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Our country is presently facing the most challenging task of the century in the field of education - improving the quality of our educational system. Weak areas in the U.S. secondary education system include the absence of a unified methodology for teaching, a lack of consistency in school policies, a weak academic curriculum, low expectations from students, tension between teachers and school administration, and an often-unsavory school environment.
While some educational experts have recommended that American schools should adopt aspects of their Asian and West European counterparts, such as a longer school year or more rigorous tasks and requirements, other researchers indicate that recently immigrated children of Asian, European, and Russian origin are able to excel in the American school system as it exists. Despite hardships, limited knowledge of English and western cultural values, these children quickly adapt to their new school environment and rapidly begin to excel within the first few years.
How can we explain the remarkable performance of newly arrived immigrants in a hostile social and economic environment? What social stimulus forces "foreigners" to perform better in school than those who have lived in this country for four or five generations? Within newly immigrated families, parental encouragement and dedication to learning, family pride in educational excellence and a clear realization that education is the most important instrument for success in the highly competitive American society were major factors supporting superior educational performance.
Studies have shown that cultural values play an important role in the educational achievement of children. The family is the central institution in these traditions where achievement and knowledge are admired and encouraged. Nowhere is the family's commitment to education more evident than in time spent on homework.
During high school, Indochinese, Russian and Japanese students spend an average of three hours per day on homework, in junior high an average of 2.5 hours, and in grade school an average of two hours per day. Research in the United States shows that American students study about 1.5 hours per day at the junior and senior high school levels. Studies found that parents who attributed greater importance to fun, excitement and material possessions than to education had children with lower grade-point averages than those who ranked education as more important. It is essential to remember that school is not an entertainment center, but an institution where teachers share their knowledge with students in the most harmonious, professional, and effective way.
For American schools to succeed, parents and families must become more committed to the education of their children. The research indicates that children can succeed in our American education system as it exists, when parents and families are committed to their progress. Families must create within the home an environment conducive to learning by participating in the process so that their children feel comfortable learning and go to school willing and prepared to study. As families increase their involvement in their children's education, schools must reach out to these families and encourage them in the education of their children, identifying cultural values and educational methods for success that might enhance scholastic achievement.
Unconventional means of schooling, such as Alyeska Central School in Juneau and the Raven correspondence program of the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, provide Alaska with a viable education system that furnishes students with excellent instruction, a safe study environment, and the parental involvement that seem key to educational success. Another way to improve education system in Alaska is to support harmonious teacher-student relationships. The cornerstone of education is a teacher, an individual who is trained and willing to share knowledge and compassion with his or her students. In the final analysis, the quality of education depends on teachers themselves. No well-stated policy, effective administration or sophisticated technology can replace the need for qualified teachers and good teaching.
Alexander B. Dolitsky of Juneau has taught Russian at the University of Alaska Southeast and teaches social studies at Alyeska Central School.