OPINION: Educational reforms should not leave Alaska students behind

Teaching and learning are a deeply personal experience — hinging largely on a student’s and instructor’s unique cultures, life experiences and languages. A student in Elim enters a classroom with a different perspective than one from Bethel, who brings a different world view than a student from Wasilla or Anchorage. And yet, tests are still standardized and used to measure a student’s progress as if the playing field were equal.

Against this backdrop, the Legislature is considering omnibus legislation this session with the goal of improving reading skills by the 3rd grade, coupled with creating an early learning program and a framework to provide more virtual instruction in schools.

Our concern is that while the effort is laudable, the bill doesn’t take into consideration the great difficulty getting teachers out to rural schools, period, much less the bill’s daunting requirement to hire and retain reading specialists necessary to ensure all children are reading by the third grade.

While establishing a uniform assessment tool that tests students on their mastery of English is an ambitious goal, it unfortunately fails to recognize the reality that English might not be their primary language. Further, this is an assessment based solely through the means of a standardized test which has its own drawbacks and cultural biases. This leaves us with the impression that “the fix is in,” and the outcomes are predetermined. It’s as though some children are running a 100-meter race against other children with a 60-meter head start.

If these new practices are adopted, generations of cultural wisdom and languages could be tossed by the wayside and ignored. Given our state and nation’s history and educational track record of marginalizing and penalizing Native language speakers and cultures, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We must never forget that looming over all of this is the recent painful history of assimilation and inequity for rural schools.

A better strategy would be to examine the root causes and apply resources accordingly. Clearly, recruitment and retention of staff is a common denominator in many rural areas. Rather than punishing children for whom English may be a second or third language, or who come from families and communities oppressed and hurt by the Western education system, why not first determine if they receive the same quality of education at the ground level?

Alaska’s students deserve our best no matter where they live. No matter how good it might feel to come together with rose-colored glasses to support public education, we absolutely cannot set up a zero-sum game where our most treasured assets, our children, are harmed by well-meaning but culturally lacking reforms. Good education policy should not be rushed, no matter the circumstances. The Alaska Reads Act is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed. We must go back to the drawing board in order to get this right.


In the Alaska State Legislature, Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky represents Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Rep. Bryce Edgmon represents Dillingham and Bristol Bay, Rep. Neal Foster represents Nome, the Lower Yukon and Bering Straits, and Rep. Josiah Patkotak represents Utqiagvik, North Slope and the Northwest Arctic. President Chalyee Eesh Peterson is Tlingit from the Kaagwaantaan clan, La quen naay Medicine Crow is both Haida and Tlingit from Keex Kwaan, and Waahlaal Giidaak Blake is Haida, Tlingit and Ahtna, and resides in Juneau.

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