What others say: Time for a new conversation about education

  • Wednesday, February 5, 2014 3:17pm
  • Opinion

As Alaska lawmakers consider sweeping education reform there are a few other factors that need consideration; issues occurring outside the classroom and which go beyond increases to student funding and more school choices for parents.

A statewide survey funded by the National Education Association-Alaska asking teachers what factors they believe are inhibiting student learning was released Friday, and from the results it’s clear that the problems facing Alaska’s schools can’t all be fixed with extra funding, more teachers or smaller class sizes.

According to the report, the factors in both rural and urban districts include poor home environments, a lack of parent involvement, chronic absences and the influence of drugs and alcohol in the community and at home. Paying teachers more, increasing the base student allocation and offering vouchers to families won’t make these problems go away.

These problems aren’t new for teachers and administrators, or for many members of the public for that matter. The Juneau School District has a program that offers taxi rides to elementary school students who move midway through the school year. The rationale is so that students who have to constantly relocate can maintain some degree of stability by maintaining a consistent learning environment, which in turn will increase academic success. JSD also has taken an active role in working with homeless students, a role born out of necessity. Ask any teacher you know if they keep snacks and food in their classrooms for students who show up each day hungry, and the answer more times than not will probably be, “yes.”

The survey isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know, but it will force us to have an uncomfortable conversation about the issues outside of school that prevents about a quarter of Alaska’s young learners from graduating high school on time.

The problem is: How can Alaska legislate good parenting? The answer: It can’t.

When two people bring a child into the world, whether intentional or not, they take on responsibility for the child’s well-being. That includes physical, spiritual, emotional, and yes, even educational, nourishment. If a parent fed only junk food to their kid, child protective services would intervene because the lifestyle would be considered unfit. The same should be said when parental neglect leads to constant absence from school. Without a proper education kids will be far more likely to become a burden to society — through involvement in crime, time in prison or reliance on government aid — than a student who has learned the value of working hard and being successful.

According to the survey, only half of urban teachers believe parents are involved enough in their child’s elementary education. A third said the same when it came to parental involvement with high schoolers. In rural areas the figures are lower for each, 33 and 20 percent, respectively.

There’s no clear-cut solution to the problems addressed in the survey, and more than likely it will take a combination of solutions and perhaps some trial and error before we get it right. The important thing is that we try to get it right and learn from mistakes along the way. Solutions could range from mandated parenting classes when a student has too many unexcused absences, to legislation requiring districts to employ a truancy officer.

Bottom line: Our state’s politicians, teachers, school officials and parents need to begin a series of long — and perhaps difficult and awkward — conversations about what’s really keeping students from learning and graduating on time. And it needs to happen before the Legislature decides to throw money at the problem. A BSA increase may help keep schools heated and prevent a few teacher layoffs, but it won’t make parents care more about the importance of their kids’ education.

— Juneau Empire,

Feb. 2

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