Building relationships between tribal communities and local school districts is a key step needed to improve Native American student success, according to research by Thaddieus “Tad” Conner, assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration.
“Partnerships between tribes and public school districts can help improve native student achievement in primary and secondary schools,” Conner said. “But involvement of parents, tribal leaders and public school officials is always a challenge.”
Conner conducted the study for his dissertation and is looking to expand his research to the Pacific Northwest. He plans to include research on tribal and local partnerships in other areas of public policy, including the environment, energy, land management and economic development.
According to a 2008 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, native students perform two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and math. They are far more likely to drop out of school and to be expelled than white students. For every 100 American Indian and Alaska Native kindergartners, only seven will earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34 of every 100 white kindergartners.
Conner noted that tribes, states and local governments have a complicated history because of overlapping jurisdictions, competition for scarce funds and the issues of tribal sovereignty. “These issues contribute to both conflicts and the need to work together,” he said.
Funding is an example of an area where better cooperation can work to the benefit of all involved, Conner said. More than 9 out of 10 American Indian students in Oklahoma and New Mexico, the focus of Conner’s 17-month study, are served by public schools. But school districts can’t tax tribal land because of tribal sovereignty.
The districts can apply for federal funds to make up the difference in lost tax revenues, but federal funds come with strings. “By working with tribal leaders to meet federal requirements, the local school districts can make the process go smoother,” Conner said.
Conner also found that native students performed better academically when school districts gave them a chance to learn more about their native culture and language. “Strong and meaningful partnerships are shown to have a positive impact on Indian education programs and native student success in the public school system,” he said.
He noted that understanding the factors that contribute to stronger and more productive partnerships is an important first step in helping address common problems and building long lasting and healthier relationships.
“Collaborative partnerships between tribes and state and local agencies can help solve the complex problems they face and can make their policies more effective,” Conner said.