Drop-Out Rates among American Indian and Alaska
Native Students: Beyond Cultural Discontinuity. ERIC Digest.
by St. Germaine, Richard
Although the transition to high school poses difficulties for all students,
American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students regularly face additional
obstacles that can impede their progress in school. Indeed, according to
a recent study, 25.4 percent of AI/AN students who should have graduated
in 1992 dropped out of school--the highest percentage of all racial/ethnic
groups in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics, 1994, p.
34). Educational theorists and researchers have provided various explanations
for this high failure rate, each with its own set of prescriptions. Recently,
much attention has focused on cultural discontinuity. This Digest suggests
that addressing cultural obstacles is an important but incomplete approach
to increasing AI/AN students' success.
WHAT THEORISTS SUGGEST
The diversity of the AI/AN community, as well as the great contrast
between the urban and rural circumstances of Native people, makes it difficult
to generalize the reasons for the high drop-out rate of AI/AN students.
McLaughlin (1994) summarized various theories developed to explain minority
language learners' failure to thrive in existing school systems. These
theories may provide ideas for understanding dilemmas faced by AI/AN youth.
Education psychologists have focused on the individual learner who,
they believe, arrives at school broken by impoverishing home and community
experiences. This deficit theory calls for helping individual students
acquire mastery of skills before moving ahead, as well as providing enrichment
to overcome deficits in background experiences.
Organizational theorists have focused on schools and school systems,
which they see as the primary culprits in school failure. These school
effectiveness proponents call for school restructuring and systemic reform
efforts, including rethinking such important issues as how time is used
and who is involved in planning and decision making.
Sociologists and anthropologists have focused on powerful economic and
political structures that underpin all aspects of society and "create arrangements...that
systematically give voice to some and deny it to others" and are structured
"around successful and unsuccessful competence displays such that winners
and losers are inevitable" (McLaughlin, p. 53). These critical theorists
call for teachers as coaches, pedagogy as problem solving, and a curriculum
that addresses important themes connected to the lives of students.
Lastly, sociolinguists have a narrower focus on the teacher-learner
interaction, where they find constant miscommunication resulting from different
cultural and linguistic preferences for interaction. Cultural differences
theorists believe solutions lie in teachers becoming knowledgeable about
the culture and language of their students and adapting curriculum and
teaching methods to students' needs.
The idea of cultural discontinuity contains elements of both of the
last two theories just described. Increasingly, it has become an explanation
for the difficulties AI/AN students face in adjusting to and finishing
high school. Cultural discontinuity theory was originally applied in relation
to urban minority groups. But it also has been applied to rural minorities,
including rural AI/AN students.
Frequently in rural areas, there is little interaction between neighboring
Native and majority cultures. Rural AI/AN students often attend small community
or reservation schools in which they constitute the majority, if not the
entirety, of the student population. In the transition to middle school
or high school, however, many AI/AN students experience the reverse: They
become a minority in schools that are predominantly White, with many AI/AN
students experiencing their first prolonged contact with another culture.
CULTURAL DISCONTINUITY: THE CLASH OF CULTURES
Theories of cultural discontinuity have their origins in the anthropological
studies of ethnic minority groups within a dominant, majority culture.
According to students of cultural discontinuity theory, minority children,
having been initially raised in a distinctive culture of their own, are
often thrust into a school system that promotes the values of the majority
culture--not those of their own. If the resulting clash of cultures continues,
the minority child may feel forced to choose one culture at the expense
of the other. A tragic paradox emerges: Success (in school) becomes failure
(in the community), and failure becomes success. Moreover, it has been
argued that failure is not simply the passive act of neglecting to complete
required tasks, but that it may be a status that is actively pursued by
ethnic minority students in order to preserve their culture of origin.
In other words, failure in school is a tacit cultural goal that must be
achieved (McDermott, 1987; Spindler, 1987).
TWO CONTRASTING CASE STUDIES
Cultural discontinuity. In a study by Wilson (1991), Canadian Sioux
students attended a reservation school through the elementary grades and
were then bused to a city high school to complete grades 10 through 12.
While in the reservation school, the students were described as having
high expectations, as being attentive and interactive with teachers, and
as having received good test scores and grades. But upon entering the large,
predominantly White high school, they faced racial prejudice, isolation,
low expectations of teachers, and a "structure [which] appeared to them
to have been designed for their failure, and they failed, practically overnight"
(p. 371). Of the 23 reservation students who were enrolled in the high
school when the study began, 18 dropped out.
The study attributes much of the failure rate of Sioux students to cultural
discontinuity, sometimes racist in nature. In the reservation classrooms,
small groups of students were observed sitting at circular tables with
the teacher moving freely about the room, making contact with students.
In comparison, the high school classrooms had students facing forward toward
the teacher, who interacted with only a few White students seated in front
and virtually ignored the Indian students congregated in the back. The
study examined the school buildings for signs of cultural difference. The
circular reservation school (designed by an Indian architect to symbolize
the circle in Indian spirituality) stood in contrast to the rectangular
city high school.
Cultural continuity. Reyhner (1992a) indicated the need for K-12 day
schools, particularly in certain Native communities, and points to the
success of small village high schools in Alaska. As a result of a lawsuit
filed on behalf of 126 village communities, the state of Alaska has provided
small village high schools to Native peoples since 1976. Previously, Native
students traveled far from home to attend boarding schools. While small
village high schools have advantages in keeping students close to home
and providing a caring learning environment, they have definite limitations
in course variety, the number of advanced courses and extracurricular activities
offered, and exposure to the world outside the village. The village high
school has not solved all problems, but, in terms of high school completion,
it seems to have been successful. The graduation rates of rural Alaskan
high school students now exceed the national average (Kleinfeld, 1985).
IS CULTURAL CONTINUITY THE ANSWER?
While it seems clear that cultural discontinuity plays a major role
in AI/AN student failure, some researchers caution that this theoretical
construct may be too narrow (Foley, 1991; Ogbu, 1987; Trueba, 1988; 1991).
They argue that the research ignores "macrostructural variables," and further
claim that "there is overwhelming evidence that economic and social issues...not
culturally specific to being Indian (although they may be specific to being
a minority) are very significant in causing students to drop out of school"
(Ledlow, 1992). Researchers question why cultural discontinuity has a greater
impact on some students than on others. Pointing to evidence showing that
Indian students from the most traditional homes seem to have the least
trouble in school, some researchers conclude that a "culturally non-responsive
curriculum is a greater threat to those whose own cultural 'identity' is
insecure" (Deyhle, 1989).
Addressing cultural discontinuity via the curriculum can thus be only
a partial solution. Jon Reyhner (1992b) seems to have drawn from all of
the theorists as he explored the issues of AI/AN education for the Indian
Nations at Risk Task Force. The following is a summary of what he viewed
as major problems involved in educating Indian youth, along with some suggested
Large schools. Restructure existing large schools, using the school-within-a-school
concept. Limit the size of new schools, taking as much care as possible
to avoid the large, comprehensive high school of more than 1,000 students.
Uncaring and untrained teachers and counselors. Encourage positive teacher-student
interaction. Recruit more AI/AN teachers and ease restrictions that prevent
qualified AI/AN individuals from teaching.
Passive teaching methods. Too often, the complaint is made by AI/AN
youth that they are "bored out" of school. Active learning strategies should
be employed, where students are encouraged to interact with peers, instructors,
and their environment.
Inappropriate curriculum. Use a culturally relevant curriculum with
materials designed for AI/AN students.
Inappropriate testing and student retention. Use testing to locate student
weakness for the purpose of adjusting instruction, not to track students
out of college preparatory programs. Avoid holding students back.
Tracked classes. Hold high expectations for all students. Tracking stigmatizes
students and restricts them from more challenging and interesting material.
Lack of parental involvement. Increasing parental involvement reduces
cultural discontinuity between home and school.
Finally, an additional concern is the high transfer rate of AI/AN students
between schools. Many AI/AN students transfer between schools during the
course of an academic year for a variety of reasons. This is possible because
students have several options including public, federal day and boarding,
and mission schools. Transferring creates difficulties for researchers
in keeping track of Native students, but, so far, there is no conclusive
proof that transferring is detrimental to their progress through school
(Swisher & Hoisch, 1992). The issue needs further study, however, to
determine both its cause and its effect on Native students' progress.
Cultural discontinuity is one of the obstacles AI/AN students face in
completing a high school education, but it is certainly not the only one.
Addressing cultural discontinuity by adjusting the curriculum, while helpful,
cannot address larger socioeconomic issues affecting Native children. Ultimately,
the cultural factor that may need the most attention to improve life prospects
for AI/AN and other minority high school students is the conflict caused
by maintaining societal arrangements that produce substantial poverty within
a nation of affluence and concentrate such poverty in certain groups, including
American Indians and Alaska Natives.
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