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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide


Chapter One


The Indian Service-wide Testing Project, reported in this monograph, had two main purposes: 1) to examine the progress and achievement that the Indian students had mode in various types of educational situations; 2) to examine those factors which were thought to be related to the student’s educational development and to uncover any other factors which might prove to be related.

This first chapter becomes, in a sense, a summary of the monograph, for it answers with information gathered from this study many of the questions commonly raised by those interested in Indian education. Moreover, this chapter provides some of the background essential to an understanding of the study and the information that it has revealed.

The following chapters describe in detail the methods by which the test battery was developed, administered and interpreted.

For approximately twelve years, there has been a definite and expressed philosophy directing the program of education in the schools of the United States Indian Service. This is summarized in the introductory statement of the Civil Service examination prepared for the Indian Service teachers. It reads as follows:

“ The primary objectives of Indian schools are: To give students an understanding and appreciation of their own tribal lore, art, music, and community organization; to teach students through their own participation in school and community government to become constructive citizens of their communities; to aid students in analyzing the economic resources of their reservation and in planning more effective ways of utilizing these resources for the improvement of standards of living; to teach, through actual demonstration, intelligent conservation of natural resources; to give students firsthand experience in livestock management, use of native materials in housing and clothing, in subsistence gardening, cooperative marketing, farm mechanics, and whatever other vocational skills are needed to earn a livelihood in the region; to develop better health habits, improve sanitation, and higher standards of diet with a view to prevention of trachoma, tuberculosis, and infant diseases; to give students an understanding of the social and economic world immediately about them and to aid them in achieving some mastery over their environment; and to serve as a community center in meeting the social and economic needs of the community.”

Obviously this philosophy has required attention to training Indian children so that they may be able to make a living from the natural resources of their home environment, as well as to make a living away from their reservation. This educational program has not resulted in neglecting the usual type of academic instruction which includes reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, and science. Instead, to these academic subjects has been added emphasis on those skills needed to make the best use of the resources of the environment. These extra skills have included an understanding of desirable health practices, domestic living, and practical training in one or more of a variety of vocational fields, each of which is important not only on the reservation but away from the reservation in both rural and urban localities.

It is evident that education is as important in the life of an Indian as it is in the life of a non-Indian. Many Indian children do not come to school the first day possessing a familiarity with the English language or with much of the background experience which is common to the lives and environment of most white children. Experiences and skills that are taken for granted by the teachers of white children in the kindergarten or first grade cannot be taken for granted by the teachers of Indian children.

One out of every three children from the hills of eastern Oklahoma or from the Dakota Sioux reservations comes with an extremely limited English vocabulary, being accustomed to doing most of his speaking and thinking in his native Indian Language. In the Papago country of southern Arizona and throughout the Navaho reservation, the great majority of children who enroll in the federal schools are unable to understand English at all when they enter school. The teachers of such children are therefore confronted with students who have been speaking and thinking in only their native tongue. Among the Pueblos, still another problem presents itself, for here many of the children are trilingual, speaking a little Spanish and a little English mixed with a large proportion of Indian dialect.

This problem of having to teach the student English before he can be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography is peculiar to the Indian Service. Few public schools, other than those located on the Mexican border, have a similar problem. In most public schools, it is the exception if teachers are confronted with a non-English-speaking child. In the Indian Service, some schools rarely have beginning students who know English, and in almost all schools the language problem is ever present.

In federal schools the curricula and teaching methods are necessarily different from those employed in most public schools because of the differences which exist between beginning Indian children and white children. Teachers who have had their training and practice teaching in the environment of the average public school find the problems of the Indian school to be quite different. In-service training programs have been necessary to prepare the new teachers for this new kind of experience. Special summer school training and specially prepared materials have been used to acquaint new teachers with the problems which are not a part of most methodology textbooks.

Those who are uninformed or misinformed about the problems of Indian education are often critical when they learn that Navaho youngsters are a year or two behind the grade level expected of white children of the same age. Those who find Indian Service schools devoting a large part of the first year to the acquisition of a useful and functional English vocabulary, consider it strange that the teaching of reading is usually delayed to the second year. Similarly, new Indian Service teachers coming from the public schools at first wonder why it is that the Indian Service does not advocate close adherence to those courses of study commonly accepted and advocated for the public schools of the states in which the Indian Service operates. These new teachers first fear that without these “accepted” courses of study, their students cannot possibly make satisfactory progress.

Those who have directed the Indian schools have watched the results of their specially adapted program of teaching, and have made changes and modifications as they seemed desirable. In the past, however, there has not been a planned evaluation program for obtaining an aver-all picture of Indian education through the years. The absence of such information is particularly notable now that data are being gathered about the present status of the educational program. A point of reference for comparison purposes would now be very useful. In 1944, the Director of Indian Education and his associates requested the cooperation of the Department of Education of the University of Chicago, in planning and administering a service-wide evaluation in an endeavor to answer numerous questions which have arisen over the years. The details of this cooperative effort will be described in the following chapters of this monograph. The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to reporting the results of three years of a carefully conducted evaluation program by listing the questions that have been asked and giving the answers that have so for been obtained.

1. Has there been any progress in Indian education since the report in 1928 of the Meriam Survey?

Yes. While the facts reported at that time on academic achievement were very meager and limited, there is now some basis for comparison. Marked progress has been made. Both the total number of students taking advantage of education as well as the reduction in percentage of retarded students show notable improvements. These can be shown by the following tabulation:

Status of Children in Indian Schools

Children ahead of their expected grade…………
Children at normal grade………
Children retarded 1 year………
Children retarded 2 years………
Children retarded 3 years………
Children retarded 4 years………
Children retarded 5 years………
Children retarded 6 to 8 years…

TOTAL number studied in detail………………


Total, including preprimary and specials…………………



In 1928 only 6% of the students were in the grade in which one would expect them to be on the basis of age, whereas in 1946 this percentage was 36% or six times as great. In 1928, about four-fifths of the students were more than one year retarded, whereas in 1946, about two-thirds of them fell into the category of favorable grade placement, i. e., ranging from advanced to no more than one year of retardation. This information is even more meaningful when one considers that with the increased numbers of students studied in detail has come a more representative cross section, thereby including a greater proportion of students for whom the acquisition of an education is a relatively difficult task. Moreover, these data are distorted, too, by the fact that the Navaho reservation (where there are fifteen thousand children between the ages of 6 and 18 for whom no schools are available) alone contributes, each year enough over-age beginners to account for much of the over-ageness in the preceding table.

The increase in opportunities for an Indian child to obtain a high school education is significant, for while only one federal school offered instruction through the twelfth grade in 1924, there were twelve high schools in 1934, and thirty-seven in 1944.

2. When compared on the basis of standardized subject matter tests, is there any difference in educational accomplishment between the Indian children in the non-reservation and reservation boarding schools, mission boarding schools, Indian day schools, and public schools?

Yes. As one would expect, not all of these differences are large enough to be considered significant, but the median scores on the arithmetic, reading and language test show that Indian children attending public schools with white children do better than the Indian children in the other schools. The accomplishment of Indian children in the other schools show those in the non-reservation schools to be the next best, with the mission, reservation, and federal day schools following in that order.

It should also be pointed out that no single type of school consistently demonstrated the highest quality of achievement in all regions, thereby indicating that other factors may be of equal or greater importance than the type of school. Most of the differences between the achievement of students in the different regions were relatively large, too large to have occurred by chance.

The children enrolled in Federal Indian schools in certain regions may not be a representative sample of the total Indian student population within the area. For example, in an area where most of the Indian children attend public schools, the population of Indian schools in the area is probably neither comparable to that of the public schools within the area nor to the population in Indian schools in other areas. In other words, because there are many factors influencing the performance of the various student groups these multiple factors must be considered when drawing conclusions about differences in performance.

3. Is there any difference between the performance of Indian and non-Indian children in the rural public schools?

Yes. There is a slight difference in favor of the Indian children on some tests, and a slight difference in favor of the non-Indian children on other tests. This is another instance in which neither group is consistently superior. In this case, too, one must recognize that the performance of the Indian children has undoubtedly been influenced by their association with the whites. The group of Indian children enrolled in these schools is probably not representative of the entire group of Indian children in that particular region. Therefore differences in favor of Indian children in public schools over those enrolled in Federal schools should not automatically be attributed to the difference in school administration. These differences could be due to the different degree with which these Indian students associate with whites.

It should be explained that in most instances the performance of the rural students, including both Indian and white, did not measure up to the national norms, which are usually based upon the performance of urban children. This in itself is not an indictment of rural schools but merely evidence of different aims and emphasis between urban and non-urban schools.

4. Is there any difference in the relative performances of Indian pupils at the different grade levels?

Yes. The fourth grade group made consistently better scores in comparison to standardized norms and in comparison to public school non-Indians, than Indian pupils in the upper grades.

In the case of general reading vocabulary, the fourth grade students in the Federal schools of some areas demonstrated as high achievement as the students in both urban and non-urban public schools and in no area is the median value more than one year below that of the urban public schools. This is particularly significant for it demonstrates the rapid progress and development of the Indian children, many of whom did not speak or know English on entering school.

The relatively high achievement of the Indian students in arithmetic is also particularly significant because arithmetical concepts and ideas are more foreign to Indians than to many others. Because Indian culture has not found the need for number manipulations to be of much importance, the high achievement of Indian children in this subject must be attributed to their formal educational program.

5. Is there any evidence that Indian children early reach a learning plateau?

No. On the contrary there is evidence that between the 4th and the 8th grades and again between the 8th and the 12th grades, the Indian students make large gains in all subject areas tested. Gains at the higher grade levels for both Indian and non-Indian children and in both Federal and public schools, indicate the absence of any so-called learning plateau prior to this higher grade level.

6. Is there a difference between the students in the lower grades and those in the higher grades?

Yes. Apparently, those in the lower grades are achieving higher standards than the students in those same grades four or five years ago. During this four-year period, a group of students, constituting what may be termed a “new generation of students” has come onto the educational scene. Many of these students come from homes of parents who have had an education and are anxious to have their children avail themselves of educational opportunity. Comments by teachers all indicate these younger students to be better and some teachers believe the difference between two classes one year apart to be very marked. It is also probable that the more systematically organized program of instruction, keyed to Indian needs, accounts in large part for this clear-cut superiority.

7. Do the Navaho children show that they have been given educational opportunities?

Yes. Even the fourth grade students, all of whom had marked language difficulties to overcome make commendable scores in several subject areas. In a subject such as arithmetic computation they equal many other groups and exceed one other. In no instance are they themselves bettered by a whole grade level by any other Indian group.

8. Is there any evidence that the organization and administration of a school by public school authorities is, by itself, conducive to high pupil achievement.

No. There are high and low achieving students in both Federal and public schools. As the answers to other questions in this chapter indicate, there is no single, measurable factor responsible for either high or low accomplishment. If one must pick the factor or factors seemingly most responsible, he would include such student factors as his skill in the use of the English language, his opportunity to associate with whites, and the will to get an education as reflected by his purpose in life and the degree to which his parents had been helped by education. To the extent that the public school offers an opportunity for the Indian to associate with whites, it renders a valuable service by setting up a desirable learning situation. This situation is incidental to the public school and not the result of its organization and administration. Where no white children attend the public school no particular advantage would result to the Indian child.

9. What factors affect the academic achievement of the Indian students?

There are a number of factors, and the effect of each will be summarized separately.

a. Cultural background. Familiarity with the non-Indian culture of the United States is naturally found among those Indian children who live in homes where one or more members of the family possess that background. In families in which one parent is non-Indian, the familiarity with non-Indian culture is greater than in those in which both parents are Indian. When the degree of Indian blood is less than half, it is evident that for several generations the home has included more than one person of non-Indian heritage.

There is a marked difference between the proportion of full-blooded Indian students enrolled in the different types of schools. For example, about 73% of those enrolled in the lower elementary grades of the reservation boarding and day schools are full-bloods. Mixed bloods remain in school longer, however. The proportion of full-bloods drops 63% at the- 8th grade level and to 44% in the day high schools and to 34% in the boarding high schools. Only 50% of the mission school enrollment is full-blood, while 35% to 49% of the non-reservation school enrollment is full-blood. This ratio is in marked contrast to the rural public schools tested, in which there were only 25% full-bloods in the elementary grades and only 9% in the twelfth grade. With differences so large between the cultural background of the students in the various schools, it is easy to understand that a great proportion of the differences observed in the test performance might reasonably be attributed to cultural background. This is particularly true for those standardized tests in which the non-Indian cultural background is reflected in the test items. When one also considers that more than 94% of the Indian children in the Southwest federal schools are full-bloods living among Indians and having few contacts with non-Indians, it is easy to understand why their achievement on many of the standardized tests is comparatively low. Including the scores from southwestern day schools (which enroll a high percentage of full-bloods and have a relatively low achievement) with scores from the same types of schools in all other areas, tends to affect the average scores ascribed to that particular school type.

The schools enrolling the greater proportion of full-bloods report that these children are less responsive to test material based on non-Indian culture than are the children who are exposed to this culture in their homes as well as in school.

b. Education of parents. The more education Indian parents have had, the more anxious they are for their children to have the advantages of an education. Their children do better from an academic standpoint, they stay in school a greater number of years, and they are more likely to be graduated from high school and seek advanced education. Where the grandparents also have been educated, the likelihood is increased that the pupil will do well and stay in school longer.

c. Language spoken in the home. Fifty-six percent of the 4th grade children in day schools come from homes in which only an Indian language is spoken; whereas 79% of the Indian children in public schools come from homes in which only English is spoken. In mission and non-reservation federal schools, 56% and 58% of the children come from homes in which only English is spoken. Therefore the non-English languages spoken in the home could account for some of the relatively low achievement.

d. Home stability. About 70% of the children attending reservation schools and 82% of those attending mission schools come from homes which have both parents while only 33% of the children in non-reservation schools come from such homes. The schools of the southwest have few students from broken homes. Therefore some schools with high achievement and some with low have children coming from stable, unbroken homes. It would appear that while home stability may be an important factor, there are other factors of equal or greater importance.

e. Variety of schools attended. Contrary to the general assumption that shifting from school to school is detrimental to school success, there is no evidence that transfer is a serious handicap to achievement in Indian schools. In fact, some of the information would seem to indicate that the more schools a student attends, the better his score is likely to be. It is probably not the transfer that improves the score but perhaps the fact that the abler students have occasion to transfer most often. The very organization of the Federal school program necessitates some transfer. Most day schools operate only through the 6th or 8th grade; elementary boarding schools stop at the 8th or 9th grade. Therefore many pupils seeking high school education must transfer at least once. These are naturally the more ambitious pupils. In any event it certainly appears that transfer in itself is not detrimental. Therefore, it does not prove to be a problem.

f. Regularity of attendance. As one would expect, the highest achievement is made by the students who attend school regularly.

10. Does the emphasis given to the use of resources, home, economics, health education, and the like in the Indian schools produce a familiarity with these subjects equal to or greater than that acquired by the average non-Indian child in the rural areas.

a. No, not in the study of resources. There is evidence that teaching the use and application of resources should be emphasized even more than is now done, for the rural non-Indian children appear to learn as much about natural resources from their out-of-school experiences as the Indian children do from the teaching program designed to emphasize-them. The Indian students in public school did not do as well as their white classmates on the resources test, but they dial somewhat better than the Indians in the Indian schools: As only 25% of the Indian children in public schools are full-bloods, it is clear that one or more of the home-folks are non-Indian and probably possess the same knowledge and attitudes toward resources use as possessed by the white population in the area. The children undoubtedly also gain many ideas from their associations with non-Indian schoolmates and neighbors.

b. Yes, for home economics. In the home economics tests, the scores of Indian school students were sufficiently high to indicate that the Indian school curricula have been effective in compensating for the failure of many Indian homes to provide information which the average white child gains from his out-of-school experiences. In some areas, the Indian children in federal schools did better than the public school non-Indians.

c. Yes, for the area of health and safety. In the health and safety test, as with the home economics, the Indian children demonstrated a high level of performance-higher in some areas than public school non-Indians.

d. Yes, in free-writing. The Indian children did as well as the rural public school students in the free-writing test. This is particularly significant, for here is demonstrated the acquisition of considerable skill in the use of the English language, which was foreign to many of them when beginning school.

e. Yes, in their handwriting. The legibility of Indian children's handwriting, both manuscript and cursive, was substantially better than that of the public school students and this was true for all grade levels tested.

11. Does the emphasis placed upon the use of resources, home economics, and the vocational subjects operate to detract from the academic achievement of the students in the Indian schools?

No. A survey of Indian school schedules indicates that a considerable amount of the student's time in Indian schools is spent in vocational training. However, the fact that the Indian students perform as well as they do on the standardized tests in the academic subjects, makes it evident that this special training has not penalized them and may even have contributed to a relatively high level of achievement. It should be assumed that there would be considerable opportunity for integration between the academic type of material and the practical vocational training, and that this kind of fusion or integration could be responsible for relatively high achievement in both areas of training.

However, the vocational instruction now given in Federal schools is not as closely integrated with the work in all academic areas as might be desired, and the amount of classroom time devoted to academic subjects is not equal to that given to them in public schools. In view of this, the relatively high performance of the Indian children on the standardized achievement tests show that the classroom time is being used effectively and that probably some of the vocational training is also contributing to the students' performance. The Indian child is in school primarily for the purpose of learning how to make a living after graduation. In view of this, it is particularly significant that he is not only receiving practical vocational training but also is learning academically just about as much as is learned by the public high school student who devotes full time to academic work.

12. Are the Indian children interested in formal education?

Yes, the Indian students show a remarkably higher degree of interest in the more academic type subject than most people would expect. Moreover, their expressed eagerness for more education and even for higher education certainly should be gratifying to those who are devoting their skill and time to furthering Indian education.

13. In conclusion. In view of the fact that this evaluation program has been planned and executed to determine both weaknesses and strengths in the existing program, it would seem that there are two general conclusions which can be drawn. First, the relatively high achievement of the Indian students in many areas is evidence that the present program of Indian education is effective. Second, the results point specifically to certain subject areas in which a higher level of achievement is desirable. Therefore the survey can be interpreted to include positive recommendations: Recognition that the problems of the Indian schools are much more complex in many ways than those of the average public school should explain to the critics of special educational programs that the same criteria of success cannot always be used, nor can the same levels of achievement be arbitrarily set up, as a guide or goal. The Indian Service is not competing with the public school system. Wherever public schools exist, the Indian Service has taken advantage of public education and placed the Indian children in the 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 towards its goals which combine an understanding of and respect for the Indian's tribal lore and art with the full educational opportunities of the non-Indian. This study should prove useful to the teachers in the field as well as to the administrators and supervisors who constantly need points of reference in order to show what changes are being brought about through their programs of instruction.



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Last modified August 14, 2006