Schooling Vs. Education on Reservation Schools

Education has been an essential element in all cultures throughout history; education, however, has not always looked like schooling. Today education has become synonymous with the western form of education, schooling. Diane Ravitch (2010) similarly argues that schools are often a place where “children are being trained, not educated” (110).

Education can shape our ideals and help us become better human beings– people who are compassionate, critical thinkers, dedicated, and knowledgeable about many things. Education can teach us that we have a voice. Education can teach us how to use that voice to stand up for others and ourselves, and to fight for what we believe is important. Education teaches us to value and celebrate those who are different than us, while realizing we may not be all that different than those we label as “other.”

Schooling on the other hand is not equitable and has historically marginalized those not in the dominant culture. Schooling does not teach students to question the system they are required to be a part of. Schooling does not teach students that there are many kinds of knowledge and many ways of knowing, and that they are all valuable. Schooling does not teach students that their voices are just as powerful and as important as teachers and textbooks, and does not teach to students to question the texts they read.

This disparity between education and what modern schooling looks like today with mandated curriculum and an overemphasis on standardized testing became a clearer reality during my two years of teaching on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Historically, schools have failed Native Americans through missionary schools and federal boarding schools. These schools attempted to assimilate Native students, replace their native language with English, replace their indigenous ethics, convert them to Christianity, and ultimately kill the culture of a people.

Devastatingly, I realized the reality of schools on Native reservations today have not changed very much. Students are rarely provided the same opportunities as their peers who go to schools off the reservation. Also, students are rarely given the opportunity integrate their native culture with their education. Culturally relevant teaching is often replaced with standardized test preparation. As a teacher on the reservation, I began to understand this present disparity between schools on Native land and those on state land and the reality it brought for my students. The conclusion I drew from this experience was that the students at my school and those of other reservation schools were continuing to be schooled whereas the students in town were being offered a more equitable and relevant education.

David Skeet Elementary in Vanderwagen, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation received an ‘F’ for the 2012-2013 school year based on New Mexico standardized test scores. Using another standardized measurement, Discovery Education Short Cycle Assessment data, 4th graders at David Skeet Elementary ranked 11/18 in reading and 12/18 in math on the final spring test. Just 16 miles north of David Skeet in Gallup is Red Rock Elementary. Red Rock Elementary received the school grade of ‘C’, with its 4th graders ranking 1/18 in both reading and math. I visited Red Rock Elementary to get a firsthand account of what was going on at this high performing school and found 4th grade students having a science fair. While the students at Red Rock were presenting science fair projects they had conducted completely at home with their parents, I couldn’t help but think about my own 4th graders who had no time for science worked into their daily schedule, but instead were given extra reading and math lessons for remediation as well as very strict standardized test preparation. The test scores of my previous school district were publicized; some schools just as Red Rock Elementary were glamorized whereas reservation schools such as David Skeet were reprimanded. Rather than addressing many of the economic needs of the community and school, the district attempted to solve the problem of low test scores with more test preparation, forced curriculum, and reprimanding teachers through extra work and extensive test score accountability.

One of the most troubling aspects of this disparity between reservation and town schools, however, is that these two groups of students are brought into the same middle schools where the disparity widens. The counseling office at the middle school that my students attend uses 5th grade New Mexico standardized test scores to place students on different tracks-– A, B, C, D, E, and F. These letter names are not just representative symbols, but indications of how students did academically in elementary school on these standardized tests; students who score advanced will be placed together on the ‘A track’ while those who score beginning steps will likely be placed together on the ‘E track’. The ‘F track’ is considered the inclusion track for students who have specific learning needs. Typically students from David Skeet find themselves placed between the ‘C-F tracks’. Students on the A and B track are predominately nonnative students who live in town.

Today education has been replaced with schooling for many children around the United States. Knowledge and creativity has been replaced with test taking strategies. Science, art, and music classes have been replaced with reading and math remediation. While this is a reality for many children in the United States, it is increasingly prevalent among schools on Native reservations. Nicole Bowman (2003) argues that this is also revealed through the amount of Native students attending postsecondary schools. Many students face barriers such as economic difficulty, difficulty adjusting to the culture of university, lack of mentors, and discrepancies between Native worldviews and postsecondary worldviews (93). I believe that these are not just issues students face in postsecondary but also in elementary and middle school. Rather than addressing these barriers and implementing the suggestions of many native leaders such as building cultural identity of students, more student-centered and experiential learning, and appreciation for formal and informal education, many districts opt to increase testing and teacher accountability. This is a tragic reality because it is not true education for our students.



Bowman, N. (2003). Cultural differences of teaching and learning: A native american perspective of participating in educational systems and organizations. American Indian Quarterly. 27 (1-2), 91-102.


Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great american school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.