Three hundred and twenty-six miles north of the Arctic Circle, straddling the Arctic Ocean and frozen tundra is Barrow, Alaska. At first look the houses, streets, and automobiles appear reminiscent of a third world country. My wife and I came here as newlyweds five years ago and began to raise our children here. Two and a half kids later, we are enjoying the wondrous learning opportunity that living in such a unique place affords us. Interestingly, the village of Barrow, like many Native Alaskan villages, shares common struggles with inner-city schools. Many students come from homes characterized by stress and instability, spurred on by high levels of abuse, neglect, drug addiction, and alcoholism. Absentee parents and lack of a central family unit are the reality for many students. These conditions are prevalent throughout rural Alaska and much of America, making it difficult for students to succeed in life — even if they earn a high school diploma. Such problems, combined with the social and physical isolation of villages in bush Alaska impede students from seeing opportunities to break the impoverished cycle that is their reality.
Educational reform proposals suggest a variety of solutions: redesigning curriculum and assessments to improve relevance, changing management style or structure, modifying class sizes and groupings, placing or removing state or federal mandates, lengthening student seat time, increasing access to technology, introducing charter schools and school vouchers, etc. While opinions vary across these debates, we find that their effects do not go deep enough; they don’t openly approach the foundational place where education begins – the home and family. The best place to start any reform is within the home.
During my tenure on the North Slope, I have led and participated in multiple efforts to improve the educational opportunities for our youth. Among these, I have had the privilege of working with Jay McTighe, cofounder of Understanding by Design, collaborating to create a standards aligned curriculum based on the Iñupiaq culture. The development of this curriculum is closely watched and supported by the state of Alaska as well as countries around the globe that look to it as a model for culture based curriculum. Its creation is a vigorous attempt to improve student achievement and preserve the traditional culture of the Iñupiat. This curriculum serves our students in eight villages spread across 89,000 square miles. More than four years into this effort the results are encouraging. As an integral part of this initiative I am fully vested in its importance, and believe that having a more relevant and rigorous curriculum combined with effective teaching strategies will help the students achieve academically.
I believe that academic achievement is one variable in the equation of success – but not the most potent variable. The influence of a child’s family life, and particularly...