Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Cultural awareness in the classroom: American Indian education and cultural competency in Minnesota

American Indian education and cultural competency in MN

By Sarah Rand
September 27, 2017

In a three-part blog series, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest takes an up-close look at cultural competency in education. This third and final post in the series focuses on American Indian education. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Cultural competency gets to the heart of efforts to close persistent achievement gaps between black and white students by the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance (MAGRA) and efforts to close achievement gaps between American Indian and white students by the Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance (MCRRA). Improving a school community’s cultural competence can play an important role in closing the achievement gaps (Coggins & Campbell, 2008). Cultural competency generally refers to educators’ ability to serve students from all cultural backgrounds, particularly those who don’t come from the dominant culture represented in a school (Landa, 2011).

When the Director of Indian Education at the Minnesota Department of Education, Dr. Jane Harstad, was asked to recall a time when she was struck by how important cultural competence is, she said, “There are a thousand examples… It happens every day. Turn on the news and you’ll see why people need to understand other people’s cultures and ways of thinking.”

For Harstad, the importance of cultural competence goes beyond what’s in the news. Cultural competence impacts her role and the students she serves. She said it’s particularly important for educators of American Indian students to practice culturally competent teaching strategies in their classrooms. American Indian students have the lowest adjusted cohort graduation rate of any racial/ethnic group in the United States, with only 72% graduating from high school, compared with 83% of all students (Institute of Education Sciences, 2017).

Culturally responsive education acknowledges that cultural gaps between home and school contribute to the achievement gaps and calls for increased cultural relevance in education to engage, support, and empower learners (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008). Gay (2000) states that “culturally responsive education recognizes, respects, and uses students’ identities and backgrounds as meaningful sources for creating optimal learning environments.” To learn more about culturally competent practices, see the second post in this series.

Harstad’s experience is in line with what the research shows is the value of cultural competence. She said that for educators to be culturally competent when teaching American Indian students, they must have a foundational knowledge of American Indian instruction, curriculum, patterns of participation, leadership, decision making, and culture. She encourages educators to work with their school communities to come to an understanding of what should be taught in a classroom—and how: “[Teachers must] honor the heritage of where American Indian students are coming from, while keeping in mind the pedagogy, curriculum, and social skills that are necessary.”

Harstad explained how understanding American Indian history and political status is important for educators who want to be culturally competent. (Listen to the audio. Transcript below.)

Harstad shared an example of how educators must understand students’ backgrounds in order to understand their contexts and traditions, such as the practice of wearing eagle feathers at graduation. (Listen to the audio. Transcript below.)

Staff at state education agencies, the federal government, and nonprofit organizations are working to address the achievement gaps for American Indian students. In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires local education agencies with an American Indian enrollment of at least 50% to consult with local American Indian tribes for guidance in delivering culturally competent instruction (Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015).

Researchers have found that culturally competent education practices lead to improved outcomes for American Indian students, such as

One of Harstad’s strategies for promoting culturally competent education in Minnesota is Indian Education Aid. This aid program follows best practices for culturally competent education and makes space for culture and traditions in American Indian students’ education (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008). Any school district in Minnesota with 10 or more American Indian students is required to assemble a parent committee of American Indian parents to advise the school on ways to help their students succeed. Schools with 20 or more students need a parent committee and receive funding to support American Indian programming in their schools. In the state, 150 schools fit these criteria, and most get the financial aid.

Harstad and her staff work with these schools to develop and implement their plans. Harstad explained what it’s like when this program works well and when it’s more difficult to implement. (Listen to the audio. Transcript below.)

Harstad said some schools in Minnesota—notably, the tribal schools—do a wonderful job of practicing culturally competent education, but “others are not so readily jumping in to American Indian history. They don’t know the history, so they fear jumping in. It’s important to work with everyone to get them to a place where they are willing to work toward culturally competent programming, policies, and pedagogy for American Indian students.”

Check out these resources that Harstad recommends for supporting American Indian education:

Check out these two briefs created by the Midwest Comprehensive Center that discuss how to support the meaningful tribal consultation required under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Tribal Consultation Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: A Guide for Tribal Leaders and Communities and Tribal Consultation Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: A Guide for Affected Districts.

Read the first post in this series about how one school in Wisconsin is continually working with educators to improve cultural competency.

Read the second post in this series about how a federally funded center is supporting equitable education in the Midwest.

Watch our archived webinar: Preparing American Indian Students for College and Careers.

Transcript of first audio clip from Dr. Jane Harstad: Understanding all of that history is a big part of cultural competency for American Indians, and I don’t know that it would be comparative to other racial minorities. When you have schools that say we’re hiring an equity officer to help us with all of our minority students, and they assume that American Indians are included in there, one of the things that we really have to sit down and chat with folks about is that the unique political status of American Indians is different than that of other racial minorities. So we have a unique political status in that we’re citizens of the United States of America, but we’re also citizens of our tribes. So we have a dual citizenship.

Transcript of second audio clip from Dr. Jane Harstad: Teachers who are not culturally competent trying to teach American Indian education or history or programs or making policies, then, if they’re not culturally competent to begin with, then it’s not going to do well. For instance, policies of wearing eagle feathers at graduation. Many schools in Minnesota have a policy that American Indians can wear their eagle feathers at graduation, but there are a few that are still resisting, and not understanding the culture and traditions of American Indians is prohibiting them from making a choice that’s good for American Indian students. So educating teachers as well as administrators, superintendents on issues of American Indian traditions, culture is the biggest issue at this point because some are willing to accept it and some are not willing, and those are the folks that we need to work with first.

Transcript of third audio clip from Dr. Jane Harstad: When it comes right down to it, the school system wants the American Indian students to succeed, the parent committees want the American Indian students to succeed, and once they realize that they have the same goals, and then how to get to those goals is usually the point of contention, but when we can come to an agreement, that is a true success because that is what parent committees are for, that is what education aid is for. The time when it’s tough is when someone at a school or a school district is not ready to work as closely with the parent committee as they could, or they choose not to. And that makes it more difficult in that we have more education to do with that person or that organization. But it’s important to not only myself but the people who work in this office and the Department of Education that we work with everyone to try to get them to a place where they’re willing to work toward culturally competent programming, policy, and pedagogy for our American Indian students.

< Previous PostNext Post >

Author(s) Information

Sarah Rand Image

Sarah Rand

Communications Consultant | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

Teacher Recruitment (2)

Teacher Retention (2)

Teacher Workforce (14)

Return to the REL Midwest Blog

Sign up for our newsletter to receive monthly updates featuring new posts from the REL Midwest blog!

Subscribe to Newsletter