OPINION: Dinosaurs vs. unicorns in Alaska’s education debate

The conversation about how to fix Alaska’s educational system boils down to a discourse between dinosaurs versus unicorns.

The dinosaurs complain about the lack of money needed to prop up the Industrial Age form of education, dating from the early 20th century, when Henry Ford developed the assembly line. Children enter school at kindergarten or first grade and are taught and assembled with their cohorts until, we hope, they exit by the 12th grade. As in an assembly line, the grades have group thought, learning and promotion. This industrialized system needs money for infrastructure, transportation, teachers, administrators, facilities, debt, health and retirement benefits. It is an industrial complex that must be maintained to try to meet our children’s educational needs but doesn’t put those needs first.

The unicorns see educational innovation and success as the universal fix without examining long-term consequences and outcomes. I am a fanatical unicorn until life reminds me to question all good things. Just recently, I listened to a TED talk by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. His talk was about the great benefits of artificial intelligence and how he has used it in creating Khanmigo. The Khanmigo service can provide tutoring, counseling, lesson planning and other services now underfunded and understaffed in public education. I was impressed and excited. I immediately downloaded it to help my grandson in geometry. Luckily, he found the answer before I could get there on Khanmigo. I read in today’s Wall Street Journal that Khanmigo is having difficulties in basic math. This could cause problems when it comes to simple geometry like the Pythagorean theorem. Now this doesn’t mean I am going to completely give up on Khanmigo, but it does point out there is not a simple answer to underfunding public education.

I spent several years working with middle and high school students. I called them ‘seasonal students’ because some of them attended school seasonally. All of them were smart children, but most were considered special needs because of their poor grades and poor attendance. Well, what happens to bright children who are told they are not bright enough? Not a wonderful way of engagement. What I found with most of these students was the same thing I knew growing up: A caring adult who treated a student with respect and academic challenge was key to academic achievement. So when we cut teachers and adults in the classroom, we are impacting academic success.

I think most of us can point to centers of excellence, as well as issues of dysfunction and apathy. How do we balance the educational industrial complex and the educational needs of a 21st-century society?

1. We are not going to make any progress by shutting down funding. The school districts have the same responsibilities as most of us do in our personal lives. They have embedded costs due to insurance, retirements, roofs, heating, transportation, mortgages (bond issues), and basic maintenance. We cannot walk away from our obligations; the state cannot declare bankruptcy.

2. I understand Commissioner of Education Deena Bishop’s thoughts about of not giving carte blanche to the Base Student Allocation. We need to have a long-term vision of how we get the best teachers in front of the most students, because there is no substitute for a great teacher. We also need to get an adult-to-student ratio that encourages personal growth.


The good news is the Legislature has started the process of allowing the dinosaurs to adapt to a changing world, and the unicorns to provide accountability to their magical powers. This is the first time the two species coexist and truly work for Alaska’s students.

Nothing will come easily and quickly. It will take all of us to embrace education as our No. 1 priority for a greater Alaska. Alaska did it as a young state and with pride, we should do it now. North to the future.

Jennifer Johnston is a member of Commonwealth North and a former Republican member of the Alaska House of Representatives. She lives in Anchorage.

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