Alaska, in many ways, is still a frontier. We have opportunities that no other state in our country can claim. Our uniqueness is a strength, as it has been for many generations. This is not just true with resource development, natural beauty, and culture, but also with the opportunity to transform our education system into a relevant, high-achieving and family-friendly network of schools.
A quality education system was not an afterthought in Alaska, it has always been foundational. Centuries before Alaska became a state, Alaska’s indigenous people taught and learned culture, science, language, and other elements of rich traditional knowledge. The framers of the Alaska Constitution were also clear that education was a cornerstone of statehood.
Alaska’s current system of public education has some of the most innovative and successful schools in our country. Our educators, parents, and students do not let geography, resources, or other challenges hinder the delivery of high-quality learning opportunities. These effective learning opportunities should be recognized and nourished even as we work together to improve.
Whether it be a one-thousand mile trek on a dog-sled or a 20,000 foot climb up one of the world’s tallest mountains, Alaskans have a long history of facing even the most ardent challenges with determination. Clearly, educating our students is a challenge we must face. The fact is, even though many of our students are getting a good education, Alaska has one of the largest achievement gaps in our country. Compared to other states in America, Alaska ranks at or near the bottom in reading and math scores. The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results that were released today highlight these sobering facts. The 2017 NAEP results confirm what we learned last school year from our statewide summative assessment, PEAKS. We MUST be dissatisfied with these numbers.
We should not minimize the significance of our results or make excuses. It is in our students’ best interest that we use these results as an opportunity to continue our sense of urgency and our commitment to ensuring an excellent education for every student.
These numbers are a call to action. Over the past year, hundreds of Alaskans have stepped up to answer this call and demonstrated through Alaska’s Education Challenge that they are unwilling to accept our current results. As parents, students, educators, policy makers, tribal leaders, partner organizations, and local school boards, they worked together to create a vision for public education by sharing three commitments to Alaska’s students: increase student success, cultivate safety and well-being, and support responsible and reflective learners.
For those who doubt the need or possibility of a better education system, I ask, “What is your vision for the future of Alaska’s youth?” Either we are satisfied with how well our current
system works for ALL students and do nothing to improve it, or we are dissatisfied and will commit to something better for ALL students. To be satisfied that some students do not benefit from learning opportunities is wrong. To do nothing about it is irresponsible.
We all must ask ourselves, how will we keep these three commitments in our own families, classrooms, schools, and communities? I am calling on all Alaskans to meet the educational challenges of our state by sharing these three commitments.
A better education system built on our values and successes will not be possible without the involvement of ALL Alaskans. Each community must want a great school enough to invest the hard work and take the action necessary to make it happen. We will never legislate, regulate, spend, cut, blame, promise, excuse or wish our way to great schools. We must have the character needed to share a vision and work together to support it. I am confident The Last Frontier has what it takes to pioneer a new kind of public education system for the 21st century.
For more information on specific goals and work being done in the department, visit education.alaska.gov or call 907-465-2800.
Dr. Michael Johnson is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.