Brad Jupp is a former teacher with the Denver Public Schools who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. More recently he has become the Chief School Transformation Officer and Acting Chief Academic Officer of
the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), which is housed in the U.S. Department of Interior. With Native American Heritage Month winding down, Brad joins us to discuss the education of 46,000 Native American students. His motto is: "No academic problem is too small."
Do you prefer tea or coffee and how do you take it? Coffee. Straight, no chaser. Six to eight times a day.
What is the state of Native American education today? As challenging as it gets, especially when one generalizes. Viewed from the altitude traveled by most policy makers and thought leaders, BIE is small, complex and deceptively homogeneous, and we are faced with daunting academic challenges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), American Indians constitute
about one percent of the nation's 49.8 million students. BIE serves approximately 46,000 of those students. When we lump BIE's 46,000 students together using federal categories, they look all alike: They are almost all from one ethnic category and all qualify for the federal free lunch program. Viewed up close, this is far from true. BIE's students attend 183 schools in 23 states and come from 64 different tribal communities. We serve communities as different as the Navajo Nation and Miccosukee Tribe located in Florida, the Hopi and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. These are communities as distant from one another as any in America. They have different economic conditions, different language, heritage and culture. It could not be less accurate to think of our student body as a homogeneous group of young people. Our education statistics are very poor when compared to the rest of the U.S., even when compared to our the larger demographic group we serve. NCES's most rigorous study of American Indian students, conducted in 2011, uses NAEP data. American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students
persistently underperform when compared with other ethnic groups. Achievement gaps have been persistent, not shrinking. Sadly, BIE's students underperform all subgroups and the AI/AN population. The story is similar for graduation rates, where there was a 27 percentage point gap between AI/AN students and White students in 2015. But by generalizing, we mask our system's greatest assets; we give challenges the appearance of something permanent. Up close in our schools, things are different. Our many communities have distinctive histories of resilience that few Americans can imagine. Our faculty members are frequently committed experts, and they all view their students as both the community's legacy and promise. Our students, who often overcome extraordinary adversity to succeed in school and beyond, are an opportunity for their community's culture and heritage to thrive, even in the face of hundreds of years of trauma and present day discrimination. Our goals at BIE are to improve the academic and life outcomes for the students we serve in increase tribal sovereignty in education. If we look at the stats, these are tough goals to meet. We will only meet them if we view the student as the unit of change, rather than the statistic as the goal in itself. If we at BIE learn from the people we serve and cherish their success, we are more likely to accelerate our progress. Their success stories—as individuals and as people who come together to defy the statistics— are the BIE's foundation stones and durable strengths. They are a cause for optimism.
What is the biggest challenge? Identifying and replicating examples of success. Places like
Chitimacha Tribal School in Louisiana is a great school tucked away in a hard to find place. That school is a shining example of what happens when communities come together and offer great Pre-K to post-secondary learning opportunities to their children. They run an exemplary Head Start program, a K-8 school that performs well when compared with other Louisiana schools and they even have a scholarship program for all community students when they go to college. They back it up with an integrated system of youth and community services. Their faculty, community members, tribal administrators and tribal political leaders are deeply knowledgeable and creative problem solvers. But bringing their example to communities as far flung as the one served by the BIE, then digging in to solve similar problems in a very different community context, takes resources and effort that stretch BIE.
What is the most important work facing the Bureau as the new administration begins? Maintain and invest in the bi-partisan direction that was set in 2011 by the American Indian Education Study Group and affirmed by Congress in 2016 as
the Blueprint for Reform. It is a set of common sense reforms that bring BIE's resources closer to students and faculty members, and there is no good reason to slow its implementation or change direction.
Can you share a story of hope from your work in the Bureau? I often think of
Philomine Lakota, a teacher of Lakota language and culture at Red Cloud Indian School, a parochial school in the Pine Ridge Community. When leading a discussion of effective instruction in Lakota language with other language teachers, she said something simple that should resonate with all teachers. "As a Lakota language teacher, I cannot be satisfied to say I taught my students if they cannot speak the language. I can only say I am successful if they speak Lakota with their grandparents and grandchildren. That was the way my grandparents taught me the language. That is the way our language will survive." Nothing in policy comes closer than this statement to defining the urgent rationale for educator effectiveness.
Is there anything we, as a society, should change in the way we engage with the Native American community? Trust tribal leaders to know how to educate their children. Collaborate with tribal leaders to build their capacity to run great schools. The education of native youth transcends jurisdictional boundaries. Students' lives don't change when they move from a BIE school to a state school, or a charter school to a Catholic school.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with