Opinion: BIE leading Indian students to failure
The federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) continues to promote the Bush administration’s Reading First program for its Indian schools in 23 states even after a Reading First Impact Study found the program to be ineffective and lacking scientific research and it was zeroed out of the federal budget. The Bureau nonetheless claims that Reading First, now called BIE Reads and comprising the BIE’s Title I System of Support, has drastically reduced the number of students in special education, and it has produced gains on assessments designed to test decoding (sound and word recognition) skills. Yet, starting at third grade, the program has not yielded required gains on standardized tests used to measure adequate yearly progress, and many BIE Reading First schools are under restructuring mandates. This is not surprising in light of a recent Reading First Impact Study which showed student gains in decoding but not comprehension.

Schools and parents in the BIE system are being led to believe that students can read, even though they don’t comprehend what they are “reading.” The rationale is that students must first learn to decode and that comprehension doesn’t come until the third grade when students won’t be burdened by sounding out words and thus can more easily comprehend. The Bureau’s reason for schools not making adequate yearly progress is that they are using the wrong assessments – ones that include comprehension. This approach, of teaching phonics in isolation of meaning and comprehension, was never a recommendation of the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel, and no research exists to support such an approach.

The Bureau has bought the philosophy of reading programs such as DISTAR (Direct Instruction for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading, first advanced in the 1960s and now called Reading Mastery) that children of color are not as intelligent as others and need direct instruction because they cannot think for themselves. This patently racist approach fosters low expectations for students with the belief that they bring nothing of value to school and that their Native cultures and languages are hindrances rather than resources to their learning. It is also a behaviorist method in which the teacher snaps his or her fingers to elicit quick responses to decoding drills. The Bureau states that they must use such an approach because the students are “so far behind” and require a special education approach. DISTAR was used in some Indian schools in the l970s federal Follow Through program. Findings were that gains were ephemeral because the instruction was not meaningful, and at fourth grade students were not reading because they had never engaged in reading. There was also outrage by Indian parents because of the demeaning approach being used.

The Bureau’s plan for future initiatives includes aligning the program with state standards. The Bureau will be surprised to discover that states require comprehension from kindergarten on, the best reading practice being a balanced approach. The Bureau’s plan also states that it will review the research on teaching English language learners to read. When it does, it will discover that ELL research, as well as research on teaching any child to read, stresses the use of a meaning-based, student-centered approach with attention to vocabulary, good literature, writing, comprehension even before one can sound out words, and valuing and including students’ home languages and cultures in instruction in addition to phonics and phonemic awareness.

To avoid loss of federal funding or school closure, BIE schools have been pressured to implement flawed approaches such as Reading First. The result has been the teaching of reading and mathematics through narrow skill-and-drill with little if any attention to science, social studies, and Native language and culture and with no achievement gains – findings borne out by the 2008 Institute of Education Sciences-commissioned National Indian Education Study.

Internationally renowned language researcher Jim Cummins calls the Reading First programs “pedagogies of the poor,” and indicates that they serve to produce a sort of helplessness within children. Considering the increasing suicide rate among Indian young people, they need to be lifted up, not oppressed further. While other children are engaging in critical reading, writing, and thinking, as President Obama states is necessary, Indian children in BIE Reads are sounding out words – and nonsense words at that, in a boarding school type approach.

In this educational equation, it is not difficult to see which students are advantaged and which students are “left behind.” As we move toward reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, it is time to discard these failed pedagogies once and for all, and to replace them with approaches and strategies that are meaning-based, supported by empirical research, do not hurt children, and actually teach them how to read.

Roger Bordeaux, Executive Director, Association of Community Tribal Schools
Carmen Taylor, Executive Director, National Indian School Board Association
Sandra Fox, Retired Indian Educator
David Beaulieu, Director, Center for Indian Education, Arizona State University
Teresa McCarty, Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education Policy Studies and Professor of Applied Linguistics, Arizona State University
Yetta Goodman, Regents Professor Emerita, University of Arizona
Jon Reyhner, Professor of Bilingual Multicultural Education, Northern Arizona University
Janet Ahler, Professor Emerita, University of North Dakota

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