I was blessed to have parents who were lifelong educators in Alaska. In 1936, my father was born in Yunan Province, China. He survived the Second Sino-Japanese war, but carried with him life-altering experiences of captivity and loss that profoundly impacted his approach to education. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, we lived along the shores of Lake Iliamna, where my parents taught school in beautiful Newhalen village. My father recognized a deep trauma-related sorrow in the area, similar to that of the Chinese people where their children and culture were taken from them by force. His belief that education must derive from the culture, not brought to it, remains with me. Recent Alaska education test scores urge us in this direction.
In 2015, the Alaska Measures of Progress (AMP) standardized test results were disappointing with only 1/3 of Alaska students meeting minimum proficiency standards in English and Math. In some rural school districts, where many of the students speak English as a second language, the percentage of students meeting minimum standards was in the single digits. Many speculated about the AMP’s validity and in 2016 it was canceled.
In 2017, the Department of Education replaced the AMP with the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS) standardized test assessments. Like AMP, PEAKS was aligned with the Alaska English language arts and mathematics standards. So how did we do with the new test? Not good. According to DEED, more than 60 percent of students who took the test failed to meet minimum grade-level standards in English and Math, and the trend of our larger rural school districts having the poorest outcomes continued under PEAKS.
The good news is that Alaska is dissatisfied. We have outstanding teachers and committed school boards and support staff, but the challenge is deeper. The structure of education in Alaska, particularly in our rural districts, needs to be fundamentally reviewed for process integrity.
In the spring of 2017, an Alaska Education Challenge workgroup formed that included hundreds of stakeholders to find solutions to address our student achievement gaps. I had the privilege of serving on the Tribal & Community Ownership committee with Native leaders, teachers, parents and school board members. We heard from diverse groups and the recurrent theme was that our education system struggles to be responsive to rural communities where people often feel their voices are not heard and that their culture is irrelevant. Subsequently, they have little ownership of the education system.
We know that education can’t survive without strong partnerships between parents, schools and communities. Our committee looked to other states that are working to improve the education of indigenous peoples through consensus-based education partnerships that develop a long-range vision of Alaska Native success and ultimately recommended the state offer self-governance compacting for the delivery of education between the State of Alaska and tribes.
Compacts would be voluntary in nature, applying to tribes who are ready and wish to enter a compact with the state of Alaska for education services. The structure of these agreements would allow for integration of culture focused values with curriculum in order to achieve the vision of success defined by the tribal community.
Compacting with Tribes has been occurring in Alaska for more than 20 years, beginning with health care (the Alaska Native Tribal Health Care system), then tribal courts for misdemeanor and family law matters, and more recently for children’s services. For education, this has been the official policy of the United States government for over 40 years.
On Jan. 4, 1975, during the Nixon administration, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA). The Act states in part, “To provide maximum Indian participation in the government and education of the Indian people; to establish a program of assistance to upgrade Indian education; to support the right of Indian citizens to control their own educational activities.”
The congressional findings made the intent of the act explicitly clear — Congress finds that true self-determination in any society of people is dependent upon an educational process which will ensure the development of qualified people to fulfill meaningful leadership roles … and parental and community control of the educational process is of crucial importance to the Indian people.
The late Senator Ted Stevens amended this Act to prevent the Bureau of Indian Education from providing funds to Indian schools in Alaska as the matter of federally recognized Tribes in our state had not yet been resolved by the Courts. A recent opinion of Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth states the Courts have now made it clear that Alaska has over 200 federally recognized Tribes. I call upon our Congressional delegation to amend the ISDEAA to allow BIE to recognize and help fund tribal schools in Alaska. Let’s not waste the hurt of decades of failure, but redeem it into a meaningful, transformational change of education delivery.
Our First Alaskans view education not in the context of grade school and advanced degrees, but through the cultural lens of millennia. If we truly believe education should be culturally responsive, then we should do all we can to see that the culture brings the education. It will then be owned in the strongest sense of the word. We can only imagine the transformation!
What if we fail? We already did that. What if we succeed? Hallelujah!
Tribes will certainly do no worse than the mess we are in now and we have every reason to believe they will do it better. Alaska is no stronger and more beautiful than when we come together as one to overcome our greatest obstacles. Surely, seeing that all Alaskans have equal opportunities to learn and succeed is a rallying cry.
• Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, was elected in 2016 to represent House District 24 in South Anchorage and serves in the House Education, Judiciary and Transportation committees.