Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thoughts About Improving Education in Alaska

Despite the news of dismal failures, Alaskan schools have had good success with certain student populations. Some of our graduates have excelled at our nation’s most prestigious universities. Twenty-five percent of all Alaskans entering college go on to get a degree. After graduating high school, many youngsters obtain apprenticeships or complete specialized vocational training. A significantly large number qualify to go into the armed forces and then honorably serve and protect our country. Since some students are coming away with a decent education, it’s obvious that students do at least have an opportunity to acquire a decent education.

The problem is that we’re trying to make that one educational model, a college prep plan of study, the only one available to all students. The consequence is that we have too many dropouts and we don’t offer relevant education to most of our students – especially to students in villages. I don’t understand why we’ve decimated our vocational-ed programs. Skilled workers are always in demand in Alaska.

Alaskan students are required to take four years of language arts, four years of mathematics, three years of social studies, and three years of science, a health class, PE, and a several fine and practical art elective classes. Individual districts can also require additional classes. For each of these mandatory classes, that is one less class a student could take that might be more meaningful and practical. And if a struggling student fails a mandatory class, he must double-up the next year.

Wouldn't it make more sense to require a certain level of performance, and once that level is achieved, the student would have the option of taking more classes in that area or s/he could take a class of their choice?

The following postings suggest some changes that I believe would improve education in Alaska. Please view them as starting points for discussion. I welcome your comments.

1) We Need To Offer Four Types Of High School Diplomas

Back in the day when the United States was a leader in education, students could chose a high school plan of study based on skills and interests. All countries that now outscore us in student achievement continue to offer most or all of these choices.

General: Students acquire HSGQE/GED-equivalent skills in reading, writing and computation with an additional of other basic skills needed to be productive citizens.

University Prep: Based on the highly successful International Baccalaureate program, this course of study would prepare students for even the most rigorous universities.

Tech Prep: An apprentice program that trains students for skilled vocations such as mechanics, construction, computers, fisheries, etc. Students who are planning careers in fields such as engineering or medicine would gain outstanding real-life skills by combining tech training with advanced science and math classes offered by the University Prep program.

Business Prep:Aanother apprentice program that prepares students for careers in business: data entry, inventory, marketing, tourism, food prep etc.

All students would be eligible to receive a general diploma after turning 16 years old if they have demonstrated the minimum skills based on HSGQE/GED levels. Students who receive this type of diploma would be able to remain in school and take as many (or as few) classes as they needed to achieve their personal goals.

In the past it was sometimes true that American students were forced to take one plan of study over another - that system was called tracking. Too often racial and socioeconomic considerations excluded capable and willing students from the choices they wanted. To avoid this, there should be flexibility so that students can take classes offered by the other programs and certainly no student who is willing to do the work should be denied the opportunity to participate in any program. To avoid stigmatizing any course of study, each should be given adequate and equal funding, and equally up-to-date equipment. Math, science and language arts offerings would be appropriate to the skills needed for each diploma.

The truth here is that not everyone wants to go to college and not everyone should. The truth is that working with your hands is as necessary in our society as any other profession. And the truth is that some prefer that sort of life rather than going to college.

2) Students Should Be Willing and Responsible Participants

This one is simple – students who enroll in a class should be expected to do the work assigned and to reasonably control their own behavior. Too often, students who want to learn are held back by the shenanigans of those who don’t. That’s unfair and it’s a mystery to me why it’s tolerated. Those under 16 who choose not to cooperate should be offered an alternative setting and then guided by teachers who are paid extra for the bother. The schools would then work with parents, and if necessary, law enforcement personnel, to develop plans for success. Those students older than 16 who choose to be difficult will be shown the door, but offered a way back if willing to work. Those who drop out should lose their Permanent Fund Dividends until they pass the HSGQE/GED.

3) School Administration Needs to be Reformed

Of course there are notable exceptions, and to be certain, most all school administrators are decent people, but there is a dearth of good educational leadership.

In my experience, principals are not hired for their pedagogical understanding, but for their willingness to be compliant to the authority of central office. Those who prove to be the most compliant ascend to mid-level management and develop a penchant for pushing paper, exerting power over their former colleagues and ushering in the latest educational trend. Few have any defined educational vision that goes beyond the most basic understanding of how learning works. Superintendents are usually too far removed from the realities of the classroom. In my 27 years of teaching I don’t think I would need two hands to count the number of times a local school board member or school administrator (other then a principal) visited my classroom or has come to an academic function.

It might be a surprise to Alaskans, but every one of our districts has a relatively fair mechanism in place to remove incompetent teachers – even tenured teachers. Principals can identify ineffective educators and put them on needs-improvement plan that then guides a struggling teacher towards success in the classroom. If a teacher on a needs-improvement plan does not demonstrate acceptable growth, they then can be fired. While most anyone can identify a problem teacher, few principals are capable of actually devising a sound plan of improvement so those few teachers who need help rarely are given it.

4) Teachers Should Be Given More Time

A typical high school has a seven period day and each teacher is expected to prepare for six classes (sometimes one is lucky to teach the same subject more than once a day). In elementary schools, most every teacher prepares new lessons in math, science, reading, writing and social studies, etc. every single day and for children performing at different levels. There are also papers to grade and enter in the computer; meetings to attend; hall, bus and recess duties; supplies to order; an occasional visit to the restroom…the list does go on. If there is an expectation for teachers to prepare dynamic and meaningful learning activities, teachers should not have to teach more than four hours each day. The consequence is that we need to hire more teachers – but think about it. Can we really expect anyone to be successful teaching six classes of 25 kids or more each day? It’s why there are now so many worksheets, so much drudgework, even more boring lectures and why there are fewer hands-on lessons that fully engage a students imagination.

5) The Culture of Sports Needs to be De-emphasized

A few years back, I stood inside the main doors of a Kenai peninsula high school with the principal and commented on the number of plaques honoring each student who held a school record in each sport the school offered. I wondered out loud why those with the highest SAT scores or who were selected as National Merit Scholars were not also included. At another peninsula high school a team that recently won a small schools state sport championships were regaled with a school-wide tribute. Classes were stopped and all students and teachers were expected to bridge their hands and cheer as the team ran the gauntlet under the extended arms. Yep, a couple of central office administrators and school board members showed up to show their admiration. At this same school, students have won national and international academic competitions without so much as a handshake of recognition from the principal. Sport is the tail that wags the dog of education and that attitude causes more harm than does good. Oh, I am all about fitness and know the value of team and individual sports, but if we really want schools to focus on the acquisition of reading, writing and computational skills and if we want our students to understand science and to appreciate the struggle of humankind to make the world a better place, we need to de-emphasis the culture that views academic success as secondary to success in sports.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Soda Poppin’

I am not exaggerating. At Alak school in Wainwright most every kid from 6th grade up would bring a six-pack of soda pop to school each and every day. It was not at all unusual for some to bring in and drink a half-rack of pop. It was one of the battles that the school chose not to fight. In Angoon, the kids weren’t as flagrant as that – but it was evident that soda or some energy drink was the preferred beverage to be consumed at any opportunity. The school, or at least individual teachers, would occasionally enforce the rule prohibiting those drinks on campus.

Yes, diabetes is rampant in villages and tooth decay is a huge problem. Many youngsters have already lost some of their permanent teeth to rot. Obesity is common and the empty calories in soda pop are a major factor.

Here in Akiuk, I will soon face an ethical dilemma. I will be expected to help run the school store and the store sells mostly candy, junk food, soda and energy drinks. The school does enforce a policy that prohibits the sale of any junk food or drink before 5 PM on school days – but the ‘healthy’ offerings before 5 are mostly sugarcoated granola bars, corn nuts and drinks with a few drops of actual juice. Come 5 and anything goes: mostly candy and pop. Once again I have to state that I am not exaggerating, but the school store will clear over $25K this school year with the proceeds going to offset the cost of taking the kids to Hawaii.

It will probably be a battle that I will choose not to fight – after all I am the new kid on the block and I’ll be gone for good in May. But I know I will feel like drug dealer each and every time a kid or parent gets their junk food fix.

Maybe it's time to think about a special tax on soda - and use the money to pay for prevention and to cover the additional health care costs of diabetes, dental decay, and obesity. Check out Nicholas Kristof's NY Times article: Miracle Tax Diet.