Advisory Councils Seek to Shape Teaching of Native American History and Culture

By Valerie Norville

When State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced in July 2021 that California’s American Indian Education Oversight Committee would meet for the first time since 2017, he joined a handful of states whose state boards of education, legislatures, and state education departments have recently sought to elevate the role of Native American advisory councils on decisions affecting state education policy.

Some of these state advisory councils have existed for many years. North Carolina established its State Advisory Council on Indian Education in 1988. The law that established it requires the council to submit an annual report to the state board of education. Its latest report, in April 2021, made several recommendations to the board to deepen state-level collaboration with Native American communities, encourage culturally relevant teaching, and address learning loss during the pandemic and barriers to student achievement.

The Montana Advisory Council for Indian Education marked its 25th year in 2020 and reports quarterly to the state board. Similar councils advise state boards and state education leaders in several Western states and North Carolina. The Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Office of Indian Education also makes available materials by content area and grade band, as well as a set of principles that apply to all instruction intended to reflect tribal culture and heritage, titled “Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians.”

Members of the Arizona Department of Education’s Indian Education Advisory Council in 2021 requested renewal of the state board’s 1985 policy statement on Indian education, which the state board approved as part of its consent agenda during the October 2021 meeting. With COVID relief funding, the department was also able to expand the staff of its Office of Indian Education from one to four.

Oregon has taken additional steps to ensure that Indigenous students have equitable academic opportunities and culturally relevant curricula and that all of Oregon’s students can learn about the history and contributions of Native Americans in the state. The state legislature in 2017 enacted the Tribal History/Shared History Act, which directed the Oregon Department of Education to create K-12 Native American curriculum for inclusion in Oregon public schools and provide professional development to educators.

The Oregon State Board of Education approved an updated American Indian/Alaska Native Education State Plan during its May 2020 meeting, which had input from Oregon’s AI/AN State Advisory Committee on Indian Education and others, and it adopted related grant eligibility rules in November. Required under the state’s Student Success Act, the plan covers students from early through postsecondary education and addresses student achievement, graduation rates, educator diversity, professional development, community engagement, and curriculum.

State boards routinely express their desire to seek input from diverse voices and communities, and many have found advisory councils to be an effective way to engage particular groups. States with councils representing Native American nations and student populations already have a useful venue to deepen engagement and meaningfully address shared goals of achieving equity and excellence for all students.