Recently, the Department of Education and Early Development released data that show an achievement gap in Alaska between students who are white and students who are minority. The report has prompted a number of comments. Some among them assume that somewhere out there is a relatively simple answer to the mystery of why children from poor families and non-majority ethnic groups do not succeed as well as well-to-do children of the majority culture. No such magical solution exists.
Many of these same individuals assume that educators do not already know what is needed to help all children learn up to their potential. In fact, we have a good idea of the elements required for children to learn. These elements do not constitute a magic formula, but they are common sense supported by research and data.
Last summer, a broad group of Alaskans met to respond to a legislative directive to define the elements needed to provide our children with an adequate education. The group included local legislators, parents and educators. The report they issued will resonate with anyone who has children in school or has ever gone to school. The list of essentials is nothing more than common sense:
Teach students with a curriculum that is aligned with state standards.
Use qualified teachers who have time to teach and access to professional development.
Provide students a safe environment in well-maintained buildings.
Create effective partnerships between the home, the school and the community.
Provide students with access to appropriate technologies.
Meet the diverse learning needs of students.
The real problem is that many of our students, particularly our poor and minority students, attend schools that lack these essentials. One rural superintendent has a saying. "If a child is hungry, you don't need to weigh him, you need to feed him." In school terms, "If a child needs to learn more, we don't simply test, test and test again. We provide opportunities to learn."
Over the past decade, the governor and the Legislature have required more and more accountability from everyone in our public schools. Students must pass high-stakes tests. Teachers are evaluated against state standards. And this coming year each of our schools will be assigned a label according to how well their students do on these high-stakes tests.
At the same time that Alaska's leaders have been increasing their demands our schools have been starved of the resources needed to meet these new expectations. Inflation has eaten up 30 percent of the buying power of our education dollars over the past 10 years, while funding has increased by only 5 percent. All the political spin doctors in the world cannot refute this simple arithmetic.
We have heard the governor and the Legislature tell us how much they added to education funding last year. And these new dollars are certainly appreciated.
But the critical fact is that when you subtract the one-time only grant money and look only at the increases that can be used to run our schools, those increases did not even keep pace with last year's inflation. Our elected officials certainly did not address the huge shortfalls that the past dozen years of inflation and unfunded mandates have created.
Alaskans deserve accountability. It is right that students, educators and school districts be held accountable for results. But schools need the resources to provide students with the essentials of an adequate education. If we can provide all of our children with decent facilities. If we can provide fully qualified teachers who remain with a district more than a year or two.
If we can build bridges with families and communities. And if we use curriculum that matches our Alaskan standards. Only then will we eliminate the achievement gap.
Providing all of our children with the quality education they deserve should not be a partisan issue. It should not be a rural or an urban issue. It is an Alaska issue. And it is past time for us to make this necessary investment in our future.
Anchorage teacher Rich Kronberg is president of NEA-Alaska, which represents more than 11,000 teachers and other school employees throughout Alaska.