Alaska editorial: Court case acts as audit in showing failed educational system

Posted: Friday, February 13, 2009

State judge Sharon Gleason is performing a great service for Alaskans. In handling a suit claiming the state doesn't adequately support K-12 education, she is essentially conducting a detailed audit of how well the state helps Alaska's handful of chronically underachieving school districts. Answer: Not very well.

After listening to experts on both sides, Judge Gleason found the state is failing students in those academically troubled districts, all of which are in the Bush.

"The schools in the chronically underperforming school districts are not constitutionally adequate." she wrote in her ruling Feb. 4. "The Education Clause (of the Alaska Constitution) requires considerably more from the state in the way of oversight and assistance to those districts."

What does the state do now with those struggling districts?

Judge Gleason found that the state uses a not-very-helpful cookie-cutter approach.

State overseers demand the districts take the same fixed menu of steps, then check to see if districts are following through. Nobody really bothers to make sure that following those steps actually improves how children are taught in the classroom.

"The State's current interventions have provided virtually no on-site assistance to the teachers and educators, or the school board in the intervention districts," Judge Gleason wrote.

The state requires weekly school-level improvement meetings, even if there are only one or two teachers in a school. The state makes the district get an improvement "coach," but Judge Gleason noted those coaches spend little time out in the troubled school district. When the coaches do go out, they talk to district leaders, not teachers who do the real work.

Judge Gleason cited this observation from Carol Doyle, director of instruction for the Yukon-Koyukuk school district:

"I have all this year asked for in-classroom, down-to-earth practical strategies for teachers to use with kids to improve their instruction," Doyle said, "and I have not gotten that at any point in time."

High-quality teaching is critical to help struggling students succeed, according to the experts Judge Gleason heard from. Evidence in the case showed that New Jersey, Connecticut and North Carolina made big progress cutting the achievement gap for minority students.

And how did they do it?

"They invested substantially in improving the quality of teacher preparation," Judge Gleason found.

She gave the state and those troubled districts some serious homework.

For each junior or senior who repeatedly fails the graduation exam, the troubled districts should work up an individualized improvement plan, supplying the help the particular student needs.

For each academically failing district, the state has to design a more customized and detailed intervention plan. Elements might include mandatory preschool, on-site coaching for teachers, mentoring arrangements, anti-truancy campaigns and so on.

Yes, family or community trouble may make the schools' job harder, the judge indicated, but that's no excuse to give up on educating the children.

And Judge Gleason said, it's not enough to focus exclusively on getting students to pass tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. She ruled that the state must push the academically troubled districts to help students achieve the higher-level academic goals the state has set in multiple subject areas.

That's a pretty ambitious and demanding list. It might seem like overreaching for the judicial branch of government to delve so deeply into school operations and oversight.

But the woeful state of education in those districts led the judge to conclude that the state is not meeting its obligations under the Alaska Constitution. Outside pressure from the courts might be just what's needed to make sure every Alaska student gets a decent opportunity at an effective education.

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