If there is one school operator deserving of the school reform movement’s attention and efforts, it’s the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, which is one of the two school systems directly controlled by the federal government. A hybrid outfit that is a combination of traditional district, state education agency, and charter school authorizer, BIE and the 183 schools under its purview serves more than 48,000 American Indian children. At the same time, it also exemplifies the worst American public education offers. Fifty percent of Native fourth-graders in BIE schools scored Below Basic in math in 2011, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; if it were an urban district, BIE’s woeful performance in improving student achievement in math would be second-worst in the nation after Detroit (whose woeful performance in providing curricula and instruction has resulted in 66 percent of fourth-graders are functionally innumerate). And BIE’s academic woes are matched by its institutional dysfunction, one perpetuated by the federal government’s almost-perpetual efforts to subject Native students to what can be best called near-genocidal academic abuse and neglect; more than a year after Keith Moore, who served as BIE’s chief executive, departed the agency, the U.S. Department of Interior has still not replaced him, either with former Acting Director Brian Drapeaux (who has returned to his previous job of Chief of Staff) or current interim boss Charles Roessel.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2So it isn’t shocking that the U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded in a report released this week that BIE’s operations are in shambles, and that the federal government isn’t “effectively meeting its responsibilities” to Native children as required by the Article I, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution. For the school reform movement — especially centrist Democrats who hold sway over the Obama Administration’s education policy — pushing for the overhaul of BIE would be an important step towards helping all children succeed as well as addressing the nation’s shameful legacy.

The extent of BIE’s failures in providing high-quality teaching and comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that is also culturally sensitive to the needs of Native students has been widely known for some time. A mere 50 percent of BIE eighth-graders in its original Class of 2011 were promoted to senior year of high school, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the operator to the U.S. Department of Education. [BIE officially reports a graduation rate of 59 percent for its 2011 graduating class, according to its annual performance report; the U.S. Department of Education reports an adjusted cohort graduation rate of 61 percent for BIE schools.] The average BIE eighth-grader’s math performance is three grade levels below the national average for all children, which means that they aren’t getting the college-preparatory knowledge needed to stay on the path to lifelong success. The egregious neglect of Native students by the federal government is even more-shocking when one looks at how well the federal government has done in operating the Department of Defense Education Activity, which provides education to the children of the nation’s soldiers, sailors, and marines; the average Department of Defense eighth-grader performs at half-a-grade level above the average student nationwide.

Efforts by BIE to overhaul its own operations have stalled completely. Last year, Moore and his staff had hoped to take advantage of an agreement struck by Interior and the U.S. Department of Education that gave the agency formal status as a state education department by proposing in an application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act to develop a unified accountability and school data system monitoring the performance of all of the schools BIE operates and oversees in 23 states. But that effort ground to a halt after Moore left the agency in June 2012; the Department of Education still has not moved on the BIE’s No Child waiver proposal even as it has approved waivers for more than 20 states within the last year. BIE also hasn’t been able to move on other ideas, including launching a teacher certification process that would allow it to skip over the labyrinth of teacher quality rules it must deal with in every state in which one of its schools operates. And with Roessel taking over as Acting Director, BIE has now had its six leadership change at the top since 2007.

As the GAO demonstrates in its report, much of the BIE’s problems lie with the federal government’s mismanagement of the agency itself. Unlike traditional districts and other school operators, BIE has no control — either through in-house management or even sophisticated management of contracts with vendors similar to that done by private-sector companies through its procurement and outsourcing functions — over its own operations. Construction, capital maintenance, school safety, and even administrative activities are handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is mostly concerned with overseeing the reservations the federal government holds in trust for tribes. Indian Affairs, in turn, has long-struggled with its own dysfunction, including having five leadership changes since 2007, which means that it has been unable to support BIE, including simply providing the agency with dedicated staffers to handle textbook purchases and contract activities.

One of the few graduates of Pine Ridge High School, a school under BIE oversight. Photo courtesy of the Argus Leader.

Because BIE doesn’t fully control its own affairs, it is difficult for it to either engage in the kind of smart strategic planning needed to undertake reforms or to even handle such basic activities as supplying textbooks to schools. The fragmented structure of BIE’s operations (along with the federal government’s almost-criminal unwillingness to fund school construction and replacement) is also why the many of the 65 school buildings identified back in 2009 as being dilapidated, hazardous, and unsafe — in some schools, exposed asbestos fibers, the presence of lead and other toxic materials, and water leaks near electrical outlets are the norm and not the exception — have not been repaired or replaced. The Department of Interior could solve this one problem simply by placing all those operations under BIE’s umbrella. But that would be the sensible thing to do. Instead, Interior moved this past July to shift BIE’s administrative operations from one Indian Affairs division — the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management — to the agency’s regional directors without fully informing BIE’s bureaucracy. Several BIE school leaders only learned about Interior’s move after being informed by GAO investigators.

Interior has also proven to be a roadblock to BIE’s goal of moving to a unified accountability and school data system. Back in January, the department declined to change its rules, which restricts BIE from launching its own battery of tests. Instead, it announced that the decision would be vetted by an as-yet convened committee. Given the disagreement among American Indian tribes over whether BIE should even be overseeing schools on their reservations (and the opposition to any form of accountability), Interior’s move essentially keeps the agency from making a smart move that allows for families, researchers, and others to gain uniform and objective data. Given that BIE is implementing Common Core reading and math standards, Interior’s unwillingness to let the agency implement a single testing regime keeps it from teaming up with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia on developing Common Core-aligned tests that can be given to Native students in their respective languages. Interior’s failures even extend to simply implementing Executive Order 13592, which focuses on improving instruction and curricula for American Indian and Alaska Native children and directs federal agencies to divert some of their funding toward that purpose. Interior was supposed to appoint several members to a joint task force with the Department of Education charged with helping BIE overhaul its operations. Yet the department hasn’t made its picks to the panel, resulting in the task force not having met at all in the last two years.

The mismanagement by Interior has been compounded by BIE’s own failures, especially in the role of accountability and other state education department-style activities it wants to take out of the hands of existing state agencies. Schools weren’t informed by BIE about whether or not they made Adequate Yearly Progress during the 2011-2012 school year until this April, seven months after the new school year began. Last year, BIE allowed schools in New Mexico to use tests provided by the Northwest Evaluation Association instead of those provided by the Land of Enchantment without approval from either Interior or the U.S. Department of Education; as a result, the data from the exams couldn’t be used to assess student achievement or for holding schools accountable under federal law. This past school year, BIE allowed schools in Arizona, Mississippi, and South Dakota to use NWEA’s assessments instead of those in the respective states in which they are located, then changed its mind and told those schools to use state assessments,, forcing them to scramble for the test materials.

Certainly the Obama Administration has to take blame for BIE’s abysmal state of affairs. For all the administration’s focus on advancing systemic reform, it has been unwilling to overhaul the very school system it could directly control and in the process, serve as a model for how to provide children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with high-quality education. The fact that the Obama Administration refuses to even ask Congress to approve legislation allowing for BIE to be moved from Interior (which has never been equipped to run schools) to the Department of Education (which, in spite of its own struggles in managing Title VII Native education programs, would be better-equipped to help BIE make the full transition from running schools to overseeing them) is especially unacceptable.

A shameful history: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

A shameful history: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

But the Obama Administration’s failures in running BIE is just the latest in the nation’s shameful and abhorrent mistreatment of Native children. Starting with the launch of the notorious Carlisle Indian Boarding School in 1879, the federal government focused its schools on assimilating Native children into American culture, or as Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt declared: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” By the mid-20th century, what is now the BIE opened 26 such schools while another 450 were operated by missionaries on the federal government’s behalf. American Indian children were often forced to leave their families to attend schools where they were subjected to physical abuse, molestation, and substandard instruction; they spent at best four hours a day in classes they could not understand because the schools didn’t focus on English language proficiency and the rest of the time working in conditions that violated child labor laws of the time. The consequences of this educational abuse was beyond tragic. Less than eight percent of the 12,000 Native children forced to attend the Carlisle school progressed to graduation. The lessons taught hardly prepared those young men and women for life in the economic times of the 20th century. As a Brookings Institution panel declared in the 1928 Meriam Report, the average Native child left school “poorly adjusted to conditions that confront him”.


While the federal government stopped its assimilationist policies, it didn’t exactly do much to improve BIE schools. Starting in the 1970s, BIE began granting contracts to tribes to start their own schools, an approach similar to charter school authorizing; by last year, two-thirds of BIE schools were operated by tribal governments. But the agency never put in place accountability provisions that would allow it to shut down failing schools and didn’t provide tribes with the tools needed to launch high-quality operations. Little wonder why BIE admitted three years ago in its School Improvement Grant application that 115 of its schools were either in “improvement, corrective action, or restructuring status”. These quality issues, along with the desire to provide Native children with schools that reinforce cultural values, develop new approaches to teaching and curricula, and allow kids to interact with peers who are succeeding academically, is also why tribes such as the Florida Seminole have begun embracing charter schools

As a result of the federal government’s abhorrent neglect, high levels of Native students, be they attending BIE schools or traditional district operations, drop out into poverty, which in turn, has perpetuated poverty in many Native communities. And the legacy of the nation’s educational genocide toward Natives is now weighing down the nation’s economic and social future in the age of the global, knowledge-based economy.

The school reform movement can help overhaul BIE and, at the same time, make amends for nearly 150 years of educational abuse of Native children. Centrist Democrats can start by demanding the Obama Administration to immediately overhaul BIE operations, including placing direct control of its administrative and back office functions into the agency itself. Moving ahead with allowing BIE to offer its own battery of tests would also help provide Native families, communities, and researchers with much-needed data in order to take the steps necessary to provide kids with teaching and curricula fit for their futures. Organizations such as the Data Quality Campaign could help out by advising BIE on how to develop robust data systems to make that data simple, comprehensive, and useful all at once, while outfits such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers can assist BIE (and tribes) in implementing the kinds of practices in overseeing schools needed to provide children with high-quality education.

The GAO report offers another opportunity for reformers to advance the overhaul of American public education needed to give all of our children brighter futures.