Donn Liston has lived in Alaska since 1962 and in Eagle River since 2010. He was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News during pipeline construction and is a retired teacher after becoming certified in Juneau after living there 20 years. Donn taught Adult Basic Education in the Anchorage community of Mt. View and in the Mat-Su Job Center between 2007-2017. He was named a BP Teacher of Excellence in 2013.
A couple of years ago I went to the dentist for an appointment to clean my teeth. In the past, when I had gone to this particular “Dental Group” for a cleaning I would walk out having spent upward of $500 for x-rays, analysis of my teeth, and cleaning. This time, upon sitting in the dental chair, I told the self-important dental assistant that I only wanted a cleaning—we could schedule the other stuff at a later time. She left the room, brought back the office manager who explained nicely that without doing the x-rays the dental assistant couldn’t do the cleaning, and I got up out of the chair and left. My conclusion was that unless this particular enterprise was making $500 for a patient to sit in that chair they didn’t want my business.
It left a bad taste in my mouth.
My new dentist is a guy in private practice near my home and receptive to what dental work I want done. My wife and I both took advantage of his New Patient Special Offer! and after a couple of years of not being to any dentist we now needed some things done. Without dental insurance we are going to have to put the dog out at stud to pay for the work, but we are happy to once again have a dentist who cleans our teeth and recognizes we don’t need gold-plated dental care at this phase in our lives. This dentist has a family and works a second job to supplement his private enterprise endeavor. Our strong Alaska economy has apparently attracted quite a few dentists who are fresh out of school and ready for their Alaska Adventure. Being a long-time Alaskan this dentist takes the same long view of his career investment in Alaska’s variable economy as we have ourselves taken over the decades.
At the end of my most recent visit to the dentist I revealed that I am a certified teacher and that after working in the public system I gravitated to teaching Adult Basic Education (ABE) for adults needing to get a GED or improve skills for training or to enter University. He then revealed to me that he had gotten his GED and exclaimed: “Look how far it has taken ME!”
The Old GED
The General Equivalency Degree was originally established during the early 1940s for military personnel returning from serving their country during World War II. Many left home before graduating high school, but service in war had been an education. Now they needed meaningful work. As public education bustled with baby-boomers seeking their American Dreams in schools designed as education factories after the war, many who were unable to be successful in public education either quit, gave up or were kicked out. There may be other reasons for needing a GED, but Alaska has traditionally suffered a high number of “drop-outs.” Today somewhere between 60-80 percent of public school students who started in kindergarten graduate high school in Alaska. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014391.pdf
I graduated in the exact middle of my East Anchorage High School class of 1969. It was a traditional education that was good enough to allow me to enter Anchorage Community College and take 100-level classes. I know from my teaching practice today that many Alaska high school graduates cannot do that. Those students must pay college rates for high school remediation at UAA. I decided to become a teacher at mid-life because I had not regarded education very highly until I went to college, and felt I might make a difference in helping others who needed to understand the rewards available from education. I began my teaching career in Juneau. I had lived there 20 years before returning to Anchorage in 2003 with an Alaska teaching certificate.
A private company has always run the GED under a federal government contract. In Alaska the state also contributes to the GED investment. The GED test is designed by educators and managed as a dental practice might be run; applicants sign up, are given an evaluation of their academic abilities, and classes are offered so students may increase their skills in the four academic areas tested: Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science. These classes have often been offered by volunteers, working in churches or makeshift classrooms, who provide workbooks and assistance to persons seeking to improve their ability to provide for their families. It’s what is known as “directed learning” and it is geared to the individual, although groups of individuals often form into classes of ABE students. http://www.education.com/reference/article/what-direct-instruction/
The entire GED test is primarily a reading comprehension test. Math specifically requires an ability to read and understand word problems to solve the math. Basic math skills are therefore fundamental to passing the GED test.
Since 1979 the GED test has been “updated” every 10 years or so to make it current. Students took the tests while observed by an approved proctor, who set the timer and handed out bubble sheets for students to fill out indicating answers to questions from a book. Answer sheets were then packaged and shipped to a correcting factory in Oklahoma. During the early 2000s update of the GED test an essay requirement was added. Test takers were given a writing prompt to respond to with an essay. This required two readers to assess that piece of writing, according to a rubric, and arrive at a negotiated grade. Teaching writing became another challenge for GED instructors then, but in my experience as an instructor since 2009, math remains the biggest barrier. A majority of Alaska students who seek to obtain their GED after leaving the public system--at any point in their school career--are deficient in math.
Examination of available “Practice Tests” over time have revealed to programs providing ABE services what specific areas of math students need to know to pass the test. During the enrollment process students are given a Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) to establish Comprehensive Math and Applied Math skills. http://www.ctb.com/ctb.com/control/productFamilyViewAction?productFamily...
This simple timed test takes a little more than an hour in front of a computer screen and produces a printout of specific skills and deficiencies with grade level indicators for each. It is remarkably accurate. Review of test results provides an overview of what things need to be addressed, and what things reinforced, to expect to pass the GED Test. Until 2014 the overall TABE level required to pass the GED was grade 9.
The New GED
Students who have not successfully gained a high school diploma from their local school district, or are new to Alaska without an adequate education credential, need to know specifically where they are deficient academically. Jobs not requiring a high school diploma or GED are largely going to people who do not speak fluent English. Those persons require English As A Second Language training before they can take the GED, although limited GED instruction is available in Spanish. Many without a GED are capable of doing a wide range of employable tasks but advancement on the job can be limited as others with a high school or GED credential enter that same workplace.
Once ABE applicants know their academic needs—and it is usually no surprise to them what is missing—they must consistently work to learn the material necessary to expect passage of the GED. Many sign up because they are told to do so by a social worker, case manager, or well-meaning friend, but unless they are willing and able to do the work they inevitably continue to be employed in menial jobs and survive as best they can. As their kids get along in the public system these parents cannot help with homework.
The New GED was implemented after a wholesale overhaul by GED Testing Services, Inc. in January of 2014. It is normed at 12th grade; including GED-With-Honors for students who excel. The test is given at an approved Testing Center where students pre-pay for the test and take it on computers dedicated to that purpose. Employers are quickly learning that GED graduates have proven skills. Some parents are learning they can enroll students uninterested in high school as early as 16 years old. The test is comprehensive and provides a range of interactive ways to post answers beyond simple paper-and-pencil options of the past. Students log into the GED.com website, pay and schedule individual tests. Results are posted directly. Each test costs $30, with a $10 re-test fee for a score less than 150. Upon failing the test a printout provides an evaluation of what concepts were missed--including specific page numbers in the Kaplan GED Test book--requiring further study. Practice tests costing $6 per subject also provide a direct opportunity for students to know the likelihood of passing the GED, again with references to the book for further study. In my experience, students who are motivated are responsive to instruction in a setting that is nothing like public education was. Autonomy is the goal of meaningful education and this system promotes taking responsibility for one’s future.
ABE is not part of the public education system. It is not overseen by the Alaska Department of Education, with its state school board, politically-motivated commissioner and mammoth bureaucracy annually dispensing one of the largest expenditures of state money to 54 school districts around the state. ABE is part of the Alaska Department of Labor, run by a single manager and a small shop in Juneau issuing contracts to groups around the state to provide services to Alaskans who did not succeed in achieving their high school diploma, or who have arrived in our state from another country with educational opportunities which have not prepared them for the American workforce. Make no mistake about it: The goal of the GED is to get Alaskans into the workforce. Every job offered in Alaska requiring a high school diploma also accepts a GED.
Perhaps it is time for simplification of public education options. Fewer school districts with hub high schools might be a cost-saving option. Alaska decision-makers must change the status quo to find effective new ways to address this state’s public education toothache.
Over the holidays we spent time with family Outside, some of whom I have not seen in quite a long time. One lovely woman whom I last saw more than two decades ago approached me familiarly and enthused that she heard I was now a teacher! She works as an instructional aide in a high school, and her fiancé is a teacher who works mostly with STEM curriculum and is also the district’s NEA union president. She was happy that we have so much in common.
I explained that I am certified but as a classroom teacher I learned after a few parent-teacher conferences that children who have parents who do not take education seriously tend to have kids who do not take education seriously. Thus, for the last six years I have worked in Adult Basic Education helping people who were unsuccessful or quit the public education system. Also, I informed her partner; I worked nine years for NEA-Alaska and was very familiar with that part of the education business, too. I saw no point in asking why 20-25 percent of their students must ultimately get a GED.
We had little direct conversation after that introduction but later I heard her talking on several occasions about what kinds of things she did in her job. At one point I listened attentively as she articulated her perspective on math. As a “Study Hall Monitor,” she explained, she NEVER tried to help students with math. She reportedly tells all students she cannot assist with math--they will have to find someone else to coach them on their math homework.
I was struck by the message this sends to students under her charge. She, a middle-aged woman working in a high school as a teacher aide, neither understood nor cared about math. For her, math had no importance in her life and for anyone who was so cursed as to have math homework, another school employee (or student!) who did care about math would have to be found.
The Conspiracy of Ignorance
In 1992 Martin L. Gross wrote a book that struck a nerve in the United States as Billionaire Ross Perot was running a third-party campaign for president, in an election that would elect National Education Association (NEA) endorsed President, Bill Clinton. The book, “The Government Racket” reportedly outlined -government waste “from A to Z.” Goodreads.com enthused: “Learn why our government costs too much and delivers too little to too few Americans!”1 In 1999 Mr. Gross wrote another book, “The Conspiracy of Ignorance,” documenting failure of American public schools. He wrote:
For the past half century, the argument in public education has been between enthusiastic proponents of the “progressive” theories of John Dewey and the “traditionalists,” who look back fondly on a vanished rigor. Today the difference still exists, but there is increasing agreement by many on both sides that we are faced with an educational crisis that cuts across all philosophical concerns. Simply stated, American public schools, from kindergarten through the senior year of high school, are miserably failing their students and the society.2
A need for educational reform had earlier been declared by a presidential commission which in April of 1983 published its report entitled “A Nation at Risk.” President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell had created the National Commission on Excellence in Education on August 26, 1981, directing it to examine the quality of education in the United States and to make a report to the Nation. The final report begins with an ominous statement:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.3
As an employee of the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) in Juneau at that time, I personally recall the temporary remorse expressed by so many professional “educators” at the findings of this report. As the AASB Database Technician, I daily called superintendents or business managers in our more than 50 Alaska school districts collecting financial information for publication about Alaska’s public education money pit. This information was used in negotiations against the voracious appetites of the public sector unions who negotiated against hapless school boards in so many places. Back then, under Bob Greene as AASB Executive Director and Carole Burger as contract negotiator, an effort was actually being made to manage the exploding costs of public education in Alaska, with AASB taking it to the union at the negotiations table using financial and employee resource data, even though Alaska oil flow was at its peak.
In his book published a decade later, author Gross investigated the national education dilemma and his indictment of the Education Establishment was stark:
The costs of public education are high and rising, with little to show for it. Washington, for all its cackling about its reform program of Goals 2000, picks up only 6 percent of the $350 billion annual charge. The rest is paid by hard-pressed states, and by communities, which support the schools through property taxes, the fastest rising levy in the nation. From 1970 to 1999, the cost of living rose some fourfold, but the cost of education went up eightfold, with the same number of students as three decades ago.4
The culprits in this drama are members of the Public Education Establishment. Gross charges the five million “professionals” from classroom teachers to state education commissioners as being a near-monolithic force that controls public education in its entirety.
That establishment has shown itself to be an advocate of low standards, laxity, false educational theory and poor selection and training of teachers. It suffers from an inability to pass on the accumulated knowledge of civilization from one generation to the next. As time passes, that mental bank decreases, setting up the specter of grave prospects for the future.5
National Education Goals had been announced by the President and adopted by the Governors in February of 1990. One of these Goals stated that students will demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; another Goal states that American students will be first in the world in math and science achievement. Over succeeding years additional spadework was done to create a national plan for improvement of public education.
National educational Goals were set by the U.S. Congress at that time to institute “standards-based education reform.” It began in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush and 50 governors convened a historic Education Summit at Charlottesville, Virginia, and agreed to set education goals for the nation. .The SBE reform movement calls for clear, measurable standards for all school students by measuring each student against an established concrete standard. Many of these goals were based on the principles of Outcome-Based Education (OBE); an educational theory that bases each part of an educational system around goals (outcomes). Under Goals 2000, by the end of the educational experience each student should have achieved the SBA goal, but not all of the goals were attained by the year 2000 as was intended. This was an attempt to establish a framework in which to identify world-class academic standards, to measure student progress, and to provide student support to meet the standards5
Simultaneous to this national effort another effort was occurring. In his book author Gross asserted that parents are often fooled by a continuous onslaught of Establishment propaganda while research showed that some three-fourths of students complained that they were being short-changed in our public schools, not given demanding enough work. Thus, Mr. Gross described the Conspiracy of Ignorance:
In reality, it is a self-protective, virtually impenetrable closed circle. It selects our future teachers, trains them in its own academies, issues them its own undergraduate and graduate degrees, certifies them at the state licensing level, hires them for our schools, evaluates and promotes them.
It starts at the classroom level, goes up through the teacher union-guilds, to the principals, the school administrators, to the professors in the schools and departments of education, then up to the superintendents of schools in cities and suburbs. Finally, it reaches the state departments of education, where the Commissioner is usually a leading Establishment figure.
In other words, the purveyors of public education are not in touch with the national will to make public education accountable. The ambitious objectives of Goals 2000 never had a chance against the ingrown union-controlled education establishment.
Thus, the chance to throw more federal money at education was evident.
"The Goals 2000: Educate America Act (P.L. 103-227)" was signed into law on March 31, 1994, by President Bill Clinton. The Act provides resources to states and communities to ensure that all students reach their full potential. The law codified eight National Education Goals, added state legislators to the Panel membership, and charged the Goals Panel with new responsibilities. It also established a National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) to review and certify voluntary state and national education standards in conjunction with the Panel.
Goals 2000 sought the following benchmarks:
All children in America will start school ready to learn.
The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation's modern economy.
United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
The nation's teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.
Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.
In the early 2000s I had decided to follow my earlier intention of becoming a teacher and returned to the University of Alaska Southeast where I had previously done all coursework toward gaining a secondary education credential except for student teaching. Upon getting married in 1990 I had logically realized I should not give up a good job working for NEA-Alaska in Juneau to pursue non-paid student teaching for nine months or more. I had earned my Master’s Degree in Education in 1989 but now I convinced my wife that I really did want to be a teacher and finish the certification program. With her blessing I began taking coursework toward a k-8 certificate soon after President George Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states had to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. The Act did not assert a national achievement standard. Each individual state developed its own standards. NCLB expanded the federal role in public education through further emphasis on annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, and teacher qualifications, as well as significant changes in funding
Every activity proposed on every lesson plan I prepared in UA classes, and as a classroom teacher, had to be explicitly aligned with specific Alaska educational standards. Additionally, Alaska schools were required to provide High School Graduation Qualifying Exams (HSGQE) provided by the Alaska Department of Education twice per year, beginning in 10th grade. Students who did not pass the HSGQE--after having the opportunity to take it twice per year over three years--received a certificate of attendance instead of a diploma, but were afforded the opportunity to continue taking the test until they passed it. I personally helped many students work on the materials to pass that test.
Alaska strives for Mediocrity
The 28th Alaska Legislature removed the requirement for Alaska students in public schools to pass the HSGQE. That test was normed at 9th grade and students took it in April and in October each year if they didn’t pass it the first year, as most did. The last HSGQE was administered in Spring, 2014. When that test was dropped all students who had previously failed it were given their diplomas retroactively. After all, how could it be the students’ fault if they failed these basic tests after three years of high school?
The HSGQE Standard Based Assessments were replaced by Alaska Measures of Progress (AMP) and College and Career-Ready Assessments (SAT and ACT). The Kansas vendor providing the AMP test has been blamed for Alaskan students doing poorly on the test, while msny Alaska superintendents have complained that the custom test did not provide enough information to help teachers better instruct students. The Alaska Commissioner of Education has notified the State Board of his resignation as the board declares it is seeking a new direction for Alaska education policy.
It is obvious that Alaska needs to move in a new direction. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, this is where Alaska students stand among the states:
Fourth Grade Competency--Math: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Alaska’s 2015 scale score for 4th Grade math was 236, placing it above only four other U.S. states. Alaska has continuously trailed the average scale score of the U.S. since at least 2003, although it was ahead of the national score (224 to 222) in the 1996 study. About 22 percent of 4th grade students in Alaska public education are below basic math skill levels, 78 percent are at basic skill levels, 29 percent are proficient level and six percent are above proficient. (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/chartsview.aspx?jur=AK&sbj=M...)
Fourth Grade Competency—Reading: Average NAEP 2015 Reading scale score for Alaska 4th grade students was 213, considerably behind the national average of 221. Only one state has a lower ranking in this area while 41 jurisdictions score higher. Some 39 percent of Alaska students are below basic skills in this category, while 61 percent are at or above basic skills, and 30 percent are competent. Six percent are advanced. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/chartsview.aspx?jur=AK&sbj=R...
Eighth Grade Competency--Math: Average NAEP 2015 math scale score for Alaska 8th grade students was 280, which is only one point behind the national scale score average of 281. Among the states 23 did better than Alaska in this category while 12 did worse. Until 2009 Alaska was continuously ahead of the national average on this measure with the 1996 score considerably ahead of the national average (278 to 271). http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/chartsview.aspx?jur=AK&sbj=M...
Eighth Grade Competency—Reading: Average NAEWP 2015 reading scale scores for Alaska 8th grade students was 260, a score ahead of only four other states and behind 32 states. Among the students measured, 29 percent were below basic skills, 71 percent demonstrated basic skills and 31 percent were proficient. Only three percent tested as advanced. (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/chartsview.aspx?jur=AK&sbj=R...
High school results after attending schools providing this level of achievement are predictable.
Parents who have students age 16 or older might consider having their children take practice tests for the GED (GED.com) to get an independent assessment. Students who do well on such practice tests may go ahead and schedule to take the GED test at an approved testing center. The GED is given in Math, Science, Language Arts and Social Studies. Each test costs $30. The computer-based practice exams cost $6 each, and after any student takes any one of them a report tells where to study in the standardized text, published by Kaplan, if they need more study. Our program at the Mat-Su Job Center provides support for this effort.
In my experience, student’s first teachers, Mom and Dad, might certainly help them succeed, too!
1http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/29050.Martin_L_Gross 2Martin L. Gross, “Conspiracy of Ignorance,” 1999, HarperCollins, publisher. P5 3http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html 4 Martin L. Gross, “Conspiracy of Ignorance,” 1999, HarperCollins, publisher. P9 5ibid P5 6http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/negp/page1-7.htm
A new student in my Wasilla, Alaska, Adult Basic Education (ABE) class recently expressed wonder in how much he had progressed in just a few days of math study here, and, further expressing himself told of the public high school he had attended previously in a small community in California. The school, Silverado High School in Victorville, California, had initially been built to be a prison, he told the entire class, but the greater need for a high school repurposed the nearly finished lockup. In the early 2000s this high school featured a watchtower, bars on the windows and doors, and a metal fence with razor wire spiraled around the top. Parents of high school students in that zip code dropped their kids off, and yellow busses cycled through transporting idealistic youth each day for matriculation. In such a setting teachers may easily be mistaken for correctional officers.
Other members of my class laughed and one expressed the opinion that his Alaska school was the same kind of place only not as obvious.
Imagine. This adult who had never finished high school in California said he was in Alaska to escape his past. He told the assembled class proudly that he didn’t know a person in Alaska and his goal here was to overcome the drugs and criminal activities of his past. He recognizes his future depends on making decisions to assure positive consequences now that he knows what happens when bad choices cause negative consequences. He enthused to all present that my declaration--that as his teacher my goal is to “see how fast I can get him out of my class”--really appealed to him! For the first time in this young man’s life, he was motivated to gain education toward his GED and seek a meaningful career path.
Alaska’s Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
I attended 8th grade at the Yakutat FAA School. There were two Grade 1-8 schools in Yakutat then; the white school near the airport and the Native school in town. Our current Lt. Governor, Byron Mallott was then manager of his family’s general store in Yakutat, himself having attended Mt. Edgecoumbe High School (http://www.mehs.us/) in Sitka.
That year in 8th grade was the worst year of my educational career, with a couple of itinerant teachers generally terrorizing the students with their marital drama: she was big and mean and taught 1-3, and he was Harvey Milktoast frequently interrupted and pre-empted by his brash wife in anything he said or did. My parents supplemented our school work with after-school studies because they realized this school was a travesty. It didn’t help that I was an angry youth, and by the time my folks shipped me off to Washington’s Okanagan Valley to live with a family there for my freshman and sophomore years of high school, my dad was fed up with my attitude and behavior. His last words were: “If you get in trouble, buster, you are on your own.”
This was possibly the biggest break of my life! I moved to a small community, lived with a family of apple farmers, and attended a high school where most of the kids were in training to follow the family business in agriculture. The school taught academic basics, Washington History, mechanical drafting, woodshop, and auto mechanics. We went to church regularly, I played guitar in the youth group, and I experienced a normal family. Many Alaskans at that time who went away from their villages also learned the difference between living in rural Alaska poverty and experiencing American bounty Outside. Some never returned permanently and others returned to be leaders in their communities.
This dynamic of Alaska public education changed in the early 1970s. A group of Alaska Natives residing in Nunapitchuk--described then as an Eskimo village of 400 people located 410 miles west of Anchorage--decided that it was unfair to send rural students away to high school for nine months per year to get an education. Additionally, one Anna Tobeluk was to lend her name to a lawsuit against the State of Alaska because--as described by Andover, Massachusetts attorney Stephen E. Cotton--she was “an 18-year-old casualty of Alaska’s failure to provide rural high schools.”1
With all due respect, I am a success of that system. So is Lt. Gov. Mallott.
In 1975 Anna joined as a plaintiff in a lawsuit, Tobeluk v. Lind in what became the Molly Hootch Case for the Eskimo girl whose name headed the original 1972 list of plaintiffs suing the state for failing to provide rural community high schools. In 1976 Marshall Lind, Commissioner of Education under Governor Jay Hammond, signed a detailed consent decree providing for establishment of a high school program in 126 villages covered by the litigation, unless people in the village decided against a local program. This was the easy political way out; Alaska was about to become wealthy beyond most people’s imaginations from oil development, and throwing money at public education meant construction jobs building schools and communities keeping their young people at home in programs run mostly by Outside teachers on their Alaskan Adventures. With more than 50 Alaska school districts, each with an elected school board, this was a political win-win-win for Gov. Hammond.
I submit this political maneuver was a mistake. Instead of having the wisdom to examine best educational options for rural Alaska, our public education system was set for what today is a “money pit;” like a home that defies making enough repairs to be saleable, but is marginally inhabitable, while it keeps costing more and more to maintain as an abode.
The Goal of Education is Autonomy
It is a cliché that “Parents are the first teachers.” But what options do parents have when their kids are not doing well in public school? As a newly credentialed teacher myself in 2003, I sought venues in and out of public school systems in Juneau and Anchorage to develop my craft. I applied at Sylvan Learning Center while substituting for the Anchorage School District (ASD). I received training and became a Sylvan on-site teacher, helping students having trouble in public education or students doing alright but not good enough. I found the Sylvan system provides an interesting approach to educational enrichment.
Two young entrepreneurs, Christopher Hoehn- Saric and Douglas L. Becker, took over Sylvan in 1991, and transformed it from a chain of tutoring centers dotting suburban shopping malls around the country to an international education-oriented firm that earned revenues of $246 million in 1997. In addition to tutoring centers, Sylvan had expanded to offer teacher training, computerized testing, distance learning, and other services.2 In March of 2003 Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. sold its tutoring and other K-12 educational businesses to a private equity firm to focus on online and overseas higher education services. The tutoring company still does business as Sylvan Learning Centers and other variations.3
When an Anchorage parent decides they want their child’s public education to be supplemented in a Sylvan Learning Center that child is tested through a computer program for current skills. This test provides an overview of knowledge learned to date and evaluates what past learning voids might be leading to current difficulties. Additionally, a child failing a class in ASD can pass that course by passing the corresponding Sylvan coursework.
Based on analysis of the entry test, applicants are provided a guided learning program, in which the curriculum is keyed to knowledge and skills. As an instructor for Sylvan in Anchorage, I sat at a table joined by three students at a time. They encountered individually prescribed lessons to build skills over 50-minute learning segments. They did work packets, and I checked the answers after the bell rang. The entire program is animated and goal-oriented, because parents get their money back for any kid who won’t become involved. Thus, the slogan for Sylvan when I worked there was: “We make learning fun!”
Additionally, this approach to training young Alaskans is effective but it isn’t cheap. I know one parent who took a second mortgage on the family home to pay for Sylvan supplemental services for one child—but that child passed high school!
Sylvan is based in Behavior Modification techniques which provide tangible rewards for achievement. Students are given tokens for reaching milestones in daily learning activities. After each 50-minute segment various students are publically recognized by their instructor for achieving instructional goals in the room full of desks. Tokens can be spent to purchase a variety of items from a “store” in the Sylvan Center. In my experience this approach worked best with younger students who wanted toys from the store.
If All Else Fails
Alaskans who leave early from public education often get a GED. Some have had “Individual Education Plans” for diagnosed learning disabilities, some were distracted from attending school or paying attention in class, some didn’t care, and some tried but gave up. Public education, including special programs, charter schools, special schools and assigned attendants to shepherd students toward a diploma, didn’t work for these adults. Parents may be wondering what to do with such a dependent, or individual early leavers may be homeless, but whatever the case Alaskans who don’t make it in our money pit system must find an alternative. That is usually through passing the GED (ged.com).
This problem of declining public education is not unique to Alaska, but the fact we have invested so much while going so many years without even a meaningful conversation about what we are getting for our considerable investment, is shameful. Parents, as the first teachers, often must accept what is provided unless they have the means for private school or supplemental assistance. Choice in public education is one option that does not have political favor among the education establishment who continue to strive for more financial support without accountability. The problem is getting worse and proposed solutions at this time are mostly cosmetic.
At its current website, Sylvan declares: “We Believe learning is everything; learning should be personal; great teachers inspire; technology accelerates learning; Results Matter.”
I haven’t worked there in nearly a decade but I bet Sylvan still makes learning fun.