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Supporting Native American Students Through Culturally Relevant Education

West | September 01, 2023

One of REL West's priorities is to accelerate partners' efforts to address disparities in outcomes for students of color and other underserved populations in order to establish the necessary educational conditions to help students thrive and succeed. Aligned with this priority, REL West recently reviewed selected research on effective academic supports for Native American students as part of its Ask An Expert service to assist districts in the West Region to better meet the needs of Native American students.

According to data released from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Native American students' scores in math and reading have remained stagnant over the past 15 years and are consistently lower than their peers'.1 So, what does the research say about strategies that will support academic achievement of Native American students?

Unfortunately, the research on academic supports for Native American students is limited. However, one clear theme emerged from the review of the research: Native American students benefit from culturally relevant education. Below are the findings, based on selected literature, related to culturally relevant education for Native American students, along with examples in practice drawn from the literature. The findings fall into three broad categories: knowledge of culture and community, ways of learning, and academic content.

Knowledge of Culture and Community

A research review suggested that alignment between the school and the community culture and educator engagement with the community can all impact academic performance of Native students.2 And in a qualitative study, Native American parents identified communication and fostering a learning environment respectful of their culture as factors that would encourage their involvement in school.3 Another review of the literature also suggested that teachers who possess knowledge of Indigenous culture can significantly impact the success of Native youth in schools.4 Examples in practice:

  • Engagement and communication:
    • Encourage two-way communication with families. Offer opportunities for families to share their feedback and experiences.
    • Communicate in various ways with families, including in-person, electronically, and in print.
    • Designate an advocate or liaison at the school to welcome and assist American Indian parents and children.
  • Cultural alignment:
    • Develop cultural programs, activities, and resources. These could include resource centers, after-school activities, and clubs for children and families focused on American Indian stories, crafts, language, dance instruction, and/or traditions.
    • Provide opportunities for students to access Native language and cultural programs to support students' positive sense of identity and attitudes towards school.
  • Educator knowledge:
    • Encourage educators to get involved in community activities and spend time with community members. Engage with American Indian/Alaska Native students, parents, and community members to build respect for and prevent misconceptions about the culture.
    • Establish critical, culturally based teacher training programs to help teachers best serve Indigenous youth.

Ways of Learning

A review of theories, research, and models revealed that American Indian/Alaska Native students from traditional Indigenous contexts may be more likely to learn in ways characterized by values of harmony, holistic perspectives, expressive creativity, and nonverbal communication.5 Examples in practice:

  • Notice how American Indian/Alaska Native students learn and match teaching styles to students' preferred learning styles. For example, parents and elders from tribal communities often teach through demonstration. Therefore, many American Indian/Alaska Native students may perform best in classrooms with an emphasis on visualization.

Academic Content

A qualitative case study suggested that incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices in science education can engage students and improve their learning outcomes.6 And a randomized controlled trial showed that a culturally based math program significantly increased student gains in understanding key mathematics concepts.7 Examples in practice:

  • Include school, home, and community life as well as students as sources of science and math knowledge.
  • Choose curricular content that allows students to draw on their cultural background knowledge.
  • Learn who possesses certain knowledge and skills in the local community. Offer opportunities for them to share their knowledge and skills with students.

Overall, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for supporting Native American students. Stories of how Native American students thrive when learning takes place in contexts that are aligned with their cultures and communities are abundant,8 yet, these contexts are not the experience of most Native American students. In general, designing learning experiences for Native American students that integrate and value their cultures lays a foundation for academic success. To successfully implement the practices referenced in the studies, districts and schools must first learn from, draw on the assets of, and respond to the needs of their distinct local communities.


1 Rampey, B. D., Faircloth, S. C., Whorton, R. P., & Deaton, J. (2021). National Indian education study 2019: American Indian and Alaska Native students at grades 4 and 8 (NCES 2021-018). National Center for Education Statistics.

2 Demmert Jr., W. G. (2001). Improving academic performance among Native American students: A review of the research literature. Washington, DC: Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education.

3 Mackety, D. M., & Linder-VanBerschot, J. A. (2008). Examining American Indian perspectives in the Central Region on parent involvement in children's education (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2008–No. 059). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central.

4 Anthony-Stevens, V., Jones, J., & Begay, V. (2020). Regenerating teacher education programs with Indigenous knowledge in Idaho. Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, 15(3), 1–12.

5 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, 22–56.

6 Bank, M., & Medin, D. (2010). Cultural processes in science education: Supporting the navigation of multiple epistemologies. Science Education, 94(6), 1008–1026.

7 Kisker, E., Lipka, J., Adams, B. L., Rickard, A., Andrew-Ihrke, D., Yanez, E. E., & Millard, A. (2012). The potential of a culturally based supplemental mathematics curriculum to improve the mathematics performance of Alaska Native and other students. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 43(1), 75–113.

8 Education Northwest. (2020, November). Native American heritage month: The stories we tell.


Anne Porterfield

Anne Porterfield

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