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Tribal Leaders Voice ESEA Renewal Ideas

The U.S. Department of Education has taken its Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization tour all the way across the street: to the National Museum of the American Indian, literally across Independence Avenue from department headquarters in Washington.

An event today gave tribal leaders, in town anyway for a White House conference on Native American issues, a chance to share their ideas for renewing ESEA, of which the No Child Left Behind Act is the current version.

As you probably remember, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that the NCLB "Listening and Learning Tour" has reached a new phase. Instead of just touring the country, Ed Department officials are reaching out to specific stakeholders to find out what they think needs to be in the new version of the law. Two assistant secretaries, Carmel Martin (planning, evaluation, and policy development) and Thelma Melendez (elementary and secondary education), spoke at the event, but they kept their comments brief and mostly listened.

The Native American tribal leaders brought up some of the criticisms that often get tossed around about the NCLB law: too much testing, not enough time for kids to be creative. But they also had some other concerns, including the need for teachers who are either Native American themselves or trained to work with this special population. And they said Native American kids need to be schooled in their own culture, heritage and language, not just in reading and math.

The need to ramp up social services as part of school improvement often comes up in conversations about NCLB, but it was particularly important here. Drug and alcohol problems are rampant on many reservations, some tribal leaders said, and many parents don't have the time to become involved in their children's education. That's why early childhood education, enrichment, parent involvement, and after-school programs are particularly important for Native American kids.

Some tribes said they were interested in applying for a slice of $4 billion in grants from the Race to the Top Fund, which was created under the economic-stimulus program to reward states that make progress on teacher distribution, academic standards, data systems, and other areas. Right now, those grants are only slated to go to states. It isn't clear yet whether tribes, whose schools are sometimes operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior and are regarded as separate nations, would be able to apply for a grant on their own.

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