Columbus Day and the Native American School-Achievement Gap

Putting controversy around the holiday's name in perspective

While today is designated as the Columbus Day holiday on the federal calendar, it’s no longer being observed as such in a growing number of communities and schools.

Some states and local municipalities, along with their school districts, have dropped observance of Columbus Day. A handful of cities have gone so far as to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Berkeley, California, is credited with launching the holiday in 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage). Minneapolis, Portland, Ore. and Seattle are the latest to take such action. The Portland School Board quickly followed suit with its own resolution. From the Oregonian:

Portland School Board member Greg Belisle, who sponsored the resolution, called it “a small way to say to indigenous students that we recognize your strengths, your validity, and your worth.”

… Belisle said Portland Public Schools’ new Indigenous People’s Day isn’t meant to replace Columbus Day, but to supplement it. “It’s not about one or the other, it’s about how do we get a complete picture to understand where we’re at in history, and how we got there?” he said.

Some school districts are working to make sure Columbus' role in history is understood, and taught, as a more complex element of America’s founding. The National History Education Clearinghouse, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, even offers a “Mythbusters” website with teaching materials to help educators provide a more nuanced portrait of the European explorer. (At the same time, there’s been recent controversy over changes to the Advanced Placement American History course materials, which will put a greater emphasis on the influence of the pre-Columbus period.)

In a commentary for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2012, Diana King, a teacher at Waubun High School located on a Minnesota reservation, said she approaches Columbus Day as an opportunity to focus on the power of survival.

"We should have been wiped out," wrote King, who is a member of the White Earth Indian Nation. "It's a miracle Native people still exist. I have never liked the word 'conquered.' We are still here after 500 years. And maybe every time Columbus Day comes around, we should rethink who the real heroes are: the explorer or the survivors?"

To be sure, when it comes to addressing issues of student equity, America has pressing concerns beyond renaming the holidays: There’s a sizable, and stubborn, achievement gap for students of American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) descent, stretching from kindergarten through higher education.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, (known as “the Nation’s Report Card”) such students lagged behind nearly all of their peers. On the 2013 assessment, AI/AN fourth graders scored 23 points below whites in math, and 27 points lower in reading. Similarly paltry student performance is found at the eighth-grade level. And the achievement gap persists into high school and beyond. The dropout rate for AI/AN students is twice the national average; they are also less likely to graduate, enroll in college, or earn a postsecondary degree.

Last week, White House officials launched the first-ever listening tour aimed at gathering input from schools and communities on ways to improve public education opportunities and outcomes for Native American students. The tour will focus on issues related to bullying, school environment, and “offensive imagery and symbolism,” according to the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE). The first stop on the tour, which is co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, was in Wisconsin. Additional visits are planned across the country, stretching from Alaska to New York.

“We hope that these sessions will serve as a meaningful resource to the Native community as my office and the administration work to ensure that American Indian and Alaska Native students have equitable educational opportunities in healthy learning environments,” William Mendoza, the executive director of the White House initiative, said in statement. “Indian students have unique education challenges as they strive to preserve their native cultures and languages, while ensuring that they are college and career ready.”

The post appears courtesy of the The Educated Reporter.