When Gov. Mike Dunleavy tries to explain his plan to “improve” education by cutting $320 million from schools, he usually launches into a monologue about the state spending too much and getting too little in return.
He complains about the low reading and math scores by Alaska students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and claims Alaskans care about education spending, but not about educational “outcomes.”
People care about educational achievement. It is ridiculous to claim otherwise.
The reason families don’t care about the NAEP test, given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders, is that students and their families never find out how an individual performs on the test. The tests don’t count toward grades and the results are reported only as statewide totals.
Low statewide averages conceal important information about the many Alaska students who are doing well at schools across the state. Don’t forget that the average world is one in which Robert Reich, at 4-foot-11, and Shaquille O’Neal, at 7-foot-1, have an average height of 6 feet, as Reich says.
The Dunleavy education script, which the governor recites like the Pledge of Allegiance, doesn’t include anything about why average scores on the NAEP test are low. It doesn’t deal with the reasons that Alaska spends what it does on schools or the high rate of teacher turnover. It doesn’t mention the relationship between poverty and academic success. It doesn’t mention how his plan would increase class sizes and lead to teacher layoffs.
Any honest analysis of Alaska education would include those factors, but Alaskans aren’t getting that from Dunleavy or his staff.
An honest evaluation doesn’t suit his purpose, which is not to improve education but to cut the budget without regard for the consequences. He says he has no choice, but that’s not true. He has made the choice to look at the problem in a way that leads him to propose the biggest cuts in the history of Alaska schools.
A couple of recent legislative presentations provided some of the essential information that Dunleavy doesn’t care to deal with, showing that at least one branch of state government recognizes the complexity of the situation and the need for leadership.
In a report to the Senate Finance Committee, Mark Foster, former chief financial officer for the Anchorage School District, looked into test scores, teacher preparation and the achievement gap that persists.
“Poverty is the primary driver of differences in test scores across the United States, as it is in Alaska,” Foster told senators April 3. “It’s quite striking when you look across the patterns that we find. And it’s easily around half of the difference in the scores. So you want to be mindful of that when we’re comparing raw scores. We want to acknowledge that there’s a gap. We also want to acknowledge there are significant headwinds in raising our children and getting them to high levels of proficiency.”
The headwinds include rural districts with high teacher turnover and low graduation rates, not to mention low test scores and the reality that it is a constant struggle to prepare students for college, vocational training and the other steps toward success.
Foster believes a cooperative effort along the lines of the Alaska Native Health Tribal Consortium could muster the horsepower to combat the inertia that afflicts the system.
Foster said that one of the big pluses he draws from test score numbers is that many children from poor families start at a low level of achievement when they first attend school but show significant growth as they move along.
His recommendation is to put a priority on small class sizes, effective teachers and early literacy. The Dunleavy approach consists of simply talking about reading and math while proposing to eliminate resources in every public school to help develop reading and math skills.
Dayna DeFeo, director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, spoke to House members April 15 about the challenge of school costs and the difficulty of recruiting teachers in Alaska. She said the operation of a large number of small schools across a large geographic area in a place with the highest health care and energy costs in the country are key factors that drive up the cost of education.
A 2015 study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research said that teacher salaries needed to rise by 15% to become competitive — with a range across districts of anywhere from a 6% decrease to a 105% increase in pay — but those recommendations were not adopted. There is a national teacher shortage, which makes it difficult for Alaska to attract top talent.
Increasing costs for health care help depress wages, which makes it hard for the state to compete, she said.
“Student achievement is directly related to teacher quality, and there is ample research on teacher turnover and student achievement,” DeFeo said.
About 80% of the teachers hired each year are from the Lower 48, and from 2004 to 2014, the average turnover in rural districts was about 20% a year, a 2017 ISER study found. “As with many social issues, the problem of teacher turnover is intensified in the communities and schools serving the most marginalized populations,” the study said.
In the Lower 48 there are fewer people enrolling in teacher education programs, and districts Outside are hiring and paying more competitive salaries, she said. There is high turnover in Alaska not only among teachers but also among principals and superintendents, which creates instability.
Higher salaries are part of the solution, along with improving working conditions, she said, which include school leadership, the relationship with the community, class size, work load and housing conditions.
As to budget cuts, most of the money for education is spent on personnel, so that’s where most cuts have to fall. “It is difficult for the districts to absorb cuts without increasing class sizes and laying off some teachers,” she said.
The governor should be providing educational leadership. He has failed to do so.
Dermot Cole is a longtime Alaskan, an author of several history books and a former Daily News-Miner staff columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.