Study: Most Teachers Not Integrating Native Language, Culture in Instruction

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

In the November/December 2017 issue of JTE, Claudia Vincent, Tary Tobin, and Mark Van Ryzin of the University of Oregon authored an article titled “Implementing Instructional Practices to Improve American Indian and Alaska Native Students’ Reading Outcomes: An Exploration of Patterns Across Teacher, Classroom, and School Characteristics.” The article is summarized in the following abstract:

The Native Community strongly recommends integrating Native language and culture (NLC) into reading instruction to improve outcomes for American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students. However, little is known about the extent to which recommended practices are used and what might facilitate their implementation. The National Indian Education Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education surveys teachers of AI/AN students on their instructional practices. This descriptive study builds on previous analysis of survey data, which identified measurable dimensions of NLC in instruction. We now examine (a) the extent to which teachers implement these dimensions and (b) what teacher, classroom, and schoolwide characteristics facilitate implementation. Outcomes suggest that the recommended practices are rarely implemented, and that AI/AN teachers speaking Native language(s) and teaching in classrooms with high AI/AN enrollment located in schools employing AI/AN teachers and staff implement the recommended practices more often. We discuss implications for teacher education and support.

The authors reflect on their article and research in this recent interview for the JTE Insider blog:

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: Given the widely documented low academic performance of Native students, our work broadly focuses on identifying approaches to creating learning environments that are perceived as culturally relevant and welcoming by Native students and facilitate their school success. The Native community provides some clear guidelines for teacher professional development, integrating Native Language and Culture (NLC) into instruction, and encouraging family participation in school activities. However, translating these guidelines into practices is challenging. Data from the National Indian Education Study allowed us to examine a bit more closely the environments in which Native students are educated. Better understanding what teacher, classroom, and school characteristics facilitate the use of NLC and which do not will allow us to build on the facilitators and try to minimize the impact of barriers. As such, our study was an important stepping stone in our larger research agenda focused on developing interventions and supports to promote Native students’ school outcomes.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: Our research team has examined patterns in academic and discipline outcomes across students from various racial/ethnic backgrounds for over a decade. Much of the discussion of racial/ethnic disparities focuses on Black and Latino students, who are commonly well-represented in large-scale datasets. Native American students’ outcomes can be challenging to study in the context of national datasets, because Native American enrollment in schools tends to be low on average. As such, Native American students are often overlooked in statistical analyses requiring a minimum sample size.

When we once presented patterns and trends in school outcomes across students from the dominant racial/ethnic groups (White, Black, Latino), a Native educator in the audience spoke up and asked why Native students were not included. We answered that the low sample size of Native students made statistical outcomes difficult to interpret. She stood up and left the room. We finished our presentation, and then caught up with her. She emphasized the need to include Native students in research and tailor research methods to the Native population. She encouraged us to include Native voices on our team and to listen carefully to Native experiences and stories which might be more important than statistical findings.

Her courage to speak up helped shape our research agenda and emphasized the need to align the Western and Native ways of knowing.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: Challenges for teacher education, in relation to new teachers being prepared to meet the needs of Native students, include finding ways to help future teachers understand (a) what they need to know about their students’ cultural backgrounds, (b) culturally responsive teaching for Native students, including the best ways to use different cooperative learning methods; and (c) effective strategies for teaching all students what they need to know about American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) people.

Preservice teachers need to learn that they may need to seek information on the cultural backgrounds of their students, including those classified by the school as “Two or more races” but who may actually self-identify as Native as well as another race. A study we recently conducted indicated that even teachers who are doing well with students who identify only as AI/AN may NOT be doing well with biracial Native students (see this web page). Teachers were doing well in terms of cultural responsiveness and understanding culture of Native students who selected only AI/AN in response to the question about race, but not doing well for Native students who selected more than one race in response to that question. Many teachers do not know how many or which students have any Native background and may not be sure about the best ways to obtain this information, either from school classifications or from the students.

A challenge for teacher education that, if solved, could help Native students, includes doing a better job training preservice teachers on how, and why, to use the different types of cooperative learning well. This could be done by providing additional training from experts (see Johnson & Johnson) and inviting local Native community members to work with the preservice teachers. Although it has been known for some time that cooperative learning is an effective teaching method, especially in diverse classrooms and especially with Native students, better training about it is needed (see this piece on collaborative learning and this piece on cooperative learning).

A new movement, often called “Indian Education for All” (IEFA), is an exciting new challenge for teacher education. IEFA is not traditional “Indian Education” which was focused, typically, on instruction for Native students only, and often, only for those on or near reservations. In contrast, IEFA will benefit both Native and non-Native students in all schools in states where it is being implemented (e.g., Montana, Washington, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Oregon). Teachers will have access to and be required to participate in professional development to learn about Native history, sovereignty, and current issues, with local Elders guiding curriculum development and implementation (see this Montana Education page).

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