A Once Proud People Begin a Fight Against Hopelessness

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a fantastic story on their front page of this Sunday’s edition on Navajo schools in Arizona and the efforts underway to turn them around. The story shows how school grading, digital learning and immigration reform can help people who have taken a courageous decision to help themselves.

Background: schools located on the reservations in Arizona face enormous challenges and have truly abysmal test scores to show for it. Isolation, poverty and rampant alcoholism probably constitute the top three problems, though not necessarily in that order. Arizona has the lowest Native American scores on NAEP and they are not only abysmal they have been declining.

In K-12 policy discussions in Phoenix, the subject of “the Res” comes up frequently. Often people will claim that you can’t do this, that or the other thing because of “the Res.” Problems as deep as those caused in large part by a century of having the federal government “take care” of you don’t lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.

It is a long article that focuses on the personal story of Harold Begay, the Navajo Superintendent who returned to run Tuba City school district determined to turn things around. Here are the policy related parts of the story:

When the State Department of Education started assigning letter grades two years ago, Tuba City High School got a D.

It could fall to the bottom or head higher. Begay chose to go higher.When he was named superintendent, he pledged that the district would achieve the top letter grade of A.

Skip ahead….

Last summer, Tuba City High School’s grade improved from a D to a B. In addition to a better performance on standardized tests, the school showed more improvement than other low-performing schools. Navarre was honored at the state Department of Education’s office in Phoenix.

People are starting to believe what Begay told them two years ago”‘We’re going to become an ‘A’ district'” 

As a card-carrying member of the K-12 policy discussion going on in Arizona’s capital, let me be the first to confess that not me nor anyone else down in Phoenix could have ever dreamed up the policy solutions that Begay implemented in Tuba City. That is as it should be – A-F school grading was intended to put a focus on problems and call them by their proper names. Solutions come as a decentralized process.

Most of the conversations I have heard about “Res schools” have involved a sad air of resignation. The article mentions that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who carried the A-F bill in the Arizona Senate and implemented it as Superintendent, became the first person in his position in twenty years to visit schools on the reservation. I don’t know whether that is accurate or not, but I think it is fair to say that if anyone has had a serious plan about what to do about reservation schools in Phoenix it has been well concealed for a very long time.

Read the article however and you’ll the solutions that Superintendent Begay developed on his own: a new emphasis on Navajo culture, hiring teachers from the Philipines and use of a digital learning platform know as Beyond Textbooks. Beyond Textbooks is a product developed by the incredibly impressive Vail Arizona school district, located at the opposite end of Arizona from Tuba City in southern Arizona.

Recruiting teachers to extremely isolated and troubled areas is a real challenge. Tuba City is 75 miles north of Flagstaff out in the middle of a very desolate nowhere. If you want a small vignette into the idiocy of our immigration laws, note that Begay is losing half of his Filipino teachers to expiring visas. We ought to be throwing these teachers a ticker-tape parade, but instead we’ve decided to boot them out of the country.

By the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for American nativists to rush to Tuba City to provide the instruction these children need.  They are ummm busy, or something. But I digress.

Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the emphasis on student learning gains. Twenty-five percent of a school’s grade comes from the gains of the overall student body, and another 25% from the gains of the lowest performing quartile from the previous test. If you get gains your grade gets moving. Arizona will need to nudge up the grading standards in the future but for now the system just may be working as intended by meeting the worst schools where they are at the moment.

Tuba City schools face many challenges and have a long, long way to go, but don’t make the mistake of betting against them- they are back in the fight.

8 Responses to A Once Proud People Begin a Fight Against Hopelessness

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Matt, this is an important and grossly overlooked education reform issue. I recently took an extended road trip through the SW and back through Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark Country. In the process I became reacquainted with some of the sobering history of the 18th and 19th century American West. Hard too look at a map and all those reservations without stopping to think about that aspect of our heritage. If there could be one thing that would make a huge difference it would be a K-12 education revolution on reservations. I wonder how the politics would line up visi a vis traditional school choice and ed reform combatants.

    • matthewladner says:


      I agree that it is shameful. It’s not terribly hard to figure out why our ancestors gave the Navajo the NE corner of Arizona- if there is a more desolate place on earth, I have yet to see it.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Read Willa Cather’s “Death of The Archbishop.” Her section on the Navajo death marches are very moving and troubling.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Matt, I don’t understand why you want to expand immigration so we can keep on importing these Navajo foreigners who cause all these problems. Sure, we can let in a bunch of foreign teachers to teach in these geographically isolated schools. But we never would have had this problem to begin with if we hadn’t let in the Navajo in the first place! If these Navajo foreigners don’t like our schools, why don’t they just go back where they came from?

    • matthewladner says:


      Your jest reminds me of a serious statement made by in Texas back during the 1980s during an “English only” debate. Legend has it that the chap said “If English was good enough for Jesus then it is good enough for me!”

      • Cliff White says:

        What are you talking about, Matthew? It was one of Greg’s fundamentalist right-wing buddies who made that Jesus/English remark!

  3. Cliff White says:

    “Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the emphasis on student learning gains.”

    Yeah, right.

    Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the easily cooked numbers, effortless data manipulation and well-funded propaganda machine.

    If you and your fellow so-called “reformers” had reason to hate this school—for instance, if it was filled with unionized teachers and a very strong, savvy, well-educated and supportive group of anti-privatization parents—you and your allies in Arizona would have found a way to quickly make that “D” an “F”, and restart the “Failing School” tape from 1993.

    Some of us are on to you and your BS. You’re doing this for money. Do you think we’re unable to see that? (It’s about as “subtle” as a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. Please.)

    FYI. No teacher here: I run a small business. No teachers in my immediate or extended family, now or at any time in the past.

    I’m not a union member either; never have been. But my old man was, and his decent wages allowed my parents to raise a family in dignity and send both sons to elite colleges and graduate schools.

    And I’m glad. Not only because my sibling and I have incomes that exceed 90% of our fellow Americans, but also because we have the insight, the knowledge and the confidence to look at your sleazy propaganda and laugh in your face.

    Yeah, I’ll concede you would have intimidated the daylights out of most parents in the working class neighborhood I grew up in, despite their decency and kindness.

    But you and your ilk don’t scare me. At all. And by the time we spread the word to other public school parents—both progressives and conservatives want LOCAL control over our schools; get it?—we’re going to flush your mendacious, vile ideas right down the Toilet of Bad Historical Memories.

    We’ll do it with kindness and dignity. And never any violence. In the spirit of MLK.

    We’re going to use truth. And communicate it directly to other parents. That’s what terrifies you. And it should.

    • matthewladner says:

      Mr. White-

      If you have any evidence of data manipulation in Tuba City I suggest that you make it public. Absent any evidence, your suggestion of cheating on the part of Tuba City schools is both baseless and insulting to the staff and students of the school.

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