The Achievement Gap on the Reservation – A Counter Narrative

Rosie rarely speaks in class. On this cold winter morning she stares out the classroom window as the wind steamrolls the tall grass on the plains of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. After a moment of speculation, she goes back to work on her latest science project with the rest of the 8th graders. In the afternoon, she beads a traditional bracelet in art class, and later plays a mean trumpet in the band. After school, she goes on a walk for cancer awareness with members of her tribe.


In an application for entrance into the Indians into Medicine (INMED) program (sponsored by the University of North Dakota), she admits she’s shy, until she gets comfortable, that is. Rosie is involved with the tribal community, she is a starting forward on the basketball team, and one of the top runners for the school in track.


“Even though I’m shy, I really try to get involved in things,” she says.


In a letter to the INMED selection committee, she writes about her passion for Lakota culture and her desire to help people, maybe veterans. Her dream is to become a doctor.


“I take my education very seriously,” Rosie says. “I know what to expect in the future.”


“What’s that?” I ask.


“Challenges. They never go away no matter what,” she says. ” That’s OK. I like challenges.”


Last week, Rosie and her classmates wowed judges at the Todd County Science Fair. In all, their class earned two first place medals and a second, and advanced to the Regional Science and Engineering Fair in Mitchell in March. Rosie’s group won first place for their project examining the effects of pollution on plants. She plans to attend the Chapel Hill School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, and she knows if she gets accepted into the INMED program, her chances of achieving these goals greatly improve. Her 4.0 GPA won’t hurt her either.


“I live with my grandpa and grandma, and I love them very much. I try my hardest to make them proud,” she explains. “This is another reason why I want to participate in this program. My mom and dad are gone, so whenever they come back in my life, I want to tell them all the things I have accomplished.”




Like many students on the Rosebud Reservation, Rosie’s story is part of an important, and yet under reported counter-narrative. Too often, we’ve been sold the fly-by-night “look at all the bad things that happen here” narrative. But the problem is, because the mainstream media has focused almost exclusively on the negatives of reservation life, and has omitted success stories like Rosie’s, the public has a skewed, incomplete view, and this affects attitudes and public policy.


There is no question, there are many challenges here. I teach on the Rosebud Reservation, and it isn’t that the reports don’t represent some truth, it’s that the negative (often the focus) is only reported part of the story. The students know the many obstacles and challenges, they face them every day. Which makes the many students like Rosie, all the more important. They deserve better, but the achievement gap between native and non-native students in South Dakota is widening.


Last week, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard announced a proposal to create an educational task force to “reevaluate the state education funding formula and seek answers to tough questions facing school districts.” And he wants hard data.


“We need to ask where the teacher shortages are occurring, the degree they’re occurring, and what we can done to address them,” Daugaard recently told South Dakota Public Radio. “…We also need to ask as we hear concerns about teacher salaries why many schools reserve funds are growing. And these questions need answers based on data not on anecdotes, not on opinion surveys, we need hard data.”


Here’s some hard data: The shortages are occurring everywhere, but especially on reservations. According the South Dakota Department Education, the average stay teaching on the reservation is only one year, and for every 10 job openings in the Todd County School District, only eight people apply.


One the top stated goals for Daugaard and the Department of Education is to close the achievement gap between non-native and native students. Yet, districts like Todd County don’t have the support staff to run an efficient school system. The graduation rate for all students in South Dakota is 83.16 percent, but for American Indian students it is 46.65 percent; the dropout rate in Todd County is 11.1 percent (highest in SD); And fewer than one in three students on the reservation read on grade level. If closing the gap is a priority, how do better serve these students?




If you want feedback, not just talk, but concrete ideas on how to achieve this, here are a few:


  1. Incentivize the best and the brightest teachers to come to the reservations and teach. This means, in part, going to the state universities, like Black Hills State where so many teachers are graduating, and to recruit top students. We are going to have to pay them. Quality talent costs money. Give more aggressive pay increases for good, veteran teachers who stick around. Also, offer them professional development opportunities like attending conferences, and opportunities to quickly advance into leadership positions. Give them tax breaks and federal student loan forgiveness after two years of teaching on the reservation.


  1. Give teachers the training to be culturally responsive. Culturally responsive teaching is using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students.


  1. State universities should insert at least one class in the education major’s curriculum that specifically trains teachers to work on reservations. Indian Education classes exist in state universities and should continue to exist regardless, but these new classes should go beyond that and be geared specifically for teachers to work on reservations.


  1. Create and develop a program aimed at training Indian teachers. State universities should partner with tribal colleges to train Lakota teachers and develop a pipeline to ensure that these teachers are highly qualified and have the resources they need for success. Fewer than 10 percent of native adults have a bachelor’s degree, so in order to be eligible to teach, or become a teacher’s aide, a better partnership needs to develop.


  1. Create a database to share resources. Any district that has had success with teaching Indian students should share their resources and a database should be created to share rigorous, yet culturally responsive materials.


  1. Create an advertising campaign aimed at getting young, talented teachers to start their careers on the reservation. Teachers need to know about the shortages and opportunities. Subsidized housing exists and they may not even know about it.


Governor Daugaard took a positive step last year by creating the Indian Advisory Education Council, and initiatives like GEAR UP have helped, which starting in 2011, awarded $3.4 million in federal grant money per year to reservation schools for seven years to help increase the rate of high school graduation and participation in postsecondary education.


But, like it or not, teacher pay is a measuring stick for how low public education falls on the scale of state priorities. As has been well publicized, South Dakota teachers are the lowest paid in the nation.


Study after study proves higher pay will attract and keep better teachers. Politicians who vote to cut education budgets fully understand this. It’s a matter of priorities. When Governor Daugaard says, “the task force needs to seek ways to sustain high student achievement, along with a workforce of great teachers, under an efficient and equitable funding system” it’s contradictory. The hard data that the Governor wants clearly supports policies that to attract and keep quality teachers, we have to pay them. Paying teachers the lowest wages in the country certainly won’t attract better, but it will lead to more inefficiencies, and the achievement gap will continue to widen.


Whether it is the success stories like Rose’s, or the hard data coupled with the immense challenges, education on the reservation needs to become more of a priority in South Dakota. These students need consistency, K-12, with highly qualified professionals educating them all along the way.


There are literally hundreds of students that can go a myriad of different directions. Graduation rates can go up, and many students can be college ready, like Rosie, but it will take implementing concrete initiatives and making public education on the reservation a serious priority. Only then will we begin to see real improvement.


The student’s name and some details in this article were changed to protect privacy.

By Jake Nordbye, Guest Blogger