In this blog post, WestEd expert Barbara Jones explores state efforts to systematically support Indigenous instruction and learning.
“This is a critical generation of Native children, the last to prevent the deterioration of our Native languages. Without language, how long can a culture survive without unraveling? We need a different paradigm to win this race against time.”
Dr. Christine Sims, Acoma Pueblo Director, American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center, University of New Mexico
The Region 15 and Region 13 Comprehensive Centers facilitate ongoing state leader connections by hosting monthly community of practice meetings, in which American Indian Education Directors and their teams come together with the goal of more effectively supporting American Indian students in their states. Through these meetings, Indigenous language revitalization and maintenance has risen as a key priority for Tribal nations.
In a previous post about the importance of Indigenous language and education, we explored the history and context of Indigenous language education. Hundreds of years of hostile federal policies have threatened the continuity of Native languages. But many Tribal nations continue to work hard at maintaining their languages. And research shows that when Indigenous students receive culturally and linguistically sustaining instruction, they are more likely to experience academic and social emotional benefits. Here, we explore how state leaders are supporting Indigenous language acquisition through attention to legislation, resources, and the teacher workforce.
The State Role
Several state leaders have shared information in the community of practice meetings about how they are collaborating with higher education, tribal education agencies, and the federal government to support heritage language maintenance and revitalization efforts. Most frequently, they start this work by engaging with tribes using the tribal consultation processes to learn about tribal education goals for their children and to get meaningful feedback on their state practices and policies. Through these collaborations, states have developed a variety of strategies to support Native language acquisition and maintenance. These efforts frequently fall into five categories. These are:
- Support for new legislation
- Resource development
- Native educator recruitment and retention efforts
- Funding allocation
- Coordinate with tribal education agencies
Let’s take a look at the first three of these areas in turn, drawing from examples shared in the community of practice meetings. The last two focus areas will be addressed in a later post.
Support for New Legislation
Several state education agencies are currently working with their state legislatures to ensure Indigenous students receive equitable access to quality education, including education to support their heritage languages. New legislation (often propelled by court cases brought by tribes) frequently provides funding, learning opportunities, and guidelines to support Indigenous languages and cultures.
State education agencies, such as those in Montana, Oregon and Arizona, are working with lawmakers and tribes to provide educators with the foundational knowledge they need to understand basic aspects of Indigenous peoples in their states (both currently and historically), for example, by developing documents such as the Essential Understandings of Native Americans in Oregon. With this type of knowledge, teachers are better equipped to provide quality instruction on those topics for all students. (This has the additional benefit of helping garner public support for Native languages in schools.) In Montana, legislation requires that all students receive instruction in Montana’s Indigenous history and contemporary life. In Arizona, the updated Indian Education Policy Statement promotes the integration of Native cultures and languages across the curriculum for all students. These types of efforts provide a vehicle for educators to become more culturally responsive as they work with Indigenous students and their communities.
To support educators in gaining this cultural and pedagogical knowledge, these states and others have, or are in the process of, working with tribes to develop resources for educators such as tribally-specific curriculum, model lesson plans, and professional learning opportunities. These resources help educators to:
- Build their understanding of the influence of culture on communication and action,
- Include more accurate representations of Indigenous peoples in their teaching, and
- Provide quality instruction to all their students about Indigenous peoples in their state.
Resources developed for Native language acquisition also include teacher training modules that support alternatively-certified language teachers to develop additional pedagogical approaches and skills. To support these language teachers in New Mexico for example, the Center for Standards, Assessment, and Accountability (CSAA) developed online resources for Native language teachers that provide guidance on gauging student content and language learning and
planning next steps. These resources are called Formative Assessment for Improving Native American Student Learning and Language Development. Alternatively-certified Native language teachers benefit from having access to these practical resources that provide clarity on the ins and outs of teaching in a school environment. New Mexico is also working to support these teachers through other initiatives, such as by providing them with equitable pay.
Teacher Recruitment and Retention
Efforts to support Native education more generally, including recruiting and retaining Native teachers to create positive role models and more relevant instruction for Native students, also support Native language education efforts.
To improve Native teacher recruitment and retention, leaders in Alaska are taking a multi-pronged approach that includes providing culturally relevant teacher induction and training programs, year-round housing, and equitable licensure terms. More specifically, staff at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development are working to:
- Create more equitable teacher licensure terms for “limited” teacher certification (often held by Native language instructors),
- Develop an Indigenous teacher licensure program to support Indigenous ways of teaching across subject areas,
- Classify Native languages as part of “world languages” to satisfy graduation
- Support efforts to establish year-round housing for teachers in Native communities in Alaska (who often have had to vacate their rented homes during the summer months due to tourism-induced, higher rental costs).
States’ direct and indirect approaches to supporting Indigenous language education, along with efforts by tribal Nations and other entities, are critical to “prevent the deterioration of our Native languages,” as Christine Sims aptly stated at the beginning of this article. In a later post, we’ll look at the roles of funding and tribal advocacy in Native language revitalization and maintenance efforts.
Notes and Resources
- House Bill 84 Fact Sheet Native Language Education Program Unit, Tribal Education Alliance, at
https://nabpi.unm.edu/assets/documents/tea-factsheets/hb84-factsheet.pdf, retrieved July 13, 2022.
- The Comprehensive Centers (CCs) develop and implement capacity-building technical assistance to support state education agencies (SEAs ). Region 15 CC serves Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Region 13 CC serves New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Bureau of Indian Education.
- Howard, T. (2012). Culturally responsive pedagogy. In J. A. Banks (Ed.), Encyclopedia of diversity in education (Vol. 1, pp. 550-552). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Bowman, S. (2012). Cultural competence. In S. M. Barton-Bellesa (Ed.), Encyclopedia of community corrections (pp. 101-103). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Barbara Jones is a Senior Professional Learning Expert at WestEd. For more information about her work, please contact her at [email protected].