Alaska Teacher Survey: Home, Community Environment Matters

Teachers in Alaska were asked what they thought about their classrooms on the heels of a heated political debate in Juneau over the funding of Alaska's public schools. The Enhancing Student Learning and Performance 2013 statewide survey, which was prepared by Northern Economics consulting firm, shows that teachers think their work is hampered by what goes on at home.

The conclusions: Alaska teachers say poor home environments for students filter into the classroom in the form of chronic absences, students who come to school unprepared and burdened by bad nutrition or little sleep. To make schools better, they'd like to see more of the things currently being stripped by budget cuts: supports such as counseling and smaller class sizes.

Surveys done on Alaska households agreed with the teachers in some areas, but were mostly concerned with the impact of community drug and alcohol abuse on students. Teachers stated the most important area was students getting to class regularly.

This is the first study asking Alaskan teachers about social issues and how they play out in the classroom. Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president Andrew Halcro said it was time to "hear the stories from people who see the kids come through the door everyday".

Advocates of the study are hoping the data will help the statewide debate on school funding. One proposal that includes a constitutional amendment would include state funding of private schools. Halcro is not taking a formal position on the constitutional amendment.

The survey was completed online in October and participants were urban and rural teachers. They were asked questions about the community, student and parental involvement, social issues, plans for school improvement, and open-ended questions on their job. In addition to the teachers, 750 rural and urban households were asked questions through phone calls on social issues and school improvement.

Michelle Theriault Boots of Anchorage Daily News reported on the results of the survey. Some of the important findings included teachers saying students did best when they came to class, had enough sleep, a good diet, and had a stable home. The biggest problems were absences, a poor home environment, bullying, and community drug and alcohol abuse.

 Households focused on drug and alcohol abuse as the top issue facing classrooms. Teachers focused on issues that are more visible from the classroom, such as chronic absence. "Teachers and households are speaking a different language when they talk about these issues," King said.

Teachers listed smaller class sizes, before and after school programs, mandatory preschool and vocational classes as changes they would make to their school. Households and teachers agreed that connecting the academic and work worlds should be a top priority.

Kings says that the survey didn't answer questions on the future of Alaska educational funding, and that funding and vouchers were never mentioned on the survey.

"It just provides a road map of what teachers say are the most important elements," King said. "And really, it shines a light on how complex this issue is and how much community conversation needs to take place."

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