Alaska's students are being failed at every level - Must Read Alaska
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Alaska’s students are being failed at every level

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The National Council on Teacher Quality advocates for tougher evaluations of classroom teachers.

The organization believes effective teachers should be recognized and rewarded, both monetarily and through increased opportunities for teacher leadership. Conversely, ineffective teachers should be identified and counseled, and, if unable to meet student achievement goals, dismissed.

In its 2017 survey of states ranked by implementation of best practices of teacher policies, Alaska is ranked D-, one of only 4 states with that grade or lower.

This survey follows Alaska’s Department of Education announcement last year that more than 60 percent of Alaska’s public-school students failed to meet grade-level academic standards in English language arts and math in statewide standardized tests.

Students did slightly better on the statewide science exam but barely half were considered proficient.

Equally poor results were experienced by Alaska schools in 2015.

Teachers and administrators acknowledge Alaska’s test scores consistently rank below national averages.

So how do we hold government, schools, teachers, parents and students accountable? We start by getting the facts.

You can view your school’s report card at

Alaska’s Education Challenge, a state-wide effort studying student achievement gaps and ways to increase Alaska’s graduation rates, is still in the early stages. Some of the changes being advocated are increasing teacher diversity and better preparing teachers for the classroom, but one of the most glaring omissions is teacher accountability.

In his State of the State address, Governor Walker once again pledged his support for education. But, up to now, that hasn’t resulted in any discernable improvement in student achievement. His solution seems to be to pump more money into a declining system and expand it by offering free Pre-K-12 school.

We need to face facts.

Despite some of the highest expenditures per pupil in the country, our K-12 education system is plagued by poor test scores, absenteeism, and low graduation rates.

If we keep doing things the way they have always been done, we can’t expect anything to change.

Perhaps it’s time for education advocates to stop viewing this issue through the single lens of funding and ask why it is that a national teacher quality think tank gave Alaska a D- grade in teacher accountability.

This is an opportunity to exercise the kind of leadership and bold initiatives that made this state great.

Accountability for student achievement runs from Gov. Walker, through his Commissioner of Education, to the 54 school districts around the state, including their school boards, administrators, teachers and finally parents and students.

Teachers are not solely responsible for student results – indeed, factors influencing student achievement are many and all deserve attention.

But one place we need to start is in the classroom.

The U.S. Education Department reports that nationally graduation rates are increasing.  While this sounds like a reason for optimism, it is overshadowed by a very disturbing trend. While 80 percent of high school seniors receive a diploma, less than half of those can proficiently read or complete math problems.

The problem is that students are being passed on to the next grade when they should be held back. They are then unable to complete grade-level work and keep up with their classmates.

In Alaska, our statewide trend is even worse. Last year only 45% of 3rd graders in Alaska tested proficient in math but by the time students reached 10th grade less than 15% were considered proficient.

The pressure from administrators and parents to continue to promote students is wide-spread and difficult to combat. Surely, teachers should be able to hold non-proficient students back. That is the only fair way teachers can be evaluated on whether their students are at least minimally proficient in various grade-level subjects.

But this is a two-pronged issue. Most teachers are competent, dedicated public servants. But not all.

National estimates conducted by the U.S. Department of Education find school districts dismiss a very small percentage of teachers each year for poor performance. Alaska is no exception.

If we really want to effect change, students shouldn’t routinely be promoted regardless of proficiency. Teachers should be evaluated using objective student achievement growth measures to determine their effectiveness. School administrators – such as principals – could be evaluated similarly.

Parents also need to accept responsibility in changing educational expectations, but continuation of the status quo only means continuing to pay for mediocre or poor results.

Championing change like this requires tremendous political courage. It would require battling unions, school board members, and many entrenched interests across the state.

Most of all it would require leadership and accountability at every level.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Very little will change as long as the government unions protect the less effective teachers. The effective classroom teachers are being punished by having to make up for the poor teachers. That’s what unions do–protect the mediocre at the cost of the great.

  • The union controlled public education system in Alaska is like the cancer industry. The medical industry doesn’t want to cure cancer, because there is lots of money to make off of cancer. Teachers’ unions don’t want to improve education, because there is lots of money to be made by not actually teaching, or having expectations that kids will learn anything. In both cases, entrenched interests profit immensely from doing nothing of value.

  • My kids graduated several years ago. I remember when my son was in middle school and he and a couple friends were complaining about one of their teachers. she was calling the kids, idiots. when we had parent teacher conferences, she told us the same thing! I went to the counselors office and requested him to be switched to another teacher. the counselor said, is that ms._____ and I said yes! found out later that she has had problems with students and their solution? Send her to another school…
    I remember the standardized testing and the whole school would study for days before the test. PTA would hand out snacks and letters would be sent home to ensure kids ate a good breakfast and had a good nights sleep.
    Shouldn’t teachers just make sure the students are taught well in the first place??

  • I wonder if the D- ratings mean the Democratic NEA failed here in Alaska.

    Whats the purpose of protecting teachers that are here only for retirement and not the students, than move outside leaving a D- rated school system!!!

  • Some public schools are doing very, very well. Why? Teachers are still in the NEA. It might be worth looking at the things that vary from school to school. How involved are parents, for example? High parental involvement is very well related to student performance. How stable is the student population? High turnover presents many challenges. Rather than claim that the system is broken and needs to be replaced by a system that funnels public funds into private and church-affiliated schools, we should instead look at why some public schools are doing so much worse than others, then try to fix that.

  • Are you talking about Alaska when you say “some public schools are doing very, very well. ” What do you define as very, very well? Take a look at these maps ( and scroll around the state. Look at the score data as it shows on the right. At the very “best” schools, 25-30% of the students are still “below proficient”. That’s not “very, very well” in my book.

  • Always entertaining to read yet another article from someone who is certain that holding teachers and principals (gasp!) accountable at every level for students success will bring change. Public education in the U.S. is so lacking in equity and has an abundance of redundancy. Policy makers at every level make it difficult for educators to do their job effectively (i.e. Tests vs actually guiding students to learn beyond the test.) Support your local school by educating yourself about where/how school policy is made then ask yourself how does this impact student success-you may be surprised at the answers.

  • It will always be an impossible challenge to measure a teacher’s effectiveness amid the constellation of variables that effect student performance.

    Using results of a standardized test given to students of wildly divergent cultures, languages, communities and socioeconomic status across this huge state is likely the least useful measure of a teacher’s competence.

    The best way to understand teachers’ skill, knowledge and effectiveness is to visit their classrooms.

    And while you’re there, see if there’s anything you can do to help. There’s likely any number of students who could use another caring adult in their life. Everybody wins!

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