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REL Central Ask A REL Response

American Indian – Instructional Strategies

February 2018


What instructional strategies support academic achievement for American Indian students?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Apthorp, H. S., DeBassige D’Amato, E., & Richardson, A. (2003). Effective standards-based practices for Native American students: A review of research literature. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Research and related literature were reviewed to summarize evidence on the effectiveness of different instructional practices for helping Native American students meet standards. In English language arts, 16 reports were reviewed. In mathematics, 8 reports were reviewed. Findings were mixed for the effectiveness of teaching Indigenous language and literacy first, followed by English literacy and bilingualism. In some content areas, Native American students participating in these programs met grade level expectations; in some areas, they did not. Findings were indeterminate with regard to the effectiveness of culturally congruent practices for Native American student achievement in reading and mathematics. Promising practices were identified, such as successful collaboration among community members, teachers, researchers, and teacher education faculty for creating culturally congruent classrooms with an emphasis on developing language and thought, but causal conclusions could not be drawn about the effectiveness of these conditions for helping students meet standards. Plans for further collaborative research are presented in an appendix, and a link to the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence (CREDE) is provided to assist readers in locating related and ongoing research and reviews.”

Best, J., & Cohen, C. (2013). Common Core State Standards and implications for special populations. Denver, CO: McREL. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This brief explores the potential impact of the CCSS on special populations and gives examples of implementation targeting these populations, followed by recommendations and questions for policymakers to consider. For the purposes of this brief, the special populations discussed include students with disabilities, Native American students, and English language learners (ELLs).”

Demmert, W. G., Grissmer, D., & Towner, J. (2006). A review and analysis of the research on Native American students. Journal of American Indian Education, 45(3), 5–23. Retrieved from

From the article:

“The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted in 2002 places emphasis on improving student achievement, particularly the achievement of minority and disadvantaged students. The focus on minority and disadvantaged students arises because their scores traditionally lag behind the scores of white and/or advantaged students. Among minority and disadvantaged groups there is much research and achievement data that has focused on measuring and explaining the achievement of black and disadvantaged white students. Less research has been done on Hispanic students. In comparison to each of these groups, there has been very little research and data collected on measuring and explaining the achievement of Native American students.”

Demmert, W. G., & Towner, J. C. (2003). A review of the research literature on the influences of culturally based education on the academic performance of Native American students. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“The formal reports cited in this review of the literature present the position that knowing, understanding, and appreciating one’s cultural base are necessary starting points for initiating a young child’s formal education. The task of this report is to review the research literature to determine whether there is a direct relationship between a culturally based education curriculum and improved academic performance among Native American students.”

Jesse, D., Northup, J., & Withington, A. (2015). Promising education interventions to improve the achievement of Native American students: An annotated bibliography. San Francisco, CA: West Comprehensive Center at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The purpose of this annotated bibliography is to identify interventions, and supporting research, that may benefit educators in their efforts to close the AI/AN achievement gap. It answers the question: What are promising programs, policies, practices, and processes related to improving academic and nonacademic outcomes for AI/AN students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade?

Lara, J. (with Hartford, S.). (2011). Voices of Native educators: Strategies that support success of Native high school students. Washington, DC: National Indian Education Association. Retrieved from

From the executive summary:

“This report summarizes a conversation that took place in April of 2010 in Washington, DC regarding high school reform and Native American, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian students. The meeting was co-sponsored by the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). The meeting was attended by a broad sector of Native educators representing various tribes across the U.S. mainland, Alaska and Hawaii. The purpose of the meeting was to elicit ideas from the participants regarding best practices for improving the success of Native students enrolled in the nation’s high schools. The conceptual framework that organized the meeting and this report was provided by the Campaign for High School Equity in a report titled ‘A Plan for Success.’ In this document six policy directives were outlined that are intended to support the transformation of secondary schools. The task for the participants of the NIEA/NEA meeting was to support the policy directives with examples from Native communities.”

Lohse, C. D. (2008). Striving to achieve: Helping Native American students succeed. Washington, DC: National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Across the United States and among its many cultures, education has long been viewed as the golden road to the American dream, a pathway of hope that offers the possibility of a better life. Unfortunately, for many students–primarily those from low-income, minority homes–that pathway has been obscured. The roadblocks are most substantial for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children (hereafter collectively referred to as ‘Native students’). This report analyzes and discusses the educational achievement gap between Native students and their non-Native peers and offers policy recommendations to close the gaps in performance.”

McRae, D., Ainsworth, G., Cumming, J., Hughes, P., Mackay, T., Price, K., . . . Zbar, V. (2000). What works? Explorations in improving outcomes for indigenous students. Deakin, Australia: Australian Curriculum Studies Association; Collingwood, Australia: National Curriculum Services. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“This is not a comprehensive study or review of education and training for Australian Indigenous students. While it contains some general data for reference and comparative purposes, it makes no attempt to either outline the process of historical change or to assess the current state of play. Nor does it document current failings or the wide range of successful practice which exist at present in this area.

It is an account and discussion of a government initiative, the non-capital Strategic Results Projects element of the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Programme (henceforth IESIP SRPs, or just SRPs), designed to explore how improvements in achievement might be made relatively quickly through dedicated resources and effort.”

Nelson-Barber, S., & Trumbull, E. (2015). The Common Core Initiative, education outcomes, and American Indian/Alaska Native students: Observations and recommendations. San Francisco: Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“This monograph explores the ways in which large-scale school reform efforts play out in American Indian/Alaska Native communities and schools, starting from a historical and cultural perspective, and focusing on the translation of research into concrete steps leading to American Indian/Alaska Native student academic success and personal well-being.”

Ninneman, A. M., Deaton, J., & Francis-Begay, K. (2017). National Indian Education Study 2015: American Indian and Alaska Native Students at Grades 4 and 8 (NCES 2017-161). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

From the about this report:

“The National Indian Education Study (NIES) is administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to allow more in-depth reporting on the achievement and experiences of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students in grades 4 and 8.

This report focuses primarily on two themes identified during the development of the NIES survey questionnaires.

  • To what extent are AI/AN culture and language part of the curricula?
  • To what extent are school resources available for improving AI/AN student achievement?

The student survey questions selected for this report asked AI/AN students about the knowledge they had of their Native culture and language and their opportunities to learn more. Teacher survey questions asked teachers how they acquired and integrated culturally responsive materials, activities, and instruction into their lessons to enhance student learning. Questions from the school administrator survey asked school officials about how often members of the Native community participated in school events with students, parents, and teachers.”

Oakes, A., & Maday, T. (2009). Engaging Native American learners with rigor and cultural relevance (Issue brief). Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. Retrieved from

From the article:

“In this Issue Brief, The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement identifies strategies that foster Native American student engagement and improved academic achievement. We begin by examining the distribution of Native students and then we explore three areas that are identified in the literature as promising strategies for improving educational outcomes for Native students:

  • Instructional practices
  • Curriculum content
  • School climate”

Pewewardy, C. (2002). Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice. Journal of American Indian Education, 41(3). Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“A review of theories, research, and models of the learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students reveals that American Indian/Alaska Native students generally learn in ways characterized by factors of social/affective emphasis, harmony, holistic perspectives, expressive creativity, and nonverbal communication. Underlying these approaches are assumptions that American Indian/Alaska Native students have been strongly influenced by their language, culture, and heritage, and that American Indian/Alaska Native children’s learning styles are different–but not deficient. Implications for interventions include recommendations for instructional practice, curriculum organization, assessment, and suggestions for future research.”

Portillo, A. (2013). Indigenous-centered pedagogies: Strategies for teaching Native American literature and culture. CEA Forum, 42(1), 155–178. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“As a reflection on pedagogy, this essay seeks to provide strategic tools for teaching Native American literature and culture to non-native students. My teaching philosophy is informed by the indigenous-centered, decolonial methodologies as defined by Devon Mihesuah who calls for ‘indigenizing’ the academy by challenging the status quo and debating the controversial issues that adversely affect the lives and representations of Native Americans (Indigenizing the Academy, 2004). I argue that an indigenous-centered pedagogy and multidisciplinary approach gives students the opportunity to critically examine those instances of cultural tourism and popular media stereotypes that continue to perpetuate gross misconceptions about American Indian identity and culture. In addition, I highlight the ongoing challenges that instructors face when teaching students to ‘unlearn’ Eurocentric histories and dominant national narratives. I have taught Native American Studies courses to a wide range of students from multiple backgrounds and thus, this essay will be based on the various experiences I have had in the classroom at five different institutions in the past eight years (i.e. Ivy League, small liberal arts college, state college, and university).”

Sorkness, H. L., & Kelting-Gibson, L. (2006, February). Effective teaching strategies for engaging Native American students. Paper presented at the National Association of Native American Studies Conference, Baton Rogue, LA. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Recent statistical data from South Dakota and Montana reveal the dropout rate among Native American students is high and the high school graduation rate for Native American youth is the lowest among various minorities (OPI, Dropout Data, 2003). Achievement test scores for Native American students are low in both states, as well. It is important that schools and teachers attempt to find ways to improve this situation. In this study, teachers in two South Dakota schools that had a significant number of Native American students, along with a group of K–12 teachers from Montana, were surveyed in an attempt to determine what strategies those teachers had found to be most successful. Teachers were also asked what aspects of the Native American culture had significant impact on classroom interactions. The results of the survey were compared to recommendations specified in two textbooks for pre-service and in-service teachers. The authors of those textbooks had not focused specifically on South Dakota or Montana Native Americans, however.”

Swisher, K. (1994). American Indian learning styles survey: An assessment of teachers knowledge. Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 13, 59–77. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the introduction:

“The present study is an exploratory effort to determine current thinking about learning styles from the perspective of those groups closely associated with American Indian students, i.e., teachers and administrators of the schools attended by American Indian students. The study assumes that there is a pervasive, but not clearly defined, understanding by practitioners of learning styles relating to American Indian people. An awareness that American Indian students exhibit learning styles that differ from mainstream students is apparent as evidenced by the presentations and informal discussions that occur at many conferences and symposia on American Indian education. The purpose of this study was to determine the extent of teacher knowledge about learning styles and to determine the extent to which this knowledge is applied in classrooms attended by American Indian students.”

Van Ryzin, M. J., Vincent, C. G., & Hoover, J. (2016). Initial exploration of a construct representing Native language and culture (NLC) in elementary and middle school instruction. Journal of American Indian Education, 55(1), 74–101. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Students from American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) backgrounds have typically experienced poor academic and behavioral outcomes. In response, the educational community has recommended that teachers integrate Native Language and Culture (NLC) into instruction to create a welcoming and culturally relevant classroom environment. However, translating this recommendation into practice has been challenging. In this study, we take the first steps toward a formal exploration of the effects of NLC on AI/AN performance by attempting to define a scientifically defensible set of variables that can measure the degree to which teachers and schools make use of NLC in instruction. We used data collected by the National Indian Education Study (NIES) in 2009 and 2011, and conducted exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses with the Student, Teacher, and School (Administrator) Surveys. Contrary to expectations, we found that use of NLC in the classroom was a multidimensional construct: student perceptions differentiated between media-based and live contact; teacher perceptions included both preparation and teaching activities; and, administrator reports included both instructional practices and access to local resources. Implications for further research are discussed.”

Yazzie, T. (1999). Culturally appropriate curriculum: A research-based rationale. In K. G. Swisher and J. W. Tippeconnic III (Eds.), Next steps: Research and practice to advance Indian education (pp. 83–106). Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Educational researchers and practitioners have long advocated adopting a culturally appropriate curriculum to strengthen the education of Native youth. Such an approach uses materials that link traditional or cultural knowledge originating in Native home life and community to the curriculum of the school. Deeply imbedded cultural values drive curriculum development and implementation and help determine which subject matter and skills will receive the most classroom attention. This chapter examines theoretical and practical research studies that support and inform the development of culturally appropriate curriculum for American Indian children in K–12 classrooms. These studies fall into the following areas: (1) historical roots, including the Meriam Report of 1928; (2) theoretical frameworks (modes of linguistic interaction, supportive learning environments, communication and interaction styles of students and teachers); (3) curriculum development (approaches to overcome culture conflict, parent and community involvement, inquiry-based curriculum, role of Native language in concept development, local community issues, appropriate communication with elders); (4) curriculum practice and implementation (characteristics and behaviors of effective teachers, teacher role); and (5) implications for educational research and practice.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

The Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation, Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources for American Indian/Alaska Native Students:

From the website:

“These research studies and meta-analyses review theories, research, and models for how effective teachers can use the learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students to improve student engagement and achievement in the classroom. These resources are meant to provide a basis for improving understanding of AI/AN learning.”

Journal of American Indian Education:

From the website:

“Founded in 1961, the Journal of American Indian Education (JAIE) is a journal featuring original scholarship on education issues of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Indigenous peoples worldwide, including First Nations, Māori, Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander peoples, and Indigenous peoples of Latin America, Africa, and others.”

National Indian Education Association:

From the website:

“The National Indian Education Association (NIEA) was formed by Native educators in 1969 to encourage a national discourse on Native education. For 47 years, NIEA has hosted an annual convention to provide a forum for collaboration. NIEA adheres to the organization’s founding principles- to bring Native educators together to explore ways to improve schools and the education of Native children; to promote the maintenance and continued development of Native languages and cultures; and to develop and implement strategies for influencing local, state, and federal policy and policymakers.”

Oklahoma Indian Education Resource:

From the website:

“The office of American Indian Education shall serve as an ambassador for Indian Education providing guidance and leadership to the Native American tribes recognized as sovereign nations.”

Since Time Immemorial:

From the website:

“Welcome to Since Time Immemorial, or STI. OSPI, private and public agencies, and several of the 29 Federally Recognized Tribes in Washington State have partnered and funded this ground-breaking curriculum initiative. All 29 tribes have endorsed its importance and use. This site houses resources, materials, lessons, and entire units to support the teaching of tribal sovereignty, tribal history, and current tribal issues within the context of OSPI recommended units for Washington and US history in the elementary and middle school levels and US history and Contemporary World Issues in the high school level. Each unit is aligned with National Common Core Standards, state standards and builds toward the successful completion of a Content-Based Assessment, or CBA.”

South Central Comprehensive Center, American Indian Education KnowledgeBase:

From the website:

“The American Indian Education KnowledgeBase is an online resource to aid education professionals in their efforts to serve American Indian students and close the achievement gap American Indian students have faced in public, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other schools.”


Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Native American instructional strategies
  • Culturally responsive teaching

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published between 1994 and 2017 were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data; (b) study types–randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, etc.; (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected samples, etc.), study duration, and so forth.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.