IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Honoring Native American Language and Culture: Supporting Native American Students in Our Schools

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we want to recognize the rich and diverse traditions, linguistic backgrounds, and cultural heritages that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students bring to classrooms. Indigenous knowledge can enrich perspectives of all students and educators. Despite their many strengths, AI/AN students tend to lag behind their peers on academic assessments. For instance, as reported in the Condition of Education 2020, on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), AI/AN students consistently score lower in reading and math and have lower graduation rates and the highest high school drop-out rates relative to their peers.

To close this achievement gap and support AI/AN students in their academic success, the AI/AN community has recommended integrating Native Language and Culture (NLC) into instruction. However, some studies have found a negative association between use of NLC and AI/AN student outcomes. In this guest blog, Dr. Claudia Vincent discusses her IES-funded study, which aims to obtain nuanced understanding of the construct of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student learning and achievement in school. 

With IES funding from 2014 to 2017, our team of researchers at the University of Oregon worked with data from the National Indian Education Study (NIES) to operationalize Native Language and Culture (NLC) in schools from different viewpoints (student, teacher, school administrator) and examine the relationship between use of NLC and student academic and behavioral outcomes. Here’s what we learned from our study.

NLC is multi-dimensional and means different things to students, teachers, and administrators.

For students, NLC meant direct contact with AI/AN people as well as access to instructional material providing information about AI/AN traditions, languages, and history. For teachers, most of whom are not of AI/AN descent, NLC meant use of AI/AN traditions, history, and issues in academic instruction and access to materials and resources reflecting those traditions, history, and issues. For administrators, NLC meant involvement of local AI/AN people in the school, the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN culture, and the school’s ability to provide instruction in AI/AN languages.

The multi-faceted nature of NLC suggests that different NLC practices likely benefit different students differently in different contexts. Our exploration of the relationship between the use of NLC as defined by the NIES data and student academic outcomes as measured by NAEP data provided insight into the contextual variables affecting the benefits of NLC. First, implementation of recommended NLC practices is rare overall. 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. Second, NLC benefitted math achievement most for those AI/AN students whose families identified strongly with AI/AN traditions and customs and who attended schools with high AI/AN enrollment.

These findings suggest that alignment between school and home cultures can promote the achievement of AI/AN students, but that NLC might be less beneficial, or even detrimental, for students who do not have a strong AI/AN identity, or who attend schools with low AI/AN enrollment. In the latter context, NLC in the classroom might be associated with stereotype threat, meaning that AI/AN students might perform lower when negative biases about their ethnic backgrounds are more prominent.

While our data analyses provided important insights into the many dimensions of NLC and its relation to AI/AN student success, the lived experiences of our advisory board members brought our findings to life. In addition to our research team, our study was guided by an advisory board consisting of AI/AN scholars and community members representing the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Yakama Nation, the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and Oglala Lakota descendancy. Their contributions were instrumental in providing context to our findings. For example, the board suggested that providing students with access to AI/AN people might be most beneficial if teachers create an inclusive and welcoming environment where visitors and their contributions to educational experiences are clearly honored. Similarly, a classroom visit from an AI/AN guest should be linked to broader instructional goals to prevent tokenization of AI/AN culture. Teachers should feel comfortable and supported in challenging the dominant cultural narrative in their school by questioning content of textbooks in order to encourage their students to think critically about the cultural context of their education. 

AI/AN students represent a highly diverse group who bring critical perspectives to our classrooms. Promoting learning environments where they can succeed would benefit not only AI/AN students but enrich the educational experiences of all students.  


This post is part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, In the first post, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shared NCES findings on the learning experiences of AI/AN students throughout their education careers.

Dr. Claudia Vincent is a Research Associate in the Center for Equity Promotion, College of Education at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on identifying and developing solutions for persistent racial/ethnic disparities in discipline and academic achievement.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.