Alaska Teacher of the Year: Our public education system isn’t ‘broken’

As 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year, I want to make what has unfortunately become a controversial statement: The United States has one of the premier public education systems on the planet. We educate a wider variety of students, we do it free of charge, in the least restrictive environment, and at a strikingly high success rate. The clear connection between poverty and achievement is well documented and when taken into account, we are consistently near the top. Not only that, but historically, we have never been at the top. Our innovation and contributions to the world don't come from test scores; they come from our creativity, problem solving and intrepid spirit. None of which standardized test scores accurately measure.

Does public education need to improve? Of course it does. Continual betterment was built into the very blueprint of public education – to evolve based on the needs of changing society. We will always need to improve to keep pace with the modern world. However, language matters, and we must stop using words like "failure," "crisis" and, as Sen. Anna MacKinnon recently said, "broken" when we discuss public education.

Public education is not broken. More accurately, public education remains successful in the face of what are more appropriately called failures in an increasingly "broken" society.  Income inequality, childhood hunger and trauma, institutional prejudice, governing without empathy, and inequitable access to health care, among others. In spite of all that, our public education system remains successful.  What is broken is a wealthy country allowing kids to go hungry. A country with the second-highest population living in poverty compared to other developed nations. Where one of our great states, Alabama, has the worst poverty in the developed world. A society where campaign donors are more important than constituents and corporations, including oil companies, are treated better than children. A society that chooses to allow contributing, taxpaying citizens, including teachers and military members risking their lives for the rest of us, to be deported. A society willing to arm teachers with guns but not with the resources, such as counselors, the arts, and lower class sizes, to connect with all students.

It can be argued that in many places in America, including Alaska, as other elements have broken down, our public schools remain the lone beacon of hope, equality, equity and, above all else, opportunity. For too many American children, a public school remains their last safe and stable place, acting as a consistent source of nutrition, health care and caring adults. Schools are not failing, society is failing our schools and, therefore, our kids and our future.

We must shift the conversation and celebrate the successes of public school and use those to improve. We need to fund people over programs and provide for smaller learning communities. We must fully fund supports for every student, including counselors not burdened with data and testing and teachers allowed to use their expertise to differentiate to reach all Alaskan students. It is no coincidence, as piles of tests, data, mandates and canned curriculum have been pushed on schools by administrators and lawmakers with the help of for-profit educational companies, that students are increasingly feeling alienated, test scores have stagnated and educators are being demoralized and pushed out. We must call out the rest of our institutions and ask them, "What are you doing to better the lives of our students?" We must stop pushing society's problems onto to schools to solve alone.

I will end with a challenge. I know what I am doing. I know what the thousands expert educators throughout Alaska are doing. What is the rest of society doing for Alaska public education? There are so many ways to get and stay involved, such as volunteering or a school-business partnership. We should all become and remain civically engaged by attending and testifying at school board meetings as well as staying up on all education bills in our Legislature, not only funding.  Additionally, education doesn't operate in a vacuum. We need to analyze the impacts of other policies and legislation on our kids, including taxes, health care, immigration, safety programs and environmental protection.

If we truly do care about the education of all Alaska kids, let's put the public back in public education. Thousands of hardworking Alaska teachers, families and students welcome you with open arms and are ready to fight alongside you to provide that beacon of hope, equality, equity and opportunity for every Alaska student.

Ben Walker is a national board-certified science teacher at Romig Middle School in Anchorage and the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year. He is the 2013 Alaska Science Awardee for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and a proud parent of two children enrolled in their neighborhood public school.