The Anchorage School District is experiencing a rare event this quarter: Two School Board seats are terming out and the current superintendant is retiring. It is unusual to see turnover of this magnitude but with it comes an opportunity for change.
Anchorage has an opportunity now to reflect on the last decade and to adapt its course to serve our district in the best possible ways. One important area that warrants review is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in January 2002, commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that was designed to improve student education and to change the culture in American schools. Some of the common goals were: Make sure every child knows how to read by third grade; give parents and families a lifeline through support services; test all children annually to ensure adequate yearly progress; and provide more resources to schools.
The original intent of the act was noble. But in reality, the execution at the local level is time-intensive, capital-intensive and spreads the focus rather thin for districts. Instead of focusing on developing and delivering a comprehensive curriculum, a significant amount of the district's time, attention and money is going toward providing social service programs for students.
This holistic approach can be very effective but only if the academic piece is also rigorous. Unfortunately, research shows that Alaska is failing in this area. According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Alaska was ranked last in the nation for fourth graders in both math and reading. In addition, Alaska's college graduation rate was ranked last nationally in all but two years between 1997 and 2009. UAA admission offers an explanation: Many incoming UAA freshman need to take remedial classes their first year because their outgoing high school education hasn't prepared them for the rigors of college. This adds to their time in school and debt, which contributes to the higher dropout rate.
What can be done to improve the academic performance of our students? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Instead, it will take compromise and collaboration by all stakeholders to make many changes in many areas. The recent adoption of the Common Core Standards is a start and I applaud the current board and superintendent for courageously making that move. But there is room for more changes:
• Review NCLB: Alaska should look at which parts of the act makes sense to waive.
• Nonprofit partners: Alaska has a strong nonprofit community that can help the district deliver social services to our students. In fact, many of these organizations are already providing the same services as the district. A little co-planning and collaborating with nonprofit groups could help eliminate duplication or gaps in service.
• Aim high: Put all kids in a demanding curriculum, not just those who score in the 90th percentile. In a recent study, a teacher was given a group of students and was told they were gifted, when in fact they were not. Without knowing any differently, she taught them the advanced curriculum and expected them to pass. The students exceeded expectations and did very well academically. The take-away? Set stretch goals and aim high for all kids.
• Culture shift: Everyone should make education a priority as often as possible. Students can skip an occasional movie with friends and instead head to the library to study. Parents can take their kids to Math Night at school rather than stay home to catch up on chores.
• Effective teachers: Hiring effective teachers, mentoring them over time, allowing them more autonomy in the classroom and holding them accountable for student outcomes is another way to make improvements in the classroom.
The goal for the Anchorage School District should be to decrease the current level of administration to a more manageable size through innovation, cost cutting and elimination of duplication of services. This will allow the district to focus more on curriculum, improve its core product and ultimately be able to compete both nationally and globally in outstanding student achievement.
Natasha Von Imhof is a candidate for Anchorage School Board Seat G.