Alaska’s two top education officials, Johnsen and Johnson, unite with goal to strengthen education

Alaska's two top education officials say they want to tackle critical issues in a state where test scores and graduation rates fall below the national average, where teacher turnover rates are high, where achievement gaps persist and where state funding is likely to be anemic.

UA President Jim Johnsen and state Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said in a joint interview last month that they and their governing boards were working toward greater collaboration between the vast public schools system and the public university system.

"There's so much in common here, and so much we can agree on and share and do together," said UA President Johnsen of the partnership. "Let's focus on that and let's not point fingers at each other because that has happened over the years, where folks have said, 'Hey K-12 system, you're not producing students who are ready for college.' And then the K-12 folks say, 'Hey, your standards are crazy.' "

"The purpose of this is so important and the challenge is so huge," Johnsen said. The "gaps" in both the state's public education system and the university "are really big and they feed each other, unfortunately," he said.

Johnsen and Johnson both acknowledged that the idea to unite the two systems wasn't new or "a great discovery" but said it was a necessary foundation for what they want to build. Both men are relatively new to their positions — Johnsen started as the UA president in September 2015 and Johnson as education commissioner in July 2016.

"We're emphasizing a more comprehensive approach to education in the state," Johnson said. "We're looking at it as something not separate to the fiscal situation — it's part of the fix."

The two governing bodies, the UA Board of Regents and the Alaska State Board of Education, have also held joint meetings in 2016 and formed a four-member subcommittee of two regents and two board members that Johnsen said will hold the two education leaders accountable.


The subcommittee met in December to discuss creating a "culture of education in Alaska," which included ambitious goals such as a 90 percent high school graduation rate, a 100 percent college and work readiness rate, a 60 percent college completion rate and that UA graduate 90 percent of new teachers by 2025.

That compares with the current reality — Alaska had a 76 percent four-year high school graduation rate in 2015-16, according to state data. In 2015-16, 44 percent of first-time UA freshmen seeking a four-year degree had to take a remedial math or English class. Thirty percent of students seeking a bachelor's degree graduated from UA within six years, according to UA data. Johnsen said UA had produced about 30 percent of the new teachers hired in Alaska each year.

[University report finds 'unacceptably high' rates of Alaska students enrolling in remedial classes]

Education Commissioner Johnson said one of the first steps to move forward is "owning the data." UA President Johnsen has repeatedly referenced a "leaky funnel," that starts with 100 average high school ninth-graders and ends with few UA graduates produced, taking into account graduation rates and rates of graduates leaving the state.

Johnson and Johnsen said to expect more joint meetings and involvement from faculty and staff from both systems.

"We're trying to build an overlapping vision," Johnson said. "So we have a vision for education in our state that doesn't rise and fall with the price of oil."

While the partnership continues, Johnson and Johnsen are both also working on overhauls of their respective education systems.

Johnsen is working on the Strategic Pathways process, which has produced decisions that include consolidating three schools of education to one with a single administration in Juneau. Johnsen said that by streamlining the university system, UA hopes to produce more teachers who will stay in Alaska, reducing turnover.

To graduate more teachers, Johnsen also announced a new scholarship program last week for high school juniors and seniors planning to attend UA and study to become a teacher.

Education Commissioner Johnson said teacher turnover in Alaska hit 12 percent for the 2015-16 school year, the highest it has been in years.

At the public school level, Gov. Bill Walker announced "Alaska's Education Challenge" last month, to address student achievement gaps and increase graduation rates. The State Board of Education has identified five priorities and launched a survey on Feb. 1, asking Alaskans to write down their priorities for public education reform.

When Johnsen and Johnson were asked what their main objective was in working together, Education Commissioner Johnson said to "make sure that every student in Alaska gets an excellent education every day." UA President Johnsen said he hopes to significantly boost the number of teachers produced in Alaska — with the aim to get to 90 percent by 2025.

"I'll be sitting in the Pioneer Home when that happens," he said, referencing an assisted-living home, "and I'll be saying, 'Yeah, We did it!' "

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.