Out There

school reform

Posted in teaching by Pete on September 30, 2018

What is the point of the educational system in place in America today?  There are some very fundamental differences of opinion about this.

Do schools exist to teach our kids?  Yes.  Teach them what?  (Values?  Lists of facts?  How to think?  How to get along?  How to submit to authority?  Which values to have?) For what purpose?  (Job?  College?  Happiness?  Efficiency?)

Do schools exist to prepare kids for life as adults?  How?

Based on your answer to the above, what is the best way for schools to actually accomplish this purpose?



Our district uses apple products like crazy, for pretty much everything.  Every teacher just got a new macbook air last month.  Every elementary teacher also got a new full-size ipad.  Every student in our school in grades 8-12 has their own macbook pro or macbook air (about 30 kids).  In addition, our school has about 25 more macbook pros and macbook airs that kids use on a rotating basis from the office.  So between teachers and kids, that is roughly 65 macbooks.  I bought my last 2 chromebooks for around $150 each.  I don’t understand why we don’t use chromebooks, and save a ton of money, like most districts are doing around the country.   65 chromebooks at $150 each = less than $10,000.  65 macbooks at $1,200 (this is a guess.  I would imagine we probably paid more than this for the pros, and maybe a bit less than this for the airs?) each = $78,000, for a difference of about $68,000.  This is almost enough to pay for another certified teacher at our site – a big deal considering we currently have 6.75 certified teachers. (I should also mention here that our school does have about 20+ chromebooks that a teacher won in a contest, and those are used on a daily basis as well.) . The other day, one of the top guys in the district called my little samsung chromebook “garbage” when he saw me working on it.  He asked why I wasn’t using the macbook air that I had just received, and I told him I preferred the chromebook, which is the honest truth.  Anyway, the district’s decision to go with apple products just seems wasteful.  I inquired as to whether the 300-400 new macbook airs that the teachers just received (and the new ipads) was grant-funded or something and was told that no, it was just how the district decided to spend it’s money.**


I recently saw this in the minutes from a recent LKSD board meeting:

Approved the purchase of the recommended Language Arts materials and resources in an amount not to exceed $982,242 with authorization for additional funding from unreserved fund balance in an amount not to exceed $582,242.

Now, up front I want to say that I have dear friends who have been very involved in the rollout of this curriculum.  This post is not about them.  It’s not even about THIS rollout.  It’s about using this specific example as a springboard for discussion about how/why funding decisions get made in education.  The $1.5ish million mentioned above paid for our new language arts curriculum, the vaunted “Reach for Reading” (RfR) from National Geographic.  Our school just started using this curriculum in August of 2018, in grades k-5 (or 6?).  I know that the fifth grade curriculum alone was like 8-12 heavyish boxes of materials.  4 or 5 boxes of leveled readers, 1 box of “explorer” books, 1 box of teacher editions (4 different volumes), another box with various other materials like the “academic talk” flip book and many others, 2 boxes with the reach into phonics booklets, and more.  Many districts are switching to Reach for Reading, and by all accounts, it is an outstanding curriculum that delivers challenging material with high expectations for achievement, along with differentiated material for ELLs (English Language Learners) and underperforming students.  In LKSD, RfR is replacing a curriculum called “Storytown” that was in wide use across the country, and is probably increasingly on the outs these days.

The thing is, LKSD turns over it’s curriculum on a schedule.  I can’t remember if it’s 6 or 7 years, but the district is constantly rotating through a list, so that 6 or 7 years from right now, we’ll be rolling out another new language arts curriculum at a similar cost, adjusted for inflation and student count.  And keep in mind that the learning curve for the transition to RfR has been steep.  Training in the new curriculum was the main emphasis of the district-wide inservice, which the district spent huge money on, to fly every teacher (300?  400?) to Bethel for 3 days of training – also paying to house and feed them during that time.  I’d guess it cost at least $200,000.**  And most of the teachers are still figuring out how to best use the curriculum.  This period of breaking in a new thing means less effective instruction for our students.

I think this whole process is duuuuummmmmmmmb.

How can Storytown go from being the best possible option for our kids, to being a major problem, in just 7 years?  We face many formidable problems, but Storytown is not one of them.  An above-average teacher could use storytown for the next 10 years and dwarf the progress made by their average peers who are using RfR.  That is my belief.  I’d love to see a study on the actual effects of the 2 side by side, kind of like they discuss here with other factors.  Several times during my 15+ years here, I’ve seen boatloads (literally) of textbooks and other materials taken out of the school to be thrown away.  Some of these were literally never used.  Most were used, but only a few years and they were still in great condition.  But getting anything to/from rural Alaska is very expensive, and our school has one small storage room, so…to the dump it goes.

What if we spent some of that $1.5M to $2M on

  • bonuses for teachers whose students’ test scores went up by a surprising amount?
  • Or on funding effective and inexpensive early childhood education, like parents as teachers programs in every village.
  • Or on bonuses for teachers who stay 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.  Turnover is killing our schools, I believe, way more than outdated curriculum.  Because the learning curve is so steep, in terms of cross-cultural adjustment.  In most rural Alaskan school districts, teachers stay about an average of 2 years, and keep in mind that the replacements are very often 22 years old and just out of college (not super effective teachers).  It’s a bad cycle.
  • Or better teacher housing!  Our building is so old that people literally cannot agree how old it is.  I’ve heard everything from the 30s to the 70s.  It has lead pipes, lead paint in places, and asbestos.  When I drilled into the wall to push a cable through, I found that all of the insulation had fallen down to the bottom couple of feet in the walls.  And there is no room for anyone who wants to have children.  How does that help anyone stay long term, which is what everyone agrees we need?  That $1.5-$2m would be more than enough for a new teacher housing 4-plex at our site.
  • Or how about direct cash compensation to students for good grades, or better yet, higher test scores (go up by X points = Y dollars).  Some districts have already done this, and the results were very promising, and it wasn’t actually expensive relative to the other stuff they had tried.

I’m just brainstorming here, but in 5-10 minutes I’ve come up with a list of things that I’m pretty confident would be at least as good and potentially way better, in terms of ROI, and that “return” based on accomplishing whatever it was you came up with to my question at the top.

And remember, LKSD (and probably most districts) does this every year!  In 2020, Everyday Math is out and we get a new math curriculum.  Our students get very low scores.  Those scores aren’t low because of Storytown or Everyday Math.  We have many challenges, but terrible, unusable curriculum is not one of them.  So why are we spending so much of our limited funding to fix something that isn’t even a problem?  Cynical answer – our test scores are bad, and the administration needs to look like it is taking things seriously and making changes, and it’s easier to change materials than it is to fire people.  Hopeful answer – ????  Incompetence?  People sincerely believe the curriculum is the problem, and is more urgent than our other problems?

**I can understand this maybe if we had more money than we knew what to do with.  But we don’t.  The state of Alaska has been in a budget crisis for a few years now due to falling oil prices, resulting in flat-funding or miniscule annual increases for education.  Our classified staff are in the middle of a 5 year period where their wages have been frozen, because “the money just isn’t there.”  Our certified staff approved a new contract a few years ago that saw our actual pay go backwards, in real dollars, over a 3 year period (village teacher rent increases of 10% per year – these increases were greater than the raises to the salary schedule).

How Many Clocks?

Posted in teaching by Pete on March 7, 2012

I was walking home just now from school and surprised 2 little boys who were struggling as they walked through the deep, soft snow and biting wind.  One of them said “You let me…scared!”  And then, “Visit?”  I told him no, maybe later, and kept walking and went up the stairs of our apartment.  As I reached the top of the stairs, he shouted back “How many clocks??”  I said “What??”  He repeated the question and I realized he meant “How long until we can visit?”  I told him “Maybe tomorrow” as it was nearly 6 o’clock and time to start making dinner.

I liked the interaction as an example of “village English” which we often enjoy.  You let me scared = You scared/startled me.  Visit? = can we come in to your house and play for a while?  This kind of dovetails into the post I wrote about “meaningful differences” and the interaction between culture and language development.

alcohol in bush Alaska

Posted in grim stuff, politics by Pete on February 6, 2009

Or “An open letter to Bethel drinkers.”  Booze are obviously a big problem in this part of the world, as they are in many other first nations communities.  Below is something I wrote back in the fall of ’07 and somehow never posted until now.  It came up for me again because of the news that the governor is trying to push through a bill that would reduce the monthly amounts each resident can legally import into a damp community.  I know Gov Palin is a lightning rod these days, but I’m behind her all the way on this issue.  If you disagree with me (and I know many do), leave a meaningful comment.  Dialogue, not “you ——.”

Thoughts on alcohol, rights, and responsibility


The state of Alaska has “local option laws” that allow communities to decide if they want to allow alcohol to be sold locally (wet), only imported with monthly limits (damp), or not imported/possessed at all (dry).  Most (or maybe all?) villages in the YK Delta area where I live voted to go dry.  Bethel, the only major city in the area and hub community for all 56 delta villages, is damp.

Alaska law allows people in “damp” communities to import up to:

10.5* liters of Distilled Spirits (vodka, gin, whisky, etc, max would be 14 fifths (750 ml bottle) per month); and

24 liters of wine (usually 750 ml or 1.5 L, max would be 32 fifths per month); and

12 gallons of malt beverages (beer, wine coolers, zima, etc, sold in 12, 16, 20, 40 oz, and gallons & kegs.  Max would be about 127 12-oz cans.)

So that is a max of 14 fifths of hard alcohol, 32 fifths of wine, and 127 cans of beer, every month.  What the heck are we thinking?  So I could have a fifth of wine, a half of a fifth of hard booze, and 4 cans of beer every day, and still have some left over at the end of every month!  And this is per person, not household, so my wife and other adults in my home could all do the same.  RIDICULOUS!!!

The pivotal issue of course is that drinking is viewed as a right.  The argument is “It’s not my problem if that guy can’t handle it or if that other guy is selling it illegally, I have a right to drink and I haven’t done anything wrong.”  Ahhhh yes, your rights.  I was listening to Bethel radio station KYUK broadcasting the city council meeting where the council members were blasting a representative from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (Doug Griffin) because of the new law that sets up a database to track people’s monthly imports so they don’t go over the “limit” by ordering the max from multiple vendors each month.  One guy complained that they were cutting this and cutting that, basically saying the limits were coming down too low (although the limits to my knowledge haven’t changed one iota). Another said the law will likely be overturned by litigation because it is too intrusive.  Never mind that this poor sap was just charged with enforcing the law, and didn’t create it himself.

As I listened to their arguments, I got upset (I mean, more than the usual anger I feel when I listen to those meetings—the Bethel City Council generally behaves like children in need of spankings).  Why?  The alcohol is destroying lives out here right and left, and all you can see is your RIGHTS.  Yes, it’s your legal right.  I don’t deny that.  But why is it so hard to surrender that right to make such an enormous difference in other people’s lives?  I can only think of two reasons.  Logically, you must be either (1) so addicted or (2) so selfish that you don’t care what the consequences to your neighbors are.  Am I making you mad now?  GOOD!  Join the club!  Feel free to respond and let me know how I’m wrong!  You can make all kinds of arguments and attempts at justification and talk about how you can’t control other’s actions, they’d get it from somewhere anyway, they need to be responsible for what they do, etc etc but at the core of it, you are supporting something that allows terrible things to happen out here, over and over.  Period.  The stats (from other village case studies) say if Bethel went dry, or even just got an alcohol delivery site, the crime and heartache would go down, and you are resisting.  How do you justify that? You’re resisting even being limited to the absurd amounts listed above!  Remember in the movie Braveheart how that king “Longshanks” had the right to take daughters of Scotland away with him for sex, and then discard them?  Having a legal “right” does not make you RIGHT.

Imagine I moved to a foreign land where the majority of the populace struggled with obesity, compulsively binging and putting themselves at huge risk of heart attack (or wait, that’s the U.S.).  In passing it should be noted that these people used to only eat healthily until ancestors from my race introduced chocolate to them, which they have a hard time resisting.  Suppose I insisted on my right, and everyone else’s right who lives there, to order 200 snickers, 500 twix, and 1,200 bags of M&M’s from my homeland every month.  I’m a skinny guy, its not my problem they can’t handle it, they’re weak, etc etc.  So I fight any attempt to lower those limits, even though tons of people are eating themselves to death on candy, and slimebags next door are selling the stuff to them at every opportunity for a 1000% profit.  How can you come to any conclusion but that person is selfish, even if they are within their rights?  And/or they’re addicted themselves.  So that was a clumsy analogy – you know what I mean.

I’m all for personal responsibility.  We all make choices, and we have to live with the consequences of those actions.  I’m also not very into legislating morality.  People need to do the right thing out of the strength of their character, not because they’re being forced to. And there are lots of people in this area making lots of crappy choices with respect to alcohol (and other stuff, which is why we lead the world in horrendous statistics).  I don’t deny it.

However, since moving here and seeing nothing from alcohol but pain and suffering, it’s moved me to consider more drastic measures.  There are statistics from nearly every village that goes from wet to damp, or damp to dry, that show a reduction in drinking and all of the crime that goes with it.  There are no stats for “heartache” but you can bet that goes down with the crime.  Similarly, when a village goes from dry to damp, or damp to wet, the trouble shoots up.  This is not open to debate, it’s the Truth.

If your desire to cling to your “right” to import ludicrous amounts of booze every month is so much stronger than your compassion at the state of your fellow man (even if they have made many crappy choices), then you have a serious problem.  The villages have spoken, and they want to be alcohol free, but it keeps pouring into the damp towns, and from there to the dry villages.

Your neighbors have a drinking problem.  Your problem is worse. You’ve chosen a beverage over people – your neighbors and maybe even your own family.  I invite you to change your way of thinking.