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Survey: Outside influences inhibit learning

Leading factors include lack of parental involvement in schools

Posted: February 2, 2014 - 1:05am

There have been countless proposals to improve Alaska’s education system since the Last Frontier became a state 1959. Some suggested changes in the classroom, others sought to amend what was taught, and many altered education funding formulas.

But none of those proposals were backed by data from teachers and community members across the state. That’s because until now no such database existed.

“For the first time, we understand what’s going on in the classroom,” said Andrew Halcro, the president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

Over 1,160 teachers responded to the National Education Association-Alaska funded survey that was posted online for three weeks. About 78 percent of the teachers were from urban school districts, and that closely correlates to the 80 percent of the population that lives in urban areas.

Questions covered a wide range of topics from teachers’ opinions of the schools to what is affecting students’ learning outside the classroom.

“This info is incredibly valuable, and this is the first time it’s ever been developed — it should absolutely be included when they’re making decisions,” Halcro said of lawmakers weighing education reform during the ongoing Legislative session. “The education initiatives put on the table in Juneau would change education more than it has ever been changed in history of Alaska, and they’re doing it with no relevant data.”

Halcro has planned to discuss the survey at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday but was not able to land in Juneau due to fog.

Biggest problems vary by district

Only one of the five top problems identified by both rural and urban teachers happens during the school day — bullying.

“You look at these trends, and these are things we could have made improvements on over the past 10 years,” Halcro said.

The other top inhibitors to students’ success (not in order) are poor home environments, chronic absences, inadequate student preparation prior to the current grade level and the influence of drugs and alcohol in the community.

“When you look at the big scope of education, things like affordable housing, public safety, community health, language programs — these are not school district responsibilities, but they are factors in school districts’ success rates,” Halcro said.

He added that the inadequate student preparation likely stems from the lack of a pre-kindergarten education system.

The rank of individual problems vary depending on grade level and if the school was in an urban or rural setting.

For example, the top issue at urban elementary schools is a poor home environment, and teachers estimate that affects about one in five urban elementary students. Meanwhile, teachers at rural schools said drugs and alcohol in the community affect the largest number of elementary students, about 38 percent.

In urban schools, inadequate student preparation was tabbed as another issue affecting a large percentage of students at 25 percent. Chronic absences, bullying, drugs and alcohol in the community and poor home environments are listed as the top problems facing rural middle schools.

The trends continue into high schools, with many of the percentages pertaining to number of students affected increasing with grade level.

“You can see as a student moves through K to 12, the trends of these things are compounding themselves,” Halcro said. “The middle school segment is where things need to be focused. That’s really the turning point for many students.

“And these are things that could be worked on with few additional costs,” he added.

Solutions found outside school system

In Anchorage, 77 percent of students graduate from high school within four years. To improve that number, officials should look beyond the numbers, Halcro said.

“If you don’t look at the other 23 percent, you’re not doing those numbers any service,” he said. “You can’t look at graduation rates without looking at students, and you can’t look at students without looking outside the school walls.”

Some of contributing factors identified by the teachers’ responses include poor returns related to parental and student engagement, families’ academic and behavioral expectations of their children and negative community perceptions of teachers.

Student engagement in elementary school is relatively high with about three-out-of-four teachers saying they believe their students are engaged in the learning process, but those numbers drop by 20 percent in urban districts and 26 percent in rural districts by the time students reach high school.

Almost half of the urban teachers surveyed believe parents are adequately involved in their child’s education in elementary school, but that number falls to just over a third by high school. The trend is worse in rural settings where just 33 percent of teachers believe parents are engaged in elementary school. Less than one-in-five say the same by the time the student reaches the ninth grade.

Halcro said that a meeting with cultural leaders from around the state revealed that many students live with six or seven people in cramped two-bedroom apartments. On average, nearly one-in-four students move every school year.

“If you dig deeper into that data, one of the key problems there is affordable housing,” he said.

The best use of this data would be for lawmakers to team with education professionals, community advocates, community health experts and other stakeholders to develop wide-reaching strategies aimed at specific areas of need identified in the survey, according to an answer sheet distributed with the survey.

“Now that we see these things, that’s where we can focus efforts to improve,” Halcro said.

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at Follow him on Twitter at

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Dot Wilson
Dot Wilson 02/02/14 - 09:38 am
Affordable housing

or lack thereof may contribute to a less comfortable living standard; but very successful, intelligent, motivated professionals have been raised in "sub-standard" housing.

Having lived through the raising teens era, a lot of the problem is that parents are parents are sometimes bullied by their teens ("if you don't let me do this, I will go live with the other parent" or "if you keep me at home against my will, I will call the police and say you hit me"). Children have a different (and probably more difficult) curriculum than the parents had in high school; and because of that they think they are smarter.

No one teaches that life experiences are valuable even when they do not originate in a high school textbook. The reason grade school kids do better is because they are still at an age when they listen to their parents, think their parents are handsome/beautiful/smart, and the grade school curriculum is one the parent can understand.

If the school wants the high school parents more involved, maybe they should hold quarterly evening (or a full Saturday) classes for the parents to bring them up-to-date on what is being taught and how to work with their teen.

A child in sports needs a personal sponsor. Not for money but for moral support. I understand that in most families both parents work (they did in our family too). But because life seems more threatening these days, maybe a working parent can find a friend or elderly "sponsor" to attend activities the working parent cannot attend.

Also, teachers need to be careful in their comments about parents whose philosophy is different from their own. High school teachers have a big influence on the children's attitude toward their parents and toward life in general. A lot more verbal support (whether you are in agreement or not) will give the parent more authority to require certain behavior from their children that hopefully will include studying.

Very few students today use outhouses, are required to work to help support the family (not just for spending money), and are physically mistreated. But they are allowed to sit for hours in front of a game boy (or equivalent) or they have their own TV in another room so they are out of the way and the parents can do what they want in the house without being bothered by troublesome kids. The days of parents and children sharing most of their at-home hours together are gone. That is not sub-standard housing. That is because their houses are so big and parents so affluent that kids can go entire days without interacting except to eat a meal and as often as not, not even that. There is something to be said for living in a small house inconvenience and all. I like living in a bigger house, but the smaller house provided more family-interaction and in retrospect as frustrating as it was, it was a good thing.

Todd Tenen
Todd Tenen 02/03/14 - 01:15 pm
Teacher Tenure...and Teachers Unions are

two inhibiting factors missing on the top of this list........

Frank Heart
Frank Heart 02/02/14 - 12:00 pm
Yes bullying is a horrible

Yes bullying is a horrible thing. Blocking the public from giving input on projects is a form of bullying to.

Remember when we had an economy where it only took one income to raise a family. Why did we give that up?

Dot Wilson
Dot Wilson 02/02/14 - 09:10 pm
Don't know. Both my parents always worked

and we both worked. The "economy that only took one income" must have been a long, long time ago. It was certainly never around during my lifetime in my family.

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand 02/03/14 - 02:16 pm
What is Wrong With Both Working?

My parents always both worked. No big deal.

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