Education Reforms Must Not Leave Out Alaska Students

Through Tiffany Zulkosky, Bryce Edgmon, Neal Foster, Josiah Patkotak, Chalyee Eesh Richard Peterson, La quen naay Liz Medicine Crow and Waahlaal Giidaak Barbara Blake

Update: 9 hours ago Published: 12 hours ago

Teaching and learning is a deeply personal experience—based in large part on the unique cultures, life experiences, and languages ​​of a student and an instructor. A student from Elim comes into a class with a different perspective than Bethel, who brings a different view of the world than a student from Wasilla or Anchorage. And yet the tests are still standardized and used to measure a student’s progress as if the rules of the game were level playing field.

Against this backdrop, the Legislature is considering omnibus legislation this session with the aim of improving reading skills by Grade 3, coupled with the creation of an early learning curriculum and framework to provide more virtual education in schools.

Our concern is that, while the effort is commendable, the bill fails to take into account the great difficulty of sending teachers to rural schools, period, let alone the daunting requirement of the bill to ‘hire and retain the reading specialists needed to ensure that all children are reading by the third grade.

While establishing a uniform assessment tool that tests students on their English proficiency is an ambitious goal, it unfortunately fails to recognize the reality that English may not be their primary language. Moreover, it is an assessment based solely on the medium of a standardized test which has its own drawbacks and cultural biases. This gives us the impression that “the fix is ​​in place” and that the results are predetermined. It’s as if some children were running a 100 meter race against other children who were 60 meters ahead.

If these new practices are adopted, generations of cultural wisdom and languages ​​could be set aside and ignored. Given our state and nation’s history and educational history of marginalizing and penalizing Indigenous speakers and cultures, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We must never forget that the recent and painful history of assimilation and inequity for rural schools hangs over all of this.

A better strategy would be to look at the root causes and allocate resources accordingly. Clearly, staff recruitment and retention 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 whether they are receiving the same quality of education at ground level?

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

In the Alaska State Legislature, Representative Tiffany Zulkosky represents Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, Representative Bryce Edgmon represents Dillingham and Bristol Bay, Rep. Neal Foster represents Nome, Lower Yukon and the Bering Strait, and Representative Josiah Patkotak represents Utqiagvik, the North Slope and the Northwest Arctic. President Chalyee Eesh Peterson is Tlingit from the Kaagwaantaan clan, The 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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