Point-Counterpoint: Fear, doubt and spin mask reality of our public schools

Erik Hill

There are many tricks to drum up support. One is fear and doubt. Another is providing generalities that sound good, but lack detail. These win elections, customers, and, unfortunately, they are how so-called education reformers are speaking to Alaskans.

First, let's tackle the fear and doubt. Relax, citizens, public schools are not failing. There may be failures in public schools, but as a whole, they are more effective at teaching a wider range of student than ever before. NAEP tests are rising, graduation rates are increasing, and more parents and students are satisfied with their neighborhood school. One of the most popular pieces of evidence so-called reformers cite is the international PISA test.

However, when this data is disaggregated, it tells a different story. If only schools with under 10% of the population on free and reduced lunch are included, the US places No. 1 in reading and science and No. 5 in math. Research has shown that children with toxic stress, such as hunger, unstable home life, homelessness, or crime in the community, don't learn the same as peers. The brain works differently and working memory is not made permanent during times of toxic stress. At the same time, however, achievement in all categories still continues to increase.

Now let's move onto the generalities with no details. So-called reformers like to use charter schools as some kind of prototype for what would happen with vouchers. So, let's look at charter school attendance. I am a fan of charter schools and think they are a strong part of our public school system. I have had many wonderful students from charter schools.

The reality is charter schools are not the same as your average Anchorage neighborhood school. With charter schools over 65 percent of students identify themselves as white. The district population is below 50 percent. According to recent analysis, we are one of the most diverse districts in the nation and have the most diverse high school in East. A large percentage of students are new to the US and learning language as well as content. Many are put into an age-level classroom with little to no English. The district average for English Language Learners is around 12 percent, for charter schools it is almost 0 percent.

Neighborhood schools also deal with a wider range of socioeconomic status. The average considered economically disadvantaged is near 50 percent. Charter schools are under 10 percent, even with some located in struggling neighborhoods. The district average for students with disabilities is around 15 percent and only 5 percent for charter schools. Our district has schools that are close to 100 percent economically disadvantaged and near 20 percent special education. To claim that all students cost the same to educate with such divergent histories is not only wrong, it is breaking the historical social contract to provide a least-restrictive education to all children.

What can actually be done? The great part is we know what works.

We know pre-K education works and should fund it.

We know parental involvement works. This is one of the reasons charter schools succeed. This needs to continue to improve and is a focus of our district's strategic plan.

We know that smaller learning communities work as evidenced by language immersion, schools within a school, and academies. The middle school model, currently being cut, saves at- risk students. It allows for more parental involvement, as well.

Research has shown the more assets a child builds with his or her school, such as sports, music and art, and personal relationships with teachers and other students, the better they do academically and the less likely they are to drop out. Middle school allows teachers to approach the whole child and infuse social and emotional learning and develop cross-curricular units that tie content to current global issues.

It is healthy to reassess our education system once in a while, but let's do it without fear, doubt and a lack of detail. Once we start down the road to a voucher system, we leave a majority of our children behind, regardless of the campaign slogan of "school choice."

Ben Walker is a National Board Certified science teacher at Romig Middle School. He is a 2013 state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) and a Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM state finalist. He is a product of public school and has two young children he looks forward to enrolling in his neighborhood school.