Opportunities for American Indian Education

coreconnectionMy recent article for ASCD. You can also see it here.

With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, states and districts have worked to determine the alignment of their current curriculum and instructional materials to the standards, but at times these alignments remain in various stages of completion or lack the specificity that teachers want.

This has certainly been true as it relates to standards-aligned curriculum that states and districts have developed in the area of American Indian education. It’s often no fault of those at Indian education state offices, where staffing tends to be limited to just one person and that individual has a variety of duties to fulfill beyond the scope of curriculum and instruction. In addition, state offices of education have had to be strategic about their rollout of the standards, with an obvious focus on English language arts/literacy (ELA) and on mathematics. If states already had instructional materials in place for American Indian education, aligning those materials with the Common Core was not a priority for many of them.

That’s not true for the state of Montana. In fact, when people in other state offices are asked which states are doing an effective job of connecting their Indian education efforts with the Common Core standards, over and over people point to Montana. Denise Juneau, superintendent for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI), said, “We have great things happening in classrooms all across Montana.”

Montana was one of the first states to emphasize the importance of American Indian education and culture. In 1972, the state constitution affirmed the commitment to preserving the integrity of tribal cultures in Montana, and in 1999, the Indian Education for All Act was passed by the state legislature. The act became fully funded in 2005, and with that funding came the development of curriculum, with many lessons, units, and resources, and a lot of professional development. Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide position in Montana, said, “For the first time ever, we had to teach about Indians, and we’ve had a lot of professional development for teachers since that time.”

Lynn Hinch, assistant division administrator at OPI, concurred. “When we started,” she said, “teachers and school districts needed stuff, and they understood the obligation to Indian Education for All. So, we brought groups of teachers together to develop lessons.”

When the standards were introduced to states for adoption, Montana was very deliberate in its review. The process was similar to how the state developed the Indian education materials and included input from teachers across Montana. Juneau said her office worked with educators about adopting the Common Core, but she wondered if teachers could gather around it.

The public instruction office also worked with educators to identify and discuss the impact of the new standards on materials and resources for American Indian education, which the state had been developing and making available to Montanan educators for years. Jael Prezeau, an administrator at OPI’s standards and instruction department, talked from the district perspective about the Montana Common Core, as it was now called, and the immediate connection that her colleagues made to the state’s commitment to Indian education. “When we started to look at the Common Core, people asked, ‘Well, where is the Indian Education for All?’ It was very telling to me that Indian Education for All was very deeply in place [in our state]. Teachers wanted to know what we are doing for Indian education in the context of the Common Core.”

To connect Indian education and the Montana Common Core, OPI brought teacher groups together to develop materials that would assist their statewide colleagues with alignment and implementation. OPI awarded grants to districts as they took the state-level work and refined it further at the district level. “We had a variety of approaches,” added Juneau. “We were always trying to give back to the classroom.”

One of the districts that worked with OPI was Columbia Falls Schools. Dot Wood, curriculum director at the four-school district in Columbia Falls, said that “our Indian education implementation before the Common Core used many good general resources.” With the implementation of the Montana Common Core, Wood and her colleagues at the district put together an implementation framework using materials that the state offered. Then they formed teacher teams and trained them in unpacking the standards.

Knowing how important Indian education is to Montana, Wood indicated that “it made sense to look at the Common Core blended with Indian education.” With this in mind, the district applied for an OPI grant and used the funds to obtain assistance from Tammy Elser, who authored the OPI publication The Framework: A Practical Guide for Montana Teachers and Administrators Implementing Indian Education for All.

With OPI’s generous funding and continued support, Wood, Elser, and team members at Columbia Falls developed a comprehensive professional development plan for the current school year, with training for different grade bands and targeted assistance to middle and high school social studies teachers. “Our primary focus was Common Core implementation but through the vehicle of the Indian Education for All units and materials,” said Wood. “There was very direct work with writing development, with reading strategies—all of which were embedded in the literature and literacy activities already in the lessons.”

Last fall, teachers implemented one of the state’s Indian Education for All units, with the Montana Common Core aligned to the activities within the unit. After a debriefing and conversations this past winter about what worked and what didn’t, teachers will implement another unit this spring.

“Another element in our future implementation,” stated Wood, “is a summer institute this year, funded through the OPI grant. Our Indian Education for All committee . . . will work through our current district Indian Education for All implementation plan and update it based on the work that emerges from the spring professional development sessions. It will lay out our district-level implementation plan for the next several years and will include Montana Common Core standards in ELA and math as a foundational guide grounding our Indian Education for All work.”

“It’s really phenomenal to see how far our state has come in a short amount of time,” said Juneau. “Indian Education for All has been a great thing that has happened in our state. And we now have lessons that other states can use.” In fact, the state not only has literal lessons that other states can use—curriculum materials that align American Indian education topics and ideas about implementing the Common Core State Standards—but also larger lessons. Other states could benefit from Montana’s example of forming a close collaboration between the state office and multiple school districts, providing funding to school districts to engage frontline teachers in the work, and framing this new work (the standards) in the context of past work (Indian Education for All) to ensure alignment from the very start.

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