, the Indian pupils were second highest in arithmetic fundamentals and second lowest in arithmetic reasoning. While the difference in their comparative standing on these two skills does not meet the requirement for “statistical” significance, it approaches it nearly enough to justify some comment.

It seems fair to point out that spelling and computational skills in arithmetic are probably learned, by most children, largely within the school and by a rote method. Word meanings, on the other hand, may be acquired by pupils in a wide variety of learning situations, outside the school as well as in. In other words, the pupil who is culturally disadvantaged in point of language or experience may suffer less by comparison with other pupils in the learning of skills over which the school has the greater control. Furthermore, in the particular spelling test under discussion, the pupil is asked to identify one misspelled word out of four words presented in each item. It is possible, although not proved, that a large percentage of Indian children have high aptitude for visualizing the form of words. If this is true they might be able to identify the misspelling of a word which they had previously seen spelled correctly, even though they did not know its meaning.

In addition, it was observed that the Indian pupils compared more favorably with white pupils in the elementary grades, and particularly in grade four, than in the junior and

senior high school grades. It was also noted that they compared most favorably with white pupils in the Muskogee and Albuquerque Areas and least well in the Aberdeen and Billings Areas.


The hierarchy of achievement by race-school groups has already been set forth. It has been suggested that this hierarchy is a result of basic cultural differences between the groups. What data can be adduced to support such an assumption? Investigation of the data reveals an amazingly consistent, relationship between the degree of Indian blood and pre-school language on the one hand and level of achievement on the other. With only one notable exception, the smaller the amount of Indian blood in a group and the greater the amount of English spoken prior to school entrance, the higher the group achieved. Stating it another way, the higher achieving race-school groups contained fewer full-blood pupils and more pupils who spoke only English, or at least a combination of English and some other language, prior to school entrance. The single exception was in the Albuquerque Area where the Indian pupils in Federal schools, despite the fact that a higher percentage of them were full-bloods and fewer of them spoke English before starting to school, achieved higher as a group than the Indian pupils in public school. In the Aberdeen Area, the Indian pupils in Federal schools achieved lower, as a group, than the Indian pupils in mission schools; however, consistent with the general rule, more of them were full-bloods and fewer of them spoke English, pre-school.

The writers do not believe that blood quantum and pre-school language, of and by themselves, are strong determiners of achievement. They do believe that these characteristics are two of the best indices of the degree of acculturation of a pupil and that the stage of acculturation that a pupil and his family have reached has a powerful influence upon his school achievement. In Chapter VI the writers have been at some pains to describe what they mean by “acculturation.”

It is noteworthy that, by and large, the Federal schools now remaining, together with the mission schools, are enrolling the least acculturated Indian pupils. This, no doubt, is as it should be. Special Federal schools can be justified only where educational opportunity for Indian pupils would otherwise be lacking or where Indian pupils, because they are disadvantaged, need special curricula, methods, and materials. Mission schools, likewise, have in most areas traditionally sought out pupils who stood in the greatest need of help. It would be manifestly unfair, however, to expect pupils who are at a relatively lower cultural level to achieve as well as those who enjoy much greater cultural advantages.


Indian pupils are, on the average, older for their grade than white pupils. Again, there are differences among the several Indian groups. Indian pupils in Federal schools were, on the average, slightly more than one year older than White pupils in the same grade. Indian pupils in public schools averaged about six months older than their white classmates, while Indian pupils in mission schools were, in general, nearly a year older than white pupils of the same grade in the public schools.

The greatest over-ageness of Indian pupils in Federal schools occurred in the Phoenix and Muskogee Areas and the least in the Albuquerque Area. For Indian pupils in public schools it was greatest in the Aberdeen Area and least in the Anadarko Area. Indian mission school pupils were most over-age in the Phoenix Area and least so in the Aberdeen and Albuquerque Area.

It seems probable that the over-ageness of Indian pupils is accounted for not only by late school entrance, but also by the necessity for a beginning year for many of them in which basic social and conversational English skills are taught, and by the fact of irregularity of attendance.


In general, the range of ages in a given grade was greatest for Indian pupils in Federal schools and least for white pupils in public schools. In general, too, the range of ages within a grade, regardless of the race-school group, lessened from grade four through grade twelve. It is believed that this is occasioned by the dropping out of school of over-age pupils. This belief, so far as it applies to Indian pupils, is supported by the fact that except in the Albuquerque and Phoenix Areas, Indian and white pupils were more nearly the same age in grades eleven and twelve than was true for the earlier grades.

For the most part, the concentration of ages of white pupils in any given grade was in one or two years, whereas the concentration of ages of Indian pupils in Federal schools in a grade was usually in three or four different years.

Interestingly the preponderance of pupils, regardless of race-school groupings, who were over-age for their grade were boys and the majority of pupils who were under-age for their grade were girls.


There is impressive evidence that on the average pupils who are over-age for their grade do not achieve nearly as well in the basic skill subjects as do those who are at-age or under-age. It must be noted, however, that many pupils who are classified as under-age in this study would not be considered so in most of the nation's schools due to the higher average of pupils in this study. It is also felt that over-ageness in itself is not the only contributor to the low achievement of over-age pupils, but that the same social, economic, and cultural factors which tended to make them over-age in the first place continue to operate against their learning.


For a number of reasons set forth in Chapter VI, the present study does not lend itself well to an investigation of the “holding power” of the school. Nevertheless, there are clear indications from the data that Indian pupils, the country over, are not staying in school to the completion of their high school education in as large proportions as do white children. This is cause for genuine concern and indicates that some intensive studies of the school “drop-out” of Indian pupils should be made with a view to determining the causes, if possible, and seeking remedies for the situation.


The data yield strong evidence that, on the average, Indian pupils who live off an Indian reservation achieve better than those who live on one. Likewise, Indian pupils who live in a town achieve somewhat better, on the average, than those who live in the country.


The findings concerning choice of friends by Indian and white pupils are of more than ordinary interest and importance. Each pupil was asked to indicate whether his friends were “all or mostly Indian” or “all or mostly white.” Since only in the public schools did both Indian and white pupils attend in any considerable numbers, special importance attaches to the responses of the public school pupils.

Inasmuch as white pupils in the public schools greatly outnumbered their Indian schoolmates in most areas, it is not surprising that the great preponderance of white pupils said that most of their friends were white boys and girls.

What is surprising, to the investigators at least, is that in the Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Aberdeen Areas, although they had many more white schoolmates to choose from, a great majority of the Indian public school pupils said that all or most of their friends were Indian.

The Billings Area presents an especially revealing situation. Here Indian and white pupils in the public schools tested were in almost equal numbers. And yet more than 80 percent of both Indian and white pupils indicated that they were choosing all or most of their friends from their own race.

Only in the Oklahoma Areas was the usual pattern departed from. In the Muskogee and Anadarko Areas a substantial proportion, and in many grades a majority, of the Indian pupils indicated that most of their friends were white.

It seems clear that mere attendance of the children of two races in the same school does not necessarily lead, immediately at least, to their choosing their friends without regard to race.


Because of the small number of Indian pupils claiming all or mostly white friends, little success was had in comparing achievement on the basis of choice of friends. In the few cases where comparisons were possible, no significant differences in achievement were found between groups of Indian pupils claiming that most of their friends were white and those who said that most of their friends were Indian. It must be pointed out that this does not disprove the assumption that Indian pupils may learn letter if they attend school with white pupils. Presumably one may learn from a schoolmate or associate even though he does not consider him a close friend.


The evidence that Indian pupils achieve better if they attend a school composed mostly of white pupils is far from convincing. Since Federal and mission schools enroll few, if any, white pupils, this phase of the investigation was confined to public schools. As a result of this and other factors, it was possible to make only a small number of comparisons. There may be a slight indication that Indian pupils attending a school composed mostly of white pupils, or where the enrollment is at least half white, achieve better than those attending a school composed mostly of Indian pupils, but the data are by no means conclusive.


As would be expected, pupils who attended school regularly tended to achieve better than those who were irregular in their attendance. The investigation of this question was confined to the day schools of the Aberdeen Area where factors of distance, severe weather, and seasonal employment combine to make the attendance problem especially acute. It may be surprising to some that the evidence is no more overwhelming than it is. It should be remembered that regularity of attendance is only one factor that influences achievement. There is no reason to doubt that if all other variables could be held constant pupils who attend school regularly would achieve consistently higher than those who do not.

Of the pupils studied, the greatest absence was among Indian pupils attending Federal schools, the next greatest among Indian pupils attending public schools, and the least

among white pupils attending public schools. Since nearly all of the mission schools in the Aberdeen Area are of the boarding type, no mission school pupils were studied. Once again, the cultural differences existing among the various race-school groups must be pointed out.


There is striking evidence that the higher achieving pupils expect to go farther in school than do the low achievers. Assuming that a cause and effect relationship exists, we cannot tell from the data whether high achievers expect to go farther in school because they learn well, or whether they learn well because they are motivated by higher aspiration. Perhaps each contributes something to the result.

Several other findings are worthy of special mention. The great preponderance of even fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade pupils, regardless of area or race-school group, expected to get at least some high school training. In general, more of the pupils of both races in the Oklahoma areas expected to get some sort of post-high school training than was true for the other areas. There was a slight, although not a consistent, tendency for a greater proportion of white pupils than Indian in the elementary and intermediate grades to aspire to education beyond high school. This proportion was likely to reverse itself in the eleventh and twelfth grades, however.

Especially interesting is the fact that even at the fourth-grade level the relationship between educational aspiration and achievement had begun to manifest itself.


Chapter VII is devoted to a description of suggested ways of using achievement test results for the improvement of instruction and pupil guidance at the classroom level. It is not feasible to attempt to summarize it here. The chapter is intended to be used as a kind of handbook or guide by teachers and supervisors.


Chapter VIII is concerned with a description of the proper use of test results obtained with the pre-college and pre-commercial test batteries, with a view to predicting probable success or failure in post-high school academic study. Again, it is not practicable to summarize it in this chapter. Chapter VIII was prepared for use by those persons who must assume responsibility for making decisions concerning the granting of educational loans or grants in aid, or admission to certain courses of study.


A summary chapter in its very nature has limitations. There is a tendency to over-simplify findings and to state them too categorically. It is hoped that the serious reader will find time to go to the several chapters for more precise information concerning the questions investigated.



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