Survey: Alaska teachers worry most about some students' poor home environment

Michelle Theriault Boots

The first major study to ask Alaska teachers about what they see in their own classrooms was released Wednesday, amid heated political debate in Juneau over the future of funding Alaska's public schools.

The Enhancing Student Learning and Performance 2013 Statewide Survey, prepared by the Northern Economics consulting firm, was released in its full, 187-page form on Wednesday by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

The conclusions: Alaska teachers say poor home environments for students filter into the classroom in the form of chronic absences, students who come to school unprepared and burdened by bad nutrition or little sleep. To make schools better, they'd like to see more of the things currently being stripped by budget cuts: supports such as counseling and smaller class sizes.

A sampling of Alaska households also surveyed agreed with teachers on some points, but said they were most concerned with community drug and alcohol abuse's impact on students -- which teachers said was nowhere near as important as just getting to class regularly.

No other study has asked so many Alaska teachers how social issues are playing out in their classrooms, and what they believe could help.

"It seemed that it was actually time to hear the stories from people who see these kids come through the door every day," said Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president Andrew Halcro.

Backers say they hope to add a new body of data to the statewide debate over school funding. One proposal on the table in Juneau would include a constitutional amendment that could pave the way for state funding of private schools.

"Before you make this huge change, we should probably stop for a minute and see exactly what the problem is," Halcro said. The Chamber of Commerce, he said, has not taken a formal position of the constitutional amendment.

Northern Economics, the sate's biggest economics consulting firm, executed the survey. NEA-Alaska -- the union that represents most of the state's teachers -- paid for it.

While the NEA-Alaska ponied up the $50,000-$60,000 price tag for the survey, it agreed to stay out of the design and implementation of the survey so, backers hope, the data avoids being pulled into the politicized debate over school funding.

"Anything that has NEA-Alaska's name stamped all over it is going to just be dead on arrival on certain doorsteps," said project manager Jonathan King of Northern Economics.

Survey topics were designed by the Partnership for Education, an eight-person independent steering committee that includes an Alaska school Superintendent of the year, a teacher of the year and representatives of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Alaska and Alaska PTA among others -- including two NEA-Alaska members, Lori Blakeslee and Lydia Garcia.

In October the online survey asked about 1,200 urban and rural teachers about community, work, student and parent involvement, social issues, ways of making schools better and gave them an open ended spot to talk about their jobs. That's a large sample size for Alaska, King said. Most national polls, he said, involve between 750-1,500 total respondents across the United States.

An additional 750 households in rural and urban Alaska were asked about social issues and ways to improve schools in a phone poll.

Key findings include:

• Teachers said students do best when they come to class regularly, get enough sleep, eat well, come from a stable home environment and have access to hands-on learning.

• Teachers ranked chronic absences, a poor home environment, bullying, community drug and alcohol abuse as the top five social problems in schools.

• Households focused on drug and alcohol abuse as the top issue facing classrooms. Teachers focused on issues that are more visible from the classroom, such as chronic absence. "Teachers and households are speaking a different language when they talk about these issues," King said.

• Households without kids in public schools were more negative about public school performance than those with kids attending school.

• Teachers said they were concerned about the public's perception of their profession. Some 53 percent of urban teachers said they felt the community held a negative perception of the job.

• Less than half of urban teachers said they felt the district administrators enabled them to be better teachers. More than half of rural teachers worried about finding quality housing.

• When the survey asked teachers for one change they'd make inside their schools, teachers listed smaller class sizes, vocational classes, before- and after-school programs and mandatory preschool. Increased parental and community involvement would help too, they said.

• Teachers and households agreed connecting academic and work worlds should be a top priority.

The survey doesn't answer big questions about what the future of Alaska educational funding should be, King said. In fact, funding and vouchers were never even mentioned in the survey itself.

"It just provides a road map of what teachers say are the most important elements," King said. "And really, it shines a light on how complex this issue is and how much community conversation needs to take place."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.