Rob Capriccioso | Updated December 5, 2011

President Barack Obama made news on December 2 when the White House announced his signature of an executive order, titled, “Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Education Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.” The order is meant to improve educational performance and options for Native American and Alaska Native students from early education through college.

The signing was done in conjunction with Obama’s third White House Tribal Nations Conference, which saw hundreds of tribal leaders gather at the Department of the Interior’s headquarters to hash out Indian issues with administration officials.

“We’re going to find ways to reduce the dropout rate,” Obama said in his speech to the gathered leaders.  “We’re going to help students who’ve already dropped out re-enter the education system.  And we’re going to strengthen our tribal colleges and universities.  They are cornerstones of their community and they deserve our support.”

When Obama announced his action to the crowd, they applauded loudly. The order turned out to be the most significant executive commitment the president offered that day.

The order reads, in part: “It is the policy of my Administration to support activities that will strengthen the Nation by expanding educational opportunities and improving educational outcomes for all AI/AN students in order to fulfill our commitment to furthering tribal self-determination and to help ensure that AI/AN students have an opportunity to learn their Native languages and histories and receive complete and competitive educations that prepare them for college, careers, and productive and satisfying lives.”

“My Administration is also committed to improving educational opportunities for students attending TCUs [Tribal Colleges and Universities]. TCUs maintain, preserve, and restore Native languages and cultural traditions; offer a high-quality college education; provide career and technical education, job training, and other career-building programs; and often serve as anchors in some of the country’s poorest and most remote areas.”

The order establishes a White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of the Interior will co-chair. The initiative is then supposed to carry out efforts to affirm the federal government’s commitment to Native education.

Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee, and Dan Boren, D-Okla., the Ranking Member of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, were quick to praise the Obama administration for its effort.

“The Obama administration is stepping up efforts to keep more students in Indian Country from dropping out, and indeed thriving in educational settings,” Markey said in a statement. “From Newtonian calculus to Native culture, the educational system in tribal communities must better serve the scholars of the future, and this initiative should help.”

“I was very pleased today at the President’s announcement that he will implement the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education,” added Boren. “This is an important advancement in fulfilling our commitment to our tribal communities. This focus on tribal education is needed now more than ever. American Indian and Alaska Native students have a dropout rate higher than any other racial or ethnic group in America. This is a trend we need to reverse, and the new education initiative is a step in the right direction.”

The ball now lands in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s court. He is called for in the order to appoint an executive director to lead the initiative.