Six Ways Alaska Can Improve Student Outcomes Without More Funding

Alaska's new test scores are out so now what do we do to get better? Here are six ideas that we should think about to improve K12 education for all Alaskan children. There is no time to waste.

by Bob Griffin

There  has been a lot of banter and finger pointing over the last few days over the very disappointing state AMP test scores that were recently released by the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development.  Here are the statewide results for All Grades in English Language Arts and Mathematics with Levels 3 & 4 Meeting the Standards:

alaska AMP test nov 2015


Instead of pinning blame, we’d like to offer our top six proven solutions to improve student outcomes without increasing taxpayer burden.

#1.  Decrease the size of school buildings.  Massachusetts leads the US in student achievement with much smaller schools than Alaska.  If Anchorage had school buildings that were the MAXIMUM size allowed by state law in Massachusetts, the Anchorage School District schools would total around 6 million  square feet– or about 1.8 million square feet smaller than it is today.  That reduction in size would save $18 million/year in maintenance and utility costs, or equal to 180 teacher salaries/benefits every year.  Many of the unneeded ASD facilities are located on very valuable land sites.  If the district disposed of unnecessary buildings for $100/sf (they cost around $350/sf to build) that could fund the salaries/benefits of 1,000 teachers for a year.

#2.  We could use statistical random samples for evaluating student performance.  Testing every kid every year is not necessary to get a very good measurement of how well our kids are doing.  In a statewide student population of 130,000 students, randomly testing 0.5% of students (6,500 students) every year would produce an assessment of academic achievement levels with a  1% margin of error.  On statewide testing that would save over $20 million/year (200 teaching positions) and dramatically reduce class time lost for testing that can be dedicated to more instruction.  This method is used in Finland– one of the most effective school systems in the world.  Of course, there would be no individual student feedback as there is currently in the “all students tested” model.

#3.  Perhaps one of the best ways to improve student achievement is to end social promotion for students who have not achieved BASIC literacy by 3rd grade.  When Florida instituted this policy more than a dozen years ago there was a dramatic drop in the very expensive cost of servicing students with disabilities.  As it turns out, nearly half of the students in Florida that were previously labeled “disabled” we’re only disabled by the fact that no one had emphasized teaching them to read while their brains were still in the formative development stage that learning skills like reading are much easier to achieve.

#4. Be honest with parents by informing them as to how well their local neighborhood schools are performing with a simple A-F ranking.  When this was instituted in Florida, communities had a reason to rally around low-performing schools to help them improve.  In the beginning, half of Florida schools were ranked D-F when the policy was instituted. Today less than 10% of Florida schools have a D or F rating even though the standards have been increased 5 times over the years.

#5.  Leverage technology.  Technology has revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives and has dramatically improved our productivity and quality of life.  The education industry has been one of the slowest to adapt to this new reality.  Instead of sending the newest, most inexperienced teachers to rural communities, we should be using new distance learning techniques and mastery based education models to get expert, experienced teachers to interact with some of our very low performing rural school systems.  It’s now technologically possible for effective teachers to bring their skills to several rural communities simultaneously, while enjoying the comforts of their own more urban communities.  And allow teachers from outside Alaska to teach through distance learning to Alaska’s students.  If Albert Einstein is located in Dallas, TX and wants to teach high school physics to Alaska students, then he should be allowed to and not be prohibited by Alaska State law.

#6.  Harness the positive effects of competition.  Monopoly power always ends with lower quality products for a higher price.  In the 26 US states that permit public and private schools to compete directly to attract parents, outcomes have improved and taxpayer costs have gone down.  Win-win. School Choice in the U.S. has especially benefited low-income families and families with special needs children.  It’s time now in Alaska to give these poorly-served groups the opportunities so many others have enjoyed in more enlightened areas of the nation.

Now that we have a good idea of where Alaska’s students stand in achievement, let’s all work together to think outside the box, challenge our students, and improve our teacher resource to ensure an equal opportunity for all Alaskan children regardless of skin color, ethnic origin, or socio-economic level.

The challenge is now before us.  We must take this challenge head-on and not offer excuses.  We can do this.  Teachers, parents, children and all Alaskans must join the team to ensure each and every child gets the opportunity to succeed in life through an excellent education.