Ep. 327: What’s Up With Alaska

June 16, 2022

Dr. Michael Johnson joins the show to talk about K-12 Education in Alaska.

Mike McShane: What’s up everybody? This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and this is an addition of my podcast, What’s Up With Mike McShane, where I try and talk to people who are doing interesting things in education, in interesting places, solving thorny problems, and help you get a better understanding of what’s up with the American education system. I have a great guest today. I hope that the title of this podcast drew you in because we are going to answer the question: What’s up with Alaska? I’m a Midwesterner. I’m born raised in Kansas City, Missouri. You see Alaska on the map, you see pictures of people who go on cruises up there and you’re like, “Oh my goodness, this is so incredibly beautiful and rugged and wild.” You watch television shows about crab fishing and whatever, or ice road truckers, or whatever’s going on, and you’re just like, “Wow, this is a frontier. This is such an interesting place.” Then you realize, there are kids up there and there are schools. I don’t even know when we first had a conversation, but our guest today, Dr. Michael Johnson, who’s the Commissioner of Education for the state of Alaska. I can’t remember whether we were at a conference, but he and I have had a couple conversations over the course of the last few years. And just like every time he and I talked, first off, because he’s a great guy, he’s super thoughtful, he’s a problem solver, he’s just a wonderful person to talk to about education in general. I’ve really enjoyed those conversations. But just like every time he would talk about Alaska and talk about the challenges they face and the size of it and the communities that they serve, I was just enraptured by it. This is so wild, and it’s so cool and interesting and unique. And so, when I started putting together this podcast series and thinking of people that I really wanted to talk to, he was just right at the top of the list, I’m like, people have to find out about the cool stuff that they’re doing in Alaska. Not only just trying to do the day to day work of educating kids in Alaska, but actually being innovative, solving problems, doing cool stuff, and I think in ways that folks around the country and around the world even could really learn from. So without further ado, my guest is Dr. Michael Johnson. The very brief biography of him is that he’s a former school superintendent. He was a school principal. He was a district curriculum and staff development director. He was an elementary school teacher, a special education program assistant. The school where he was principal Glen Allan elementary school was named a blue ribbon school while he was the principal. He’s a recipient of the prestigious Milken Award. He’s just this very celebrated educator up in Alaska doing interesting things. I’m not going to say anymore even though I could, because I don’t want to wait one more moment before starting this conversation. So here is, What’s Up With Alaska with Commissioner Dr. Michael Johnson. Well, commissioner Johnson. It’s so great to have you on the podcast today. As we were saying before recording started, I think you and I, over the course of a couple years have had these very interesting conversations and I wish I would’ve recorded them. And so, the next best thing is to get you actually on the podcast to talk about Alaska, the great state of Alaska, all the interesting things that you’re doing there, the challenges that you’re facing. And so, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.

Dr. Michael Johnson: Oh, man. It’s an honor. Thank you, Mike. I agree. I’ve so enjoyed our conversations, which really began because I’ve so enjoyed your writing and some of the things that you’ve written, books and articles. And so, I just appreciate the opportunity to interact with you.

Mike McShane: Oh, thank you so much. That’s very kind of you to say. So maybe the place to start with this is to give some folks an idea of Alaska’s education system. How many students you serve, the enormous geographic area in which they are situated. If you could sort of paint the picture of K-12 education in Alaska for folks, that would be awesome.

Dr. Michael Johnson: That’s great. I’ll start with the geography and then work our way to the public education system. As you know, Alaska’s a gigantic state. It’s bigger than the next two largest states combined. If it was a country, it would be the 17th largest country in the world. It’s really enormous. The other part of the geography that’s interesting is, a large part of Alaska is off the road system as we say up here. And so, many of our schools are in villages that you can only get to by air or boat. We’ve actually had one bus stop in our state that’s actually an airplane. Kids would get up in the morning and go to a small airplane and fly across the river to the school. We have some that take a boat to school. And so, it’s a really interesting place. Fascinating, beautiful obviously. Culturally, it is so rich because we have many indigenous cultures up here that have been here for thousands of years and make it a very rich place culturally. All that adds some unique perspective and unique context to the public education system. When I’m at meetings with my fellow education chiefs, sometimes I’m a little bit jealous that they can drive to all their schools. We have about 500 schools in Alaska. A place like Illinois has thousands. Yet, you can get to any of them within a day of driving. I went to a graduation one time and it would’ve been like flying from DC over to Denver, Colorado to get to that school. And so, that is a huge scale when you’re talking about public education system and really a diverse set of schools. We have about 130,000 students, anywhere from 10 to 15%, closer to 15% probably, are part of our public homeschool program, which is also unique in the country. So yeah, Alaska’s a special place. It’s a wonderful place to be the Commissioner of Education.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Now, when you talk about your student demographics, I would love to know what percentage of students are, I want to say Native Alaskans, but sort of in two ways. One from indigenous tribes that have been there, as you mentioned, for thousands of years. Then I imagine there are folks that have been in Alaska for a few generations. Then I’m under the impression that you get a lot of transplants as well. And so, I wonder what the breakdown of the different sort of demographics of school children are.

Dr. Michael Johnson: About 40% of our students are Alaskan Native or American Indian. But again, that’s not necessarily evenly distributed. In our urban areas, those students are mixed with more of Caucasian, Pacific Islander, other populations. In some of our rural communities, the school can be almost all Alaska Native, especially in some of our remote villages. There are folks that come to Alaska for an adventure. It’s a little bit more of an adventure than they bargained for so they don’t stay very long. So we have some transient population. Then we have non-Native folks that have been here for a few generations. Relatively speaking in the country, Alaska is a young state, We only became a state in 1959. But even beyond that, I have visited with Alaska Native elder that told me about the first time he saw a White person across the river in interior Alaska. And so, it’s a young state in that regard. And so, you have non-Natives that have been here for a few generations, but really the Alaskan Native folks are the ones that have been here the longest.

Mike McShane: So now your work as the Commissioner. You mentioned this going to a graduation, or if you want to visit a school or a district, I mean, is it planes, trains, and automobiles? I mean, what does the actual process of doing that look like?

Dr. Michael Johnson: I’ll describe that trip I went to that particular graduation. My office is in Juno. Juno, we’re kind of in the panhandle. But you can only get to Juno by air or water. There are no roads going out of the state capital. I have to get on a plane and fly from Juno to Anchorage, which is about an hour and a half flight by jet. So imagine, what’s an hour and a half from DC to, I don’t know, Chicago, somewhere like that.

Mike McShane: Indianapolis, something like that. Sure.

Dr. Michael Johnson: So then I get the Anchorage and I get on a double prop plane and I fly another hour and a half or so to a little hub community out in interior. Alaska. Get off that plane and drive about 17 miles down a dirt road to a little landing strip and get on a single-engine Cessna and fly about 45 minutes over to the coast and get out some laundry detergent that we flew over for somebody, go up the hill to the school, participate in graduation, go back down the hill, get in the Cessna, fly back over to the little landing strip, and stay there overnight, and then head back home. That’s going really from one side of the state, all the way to the other. Not every school is going that far, but because my office is in Juno, no matter where I go, if I visit any school other than in Juno, I have to fly somewhere.

Mike McShane: Wow. Am I right to think that all of your school districts are enormous, the size of US states? Am I right to think that?

Dr. Michael Johnson: Well, no, we have some single site districts. We have a district that’s only got about 10 or 12 kids in it and it’s just a single little community. But we also have large districts. Some of our districts, the North Slope school district only has about 2,000 students but it’s the size of Indiana. We have the Kenai peninsula, that’s probably the size of West Virginia. We have another district that has been compared to about the size geographically of Ohio. We have glaciers the size of Rhode Island.

Mike McShane: That’s your sense of scale right there.

Dr. Michael Johnson: There’s a website you can go to that … how many states does it take to equal Alaska? I think it’s 240 or something Rhode Islands to equal Alaska or something like that. And so, our districts have small population of students, but they’re size of entire states. And so, it’s just really spread out. It’s a very different dynamic when you’re going to visit schools.

Mike McShane: And so now, one of the first questions that comes to my mind are teachers. Where do you get your teachers from? My mind immediately goes to some of these more remote communities. Are teachers locals to those communities? Do they come from somewhere else? But even in some of your other districts as well, I’d love to just know where you find your teachers.

Dr. Michael Johnson: Well, any given year, the new teachers that come, we import about 70% of those from out of state. That’s really an unfortunate number because what that means is that we have not done a good job of growing our own. We have far, far too few Alaskan Native teachers. We need to do a much better job of recruiting and preparing Alaskan Natives to teach in our schools. And so, in many of our schools, the teaching population is predominantly White and the student population is predominantly Alaskan Native. That’s a challenge that we’re working on. We have a recruitment and retention working group that the governor formed two years ago. That work continues. We’ve contracted with somebody that’s continuing to lead that effort. We did a study, came out with a report, implementing strategies to help change that. Because our turnover rate in the state and I don’t have that number in front of me I apologize, but it’s incredible. I dare say it’s probably the highest in the country. That has an impact on student achievement when you’re in a school and year after year 50, 60, 70% of the staff turns over year after year after year. That’s a huge challenge.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Now you had mentioned the public homeschool program. I would love to hear more about that.

Dr. Michael Johnson: I love our public homeschool program in Alaska. In Alaska, you can homeschool through a public school district. I think we have 30 something programs. You don’t have to live within the district boundaries to go to that district’s homeschool program. You could live in Juno and be enrolled in a homeschool program that’s run by the Mat-Su School District or the Yukon-Koyukok School District. What happens is the students enrolled in that program, they don’t run through the funding format like other students. But they do get the BSA, the Bay Student allocation. Then the district gives the family an allotment to purchase curriculum and services and other things. And so, a high school kid gets well over $2,000 a year for their program. Some programs, you also get a technology allotment in addition to that. And so, the families then work with the school district to come up with an individual learning plan for the student, have a wide variety of options for curriculum, and they can have all kinds of opportunities to provide an education of that student that works with them. The really great thing is many of our programs do that in conjunction with their local neighborhood schools. So a student could go to the local neighborhood school for some subjects and do other subjects at home with, say a parent that may have a particular interest in science or be great at math or whatever. Parents that may have a job that causes them to travel, their student can travel with them. That sort of thing. So it’s just really inspiring to see the kind of creativity that happens when you allow families and provide resources for them to create that kind of educational opportunity for their kids.

Mike McShane: That’s awesome. Does Alaska have a kind of strong homeschooling tradition? I imagine that that would be, lots of other states that have strong homeschool traditions tend to be more kind of frontier-sy type places that they grew up out of necessities. Did it come out of that homeschool community or what was the genesis for it?

Dr. Michael Johnson: I don’t know, really. I haven’t read any document or whatever on how it got to where it is today, but I would say you’re probably exactly right. I mean, think about it. You’re a family living in a rural community that is very small. It doesn’t have a school there because it’s just not big enough. You want to educate your kids. And so, for many, many years, the state had what was called the Alaska Homeschool Program, which was a correspondence program run by the State Department of Education. We’ve since given that to a school district so it runs through a local school district. But there were many, many students that lived off the grid or wherever, and that was back in the day where you got your box of material, you did it, you put it in envelope, you mailed it back in, it got graded. You got an envelope back with your graded assignment. It was truly a correspondence program back in the day. And that was a necessity because of our geography. I mean, it’s just so big and spread out and population in some communities so small. Then some people they just wanted to do that because it was an option. Well, that grew and developed over the years where different districts decided to start their own programs. And because you can enroll in any program, there was a competitive aspect to that where the districts wanted to attract the students. They offer different things with their programs, incentives to enroll in their program instead of another program. And so, our largest schools in the state are home schools like schools that enroll homeschool students, like the IDEA program. The IDEA homeschool program is the largest homeschool program in the state. It has well over 4,000 students, but is run by a district in a little bitty community called Galena that just has a few hundred at most. So if you took away their homeschool program, they’d be one of our smallest district. With their homeschool program, they’re one of the larger ones.

Mike McShane: I’m thinking about sort of one question whenever I see something like this is, why doesn’t this exist in other places? Why don’t more schools and districts do this? Because it seems like a no-brainer to me of working together. Is it sort of the funding is built in that it ends up being a good deal for the school district as well? Is there a pushback against it from folks or has it just become part of things? The broad question is why doesn’t this exist in other places, which is sort of a roundabout way of saying, what have you done here to make this so popular?

Dr. Michael Johnson: Well, let’s start with the pushback. Yes, there’s pushback. The education establishment does not look favorably on homeschool students or homeschool programs. In fact, it will often refer to, oh, you know, they came back to the public school system. All of the homeschool programs enrolled in a school district are public school students. They’re enrolled in a public school program. But because they don’t go to the traditional brick and mortar school and receive their instruction from a teacher in a classroom, the education establishment often refers to them as not public school students. The other thing is they generate less money for the system. I mean, I’ve heard people make comments about, you’re taking money out of the system when you homeschool kids. No comment about if it’s effective, is the kid getting a great education. It’s about, well, they’re generating less money for the system. And so, there really is unfortunate pushback. But none of it has anything to do with the quality of education the kids receive. Some educators will diss on homeschool programs because they’re not a certified teacher or whatever. And yet, the evidence is that many, many kids in homeschool programs receive a great education and outperform students. Of course, there’s some that don’t, but most do really well. Why other places don’t do it, I think is a very broad, general statement that I know doesn’t apply to everybody so I don’t want to say anything that’s …

Mike McShane: This is a safe place for generalizations.

Dr. Michael Johnson: The generalization is people don’t like choice. They don’t like to have options that threaten the status quo of the system. Yet, if they would take a deep and realize, you either provide a program like this where families feel a part of the public education system and engage in it and become part of that system, or they’re going to homeschool anyway apart from that system. A lot of families. And so, what a great way, and especially with the pandemic and how all families had to homeschool at some point, well, now many people see that, wow, I could have the best of both worlds. I can be connected to my local neighborhood school which I support and love and want to thrive, but I want to also have the flexibility to do some other creative things with my kid. And so, I’m hoping that it does happen in other places. I hope other states can look at the Alaska model for how we do homeschooling and see it as an expansion and extension of the public school system, not as a diminishment or shrinking of the public school system.

Mike McShane: And that it doesn’t have to be zero sum. It’s not winners and losers. It’s people working together and everyone compromising a little bit. But yet it’s an inspiring thing to see. So I’m curious, if you were to highlight what you think the kind of biggest issues facing education in Alaska, it sounds like you’ve already mentioned teacher turnover and teacher recruitment being one. So I imagine that’s on the list. Are there other things on the list that you all are wrestling with?

Dr. Michael Johnson: I mean, I’ll just talk a little bit about the teacher recruitment and retention issue again. I know that’s a problem everywhere, but when you’re in a small village school, there’s a unique culture in a small school like that and it is so wonderful in the ones that work well. You get teachers that stay for a long time in a community like that and become part of a community. The school just becomes such a wonderful place for kids to learn and grow, lots of flexibility, lots of opportunities, because it’s a small population, that sort of thing. But when you have constant turnover of teachers, the school’s a strange place year after year after year. You don’t have any continuity. It’s not just teachers, the principals turnover, the superintendents, that sort of thing. That really impacts the progress and the quality of the instructional program. So that is just a huge issue in Alaska. The other one though is, and probably not unrelated, is we are 49th, at least, in reading outcomes and so much of quality education rest on the ability to read that that has such a residual impact on everything else in our public education system. That’s a huge challenge. We have to get more kids reading proficiently. We just have to. Last night, late hour, end of legislative session last day yesterday, we did pass a reading bill that we’ve been working on for a few years. I hope that’s the beginning of Alaska not being last in the state. There’s no reason our kids should not be in the top of our country. When you think of the lifestyle they live, in rural Alaska especially, they are really capable kids. If we teach them to read, I think there’ll be no limit to what kids in Alaska can do. So that’s a huge challenge for us. We can’t remain at the bottom.

Mike McShane: And so, what was in that bill? What were you trying to do with that?

Dr. Michael Johnson: There are three main parts to the bill. One is a pre-K element. Not mandatory pre-K, but it does provide funding for districts gradually over years to ramp up pre-K programs that are evidence-based programs based on the science of reading. They have to go through an approval process with the state department. So it’s not just opening up pre-K, it has to be a quality program that gets kids on that pathway to proficiency by the end of third grade. The second part is just quality reading instruction. Doing a screener for every kid. Students that aren’t on track to be proficient by the end of third grade, districts being required to provide interventions to do that. That’s based on models that have happened in several other states: Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and others. Then the third part is some resources to really provide extra support for our lowest performing schools. I mean, we have some districts that are really, really low. I know a few years ago we had a school, 2% reading proficiency. Those schools, we are going to have to provide some more intensive turbo boost to start climbing up. Because when you think about it, when you’re that low, when you only have 30-40% of your kids’ reading proficiency, even if you improve 2 or 3, 4% a year, it’s going to be a decade before you get up to places that kids deserve. And so, we’ve got to turbo boost some of those. That’s the three main parts of the bill.

Mike McShane: And so, there’s been a lot of debate about the whole reading instruction, the science of reading. Did that play into what you were doing here? Has that been a debate or a discussion in Alaska as well?

Dr. Michael Johnson: Absolutely. People got wrapped around the retention word at the beginning because … Not this bill, but some of the previous bills that led up to this had mandatory retention in there. People really reacted to that. What I said to people is I don’t need retention to be mandatory. I need intervention to be mandatory, and retention is one kind of intervention. It’s not picking one intervention like retention and saying, that’s mandatory. It’s saying you have to do something. You can’t retain a kid and do the same thing a second year, or you can’t just not do anything. Retention works for some kids. For some, it may not. That important thing is that if there’s a mandatory intervention for a kid that’s not on the pathway. So, we got past that. There wasn’t a lot of debate about the science of reading. I mean, most of that came from institutions of higher education, as you could probably predict. But there were some people that made a few comments, but by and large, most people have settled on those evidence-based, science-base, those five components that are why kids need to become a proficient reader. So, we got through that. There were skirmishes about funding and local control, state control, and all those things we had to work through. But Alaska by and large, because we’ve had lots of oil money in our past, we have primarily just sent money to districts. When we talk about low outcomes, we just, oh, well they need more funding. They need more funding. Alaska has not done a lot of education policy. And so, just the whole idea that there might be expectations that come with the funding was probably uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Mike McShane: Well, I have one last question for you and that is, what is … It doesn’t have to necessarily be the thing that you are most excited about, but what is at least one thing that you’re really excited about going on with education in Alaska?

Dr. Michael Johnson: I’ll start with, I mean, if you ask an Alaskan in May what they’re most excited about, it’s summer and warm weather and no snow and those sorts of things. So, I’m really excited that it’s summer.

Mike McShane: On a personal level, yes.

Dr. Michael Johnson: Right, right, right. But the most exciting thing in Alaska right now is this effort in reading. Yes, we got a reading bill pass and I’m super excited about that. But a few weeks ago we hosted our first ever reading symposium on the science of reading. We had almost a thousand people attend that, which is huge for Alaska when you think our conferences are not usually that big. It was really successful and positive and lots of people left really inspired to go and implement good reading policy.In addition to that, we’ve been talking about this for a few years and I’ve had many educators, superintendents, others come up to me and say, “Hey, we’re going to do this next year. We’re going to implement these things in reading and whatever.” So no matter whether the bill passed or not, we’ve changed the conversation. There’s a renewed focus on kids becoming proficient in reading in Alaska and I’m really excited. It’ll take time. But I think we’ll be able to look back in two, three, four years and see that we made a difference, and a lot more kids are going to be proficient readers.

Mike McShane: Well, that’s great to hear and I wish you nothing but the best. Commissioner Johnson, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.

Dr. Michael Johnson: Thanks Mike. It’s an honor and I appreciate the invitation.

Mike McShane: Well, I could have talked about Alaska for hours and I really wanted to dig in. I was almost like, tell me about all of these little communities and everything that’s going on there. But maybe that would’ve only been interesting to me. If it was interesting to all of you, please let me know. We’ll have Dr. Johnson back on to talk more about what’s going on in Alaska. But you know, as I’ve said before about this podcast, I’m just so interested in people who are solving problems, who are not sort of mired in the clouds just trying to debate things all day or speaking to abstract terms, but actually identifying things that are going on in their communities and trying to do something to fix them. And maybe this is some of my own projecting, because I think maybe I spend too much of my time up in the clouds, just writing and thinking about things. So I’m always so impressed by and thankful for the people that actually go out and do stuff. Dr. Johnson was certainly an example of that. I hope you really enjoyed that conversation. I did. I think he’s such an interesting and thoughtful guy, and obviously operating in such a cool place. As always, I’m always looking for interesting people to talk to for interesting problems to better understand. If you have some ideas, like if there are things you want to know, what’s up with whatever, let me know. You can tweet at me. I’m at M-Q underscore McShane. You can email me. Any of that sort of stuff. Please as always, Like and subscribe to this podcast. It helps more people find out about if you want to give it a rating, like a five star rating, that would be great. If you want to give it less than a five star rating, don’t bother. You have more important things to do. But give it the full five stars. That would be awesome. As always, I’d like to thank our producer, Jacob Vinson, who stitches all of this stuff together, deals with any number of technical difficulties and smooths that all out to make it sound great on the other end. It was great talking to Dr. Johnson today. I hope you all enjoyed it. I look forward to talking to all of you again when we ask the question, what’s up, with something else in the future. Take care.