Next Steps on Alaska’s Education Challenge

Every once in a while, in the midst of the constant hype of one new “answer” after another, something that is actually great arrives in the world of education. That has happened here in Alaska with Alaska’s Education Challenge.

Hopefully, you’ve already had a chance to look at the Three Commitments (in case you have not, here’s a link). They were approved by the State Board of Education in December, supported unanimously by the NEA-Alaska Delegate Assembly in January, and shared in a press conference with Gov. Bill Walker and Commissioner Michael Johnson later that month.

Strong support from all of Alaska’s education leaders is a great start, but here’s why EVERY educator in Alaska should be excited.

The Three Commitments are a perfect fit for how to make NEA-Alaska’s mission a reality. Educators around the state want a great education for every child. We see great education in terms of great student learning. And we know that in order to make student learning happen, we need quality working conditions for the people who work in schools.

The Three Commitments put student learning at the center of the work we do. They let us sift through the dozens of requirements that come with our jobs and focus on the things we do with students that will lead to increased student learning. The commitments do not contain any requirements that would make educators in Alaska cringe. Quite the opposite. Each of the three areas fits exactly with where Alaska is at this moment.

“Increase Student Success” sounds simple enough on its face. But look at the words below the headline: “Success will be identified using multiple measures as part of a rich and varied curriculum.” Talking about multiple measures means that we will get to talk about how educators use all different forms of assessment to increase student learning. One test on one day is way too simplistic a measure to capture the complexity of the learning that students in Alaska are doing every day. As educators, we know that assessment is a process, not an event. We also embrace the idea of a “rich and varied curriculum” because it opens the door to a discussion of what types of learning every community in Alaska wants for its students. English and math have appropriately dominated the education sphere for more than a decade, but what parent doesn’t also want their student to have access to the arts, music, physical education and so much more?

“Cultivate Safety and Well-being” seems like a no brainer, but the real magic is that it is finally getting the focus it needs within schools. Every educator knows that learning can’t even begin if a student’s needs in the areas of safety and well-being are ignored. This is why so many of us have always kept snacks at the ready. We also talk with students each day to make sure that they are ready to learn. If we find out that they didn’t spend the night at home or if they are being bullied, we know that addressing that need must come first. Most of us are very familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. This simple list must be met in order for us to truly get to student learning. We also know that school safety is complex, and it is our job as educators to protect our students. We train and drill for all kinds of emergency situations, and we support reasonable ideas that will keep schools free of violence.

“Support Responsible and Reflective Learners” is my personal favorite of the Three Commitments. I start each day in my classroom with the goal of helping each student truly reach the goal of becoming a reflective learner. Educators know that when we get students to the point where they can define exactly what success looks like for them personally, the chances of them actually reaching those milestones goes up like a rocket ship. A discussion of reflective students easily allows us to jump to the discussion of what it means to be a reflective practitioner. There is nothing that educators love more than to be successful in their jobs. And the discussion can now even shift to the responsibilities of the students and families in the process. Students must take advantage of the great learning opportunities that are offered every day in schools. That’s where the spotlight belongs—right on student learning.

The current consensus around the Three Commitments is historical. At no point in Alaska’s history has every education stakeholder group agreed on a specific direction for our schools. I can’t tell you precisely why things have shifted now, but I’m sure glad to be part of this change in focus. Instead of talking about why schools in Alaska may struggle, education leaders across the state are finding agreement about what we need to do to find success.

Every educator in Alaska should get an opportunity to see and comment on the Three Commitments during a staff meeting at their school sometime in the next six months. Leaders from the superintendents, principals, and school boards associations have all agreed that this is the right way to head. But Alaska’s Education Challenge doesn’t come with a list of five things that we “must do.” It’s not a check list from on high. Alaska is asking every school to become a reflective learning community as they figure out what is right for them as they pursue the Three Commitments.

This shift in thinking is a dramatic departure from the past. And all of it comes just in the nick of time, with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act due to start in August. Although this law was signed in 2015 and promised to change the focus of schools around the state, it still includes an inordinate focus on simplistic standardized tests. For this reason, it’s critical that we carefully watch its implementation while we keep our eyes on the promise of Alaska’s Education Challenge. Successful initiatives have a vision for success that everyone can appreciate, and that’s what we see in the Three Commitments.

Once in a while, something great happens in education, and that’s what we are hoping for right now in Alaska.