In late 2019 Alaskans learned that, despite spending more than 1.6 billion dollars every year on education, our elementary and high school students ranked at the bottom in terms of national test scores, with only 39% proficient in reading and 36% proficient in math. In fourth grade reading, a key benchmark, Alaska ranked dead last among all 50 states. This is a remarkable state of affairs considering Alaska ranks in the top five states for per-pupil education spending. There is no obvious correlation between the amount taxpayers dole out for schools and results achieved.
In January Gov. Mike Dunleavy responded to a declaration by seven school district superintendents of a “reading achievement crisis” among their students. The governor announced a bi-partisan effort called the Alaska Reads Act (yes, bipartisan, believe it or not) to be submitted to the Legislature to address this crisis.
How could 84% of the students graduate if less than half were proficient?
What we don’t know is this: how the crisis happened, why it happened despite generous funding, and why the alarm wasn’t sounded sooner. If we don’t know why it happened, we won’t know how to fix it.
Last month the Anchorage School District distributed its “2019 Report to the Community.” The report was silent on the reading crisis declared by the seven school superintendents, including Anchorage’s. A bar graph did, however, show that less than half of Anchorage students were proficient in reading, math and science. The graph immediately preceded a celebration of the highest graduation rate this century, 84.1%. How could 84% of the students graduate if less than half were proficient? Did achievement suddenly accelerate in the last two or three years of high school, or were students simply waved through even though they were not proficient in basic areas? One clue is that 74% of high school graduates attending the University of Alaska system have to take at least one remedial class just to prepare for college. Accountability is desperately needed.
NO PROGRESS WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY
I am on the board of directors of a significant and successful charity. In the last few years demand has arisen from donors, including foundations and government, that charities provide donors concrete information as to the effect their contributions have in bettering the lives of clients they serve. It is called “Efforts to Outcomes.” In response, we have created graphs and other concrete information which measure our clients’ progress or regress. Besides giving donors confidence that their money is well-spent, the system provides valuable information to case workers, helping them to develop, and change where necessary, case plans for individual clients. Holding our feet to the fire improves our work. This is accountability.
Given Alaska’s educational disaster, the expansion of real options for parents to choose from is imperative.
One of the key points listed for the Alaska Reads Act states: “Use valid and reliable formative assessments to monitor students’ progress.” Sounds good, but it seems to apply mostly to kindergarten through third grade. Will the results of these assessments be able to measure outcomes for the student body as a whole? Will they be available to parents and the public? Certainly, the direction and even amount of funding must be dependent on achieving real progress, not declining performance.
COMPETITION IS KEY
I mentioned in a column last month a pending U.S. Supreme Court challenge to state constitutions that deny religious schools the opportunity to access state grants on a level par with public schools. Gov. Dunleavy, when he served in the Alaska Legislature, sponsored an amendment to remove Alaska’s discriminatory policy that prevents private and faith-based schools from competing for state funds. Had Dunleavy’s proposal passed, it would have opened the door for more competition in the educational marketplace.
Any monopoly gets lazy. The educational crisis points to the fact that something beyond assessment standards and financial assistance is needed. Alternatives, otherwise called competition, can focus the mind of former monopolies and improve their character and performance. Given Alaska’s educational disaster, the expansion of real options for parents to choose from is imperative.
The writer is a retired attorney who practiced law in Anchorage for 46 years.