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.