Alaska’s Impact on Education Rewrite

By Libby Casey

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says his visit last year to a village in southwest Alaska has affected his view of rural education – and what must be done to help rural students. 

Duncan spoke before a U-S Senate Committee Wednesday about the No Child Left Behind education law, and how he wants to change it.

The Secretary visited Hooper Bay in August.

I gotta tell you that visit impacted me deeply.  That and a visit to Montana, Northern Cheyenne are… I’ve had some extraordinary days in the past year, but those are two that are always going to stick with me.  To see the struggles of those communities, to see the lack of resources and what we need to do.  I just want to give you my personal promise that I want to do everything I can to help those children be successful.

The White House wants to overhaul No Child Left Behind as it comes up for reauthorization, to the point of changing its name, a move that’s typical when a new administration comes into office and seeks to put its own stamp on federal law.

But Senator Lisa Murkowski and others who represent rural states are concerned the proposed changes won’t fix problems faced in small communities.

She sits on the Education Committee that questioned Duncan on Wednesday and said some of the solutions to help struggling schools won’t help in places like Hooper Bay.

So when we talk about the options, replacing the principal, rehiring no more than 50% of the school staff.  This is our problem, we can’t keep good people there.

Murkowski asked how much flexibility districts and states would be granted.  She says Hooper Bay has fallen into the low-level “needs improvement” status of No Child Left Behind for 6 years.  Fewer than 30 percent of students were deemed “proficient” last year, and only half of students graduated.

Duncan agreed that keeping good teachers in rural communities is a huge challenge, and needs to be actively fought.

And so I can’t push this hard enough.  We want to put a huge amount of resources on the table.  I think teachers who go to Hooper Bay, or go work on Indian Reservations, we should pay them more money.  And it’s not about money.  We need great principals, we need to pay principals more money and keep them there.

But we treat them equal.  When you go to a place like that literally doesn’t have running water, they had in Hooper Bay teacher housing but huge, huge challenges there.  The school I visited in northern Cheyenne country, with massive teacher turnover, how can students learn when there’s a whole new team there?

MURK:  you’re never able to build a relationship or any kind of trust with a teacher or anyone in the administration.

Exactly.  I just want us all to think about this.  Senator I want us to think about this, I think as a country we’ve lacked total creativity in this area.

Murkowski noted it will take more than money, and asked for flexibility from federal rules when dealing with unique challenges.  Duncan agreed.

Absolutely, I’ll give you my commitment, we’ll absolutely try to do that, it’s the right thing to do.  And let me be clear, it’s not just about more money.  It’s about creating a climate, environment where teachers, principals want to be there.

What if we had some schools of education specifically teaching teaches to go to rural communities, specifically to go to heart of the inner city.  What’s our pipeline of talent for folks that this is their heart, this is their dedication.

One of the toughest mandates in Alaska of No Child Left Behind has been a requirement that teachers be “highly qualified” in each area they teach – a huge challenge in rural communities where teachers tackle multiple subjects in sometimes many grades.

Secretary Duncan says the Obama Administration hopes to change that by instead focusing on evaluating teacher effectiveness and looking at whether students area learning and improving, rather than judging teachers qualifications.

Senator Murkowski has introduced her own bill that would rework No Child Left Behind.  Her office says she hopes to incorporate elements of it into the bill that will eventually come before the Education Committee.

As to what the Obama Administration will call its version of the education act, Duncan has said he’d like suggestions from school children across the country.


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