History of Alaska Education Policy series: Transitioning to a Standards-Based Education System

Jerry Covey, former Commissioner, Alaska Department of Education, 1991-95

The most significant change to Alaska’s public education system, during the years I served as commissioner of education, was the structuring of the foundation for the state’s present-day, standards-based public education system.

To provide context for the need—and the readiness—to develop education standards, let’s look back in appreciation of the changes that occurred in our public education system from 1976 to 1991. Rapid growth—spurred by the transformational work of Commissioner Marshall Lind and other state leaders, together with unprecedented amounts of funding—fueled a significant expansion of Alaska’s public education system: School districts on the road system built new schools and added programs and services. Rural districts experienced a construction boom and built 105 secondary schools. Rural school boards and educators were gaining important experience at governing and at delivering education to the first generation of high school students who were not sent away to government boarding schools.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, school system growth slowed, school funding decreased, and school districts turned their attention to operating their expanded systems. Around that time, state leaders, employers, in-state colleges and universities, and parents began raising concerns about education quality. Those stakeholders felt frustrated by the fact that some high school graduates were well prepared for entry into the workforce or higher education, whereas others with the same fresh diplomas were not. Employers and higher education institutions often found themselves having to teach skills that were expected of high school graduates. They asked, What exactly does a high school diploma signify? And how are we to know what skills graduates possess?

In the summer of 1991, I met with Governor Walter Hickel and the Alaska State Board of Education about public education concerns, after which I worked with staff members at the department to develop and implement a plan that would strengthen our public education system. It was called Alaska 2000.

When we began our work in fall 1991, a handful of other states, guided by funding and support from the federal government, were also developing education standards. We met with the feds about our plan to move forward with our work, and they strongly suggested a process and format for developing Alaska’s standards that other states were using. We thanked them for their input and support and developed an Alaska-oriented process that worked for us.

We knew that changes to the education system would require broad-based public support. In November 1991, to get the ball rolling, I brought together for a two-day conference 21 Alaskans representing business; labor; private schools; school board members; homeschool parents; vocational educators; the Alaska legislature; the Association of Alaska School Boards; Alaska Native leaders; the University of Alaska; NEA-Alaska; legal experts; superintendents; principals; and teachers. State board members also attended and observed the group’s work.

This diverse group spent two days exploring ways to strengthen the education system. I posed questions, listened, and took notes. From that meeting came a hundred recommendations grouped into 10 categories. The state board reviewed, in some instances revised, and approved the recommendations in December 1991, and we set to work crafting a plan to implement them. Included in the recommendations the state board of education approved was the development of student performance standards in the areas of the study of English, math, science, geography, history, skills for a healthy life, government and citizenship, fine arts, technological competence, and world languages.

In early 1992, I enlisted a hundred Alaska volunteers representing diverse backgrounds, varied interests, and from different regions of our great state to begin crafting recommendations. About one-third of that group began working on Student Performance Standards for English Language Arts, Math, and Science.

In July 1992, after a state board review of the group’s work, committees fine-tuned the recommendations, and we took them on the road. On September 14 and 15, an Education Summit was held in Anchorage. Over 800 Alaskans attended, including the public, everyone who had helped develop the recommendations, Governor Hickel, and US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. We took public testimony for those two days to better understand what Alaskans thought of the recommendations.

Following the Education Summit, the state board of education and I held similar meetings in other communities around the state to gather public input into proposed changes to our education system. During the next two years, the committees’ recommendations, sometimes modified by public input, were developed and implemented. In August 1994, the state board approved Student Performance Standards in English Language Arts, Math, and Science.

In retrospect, I would say that things worked out pretty well regarding Alaska’s education standards. Thanks to excellent work by Commissioner Shirley Holloway and several subsequent education commissioners as well as the tenacity of hundreds of Alaskans who knew how to roll up their sleeves and get the job done, Alaska continued with its development of standards. If you check out the Department of Education & Early Development’s website today, you’ll find Alaska-made standards in 16 different areas that guide our public education system.

The standards are the products of committed Alaskans who knew how to work together and strengthen the education system in ways that met our state’s needs. Parents sitting next to engineers, village store owners sharing ideas with oil company executives, Alaska Native leaders, homeschool parents, teachers, physicians, school board members, fishermen, bankers, accountants, and lawyers—all of them hardworking people from every corner of our state—gave their time and talent to improve Alaska’s public education system.

It all started with 21 Alaskans who identified ways to improve our public school system and was followed by the hard work, best thinking, and strong commitment of hundreds more over the next 30 years to produce the state’s standards-driven system that is in place today.

As I’ve always said, when it comes to public education, the best work is the work we do together.

Additional Resources

Alaska 2000: An Education Initiative – 1991 Department of Education plan overview includes rosters of AK2K Task Force Members and Committee Chairs.

More from the History of Education Policy series:

The History of Alaska Education Policy series seeks to provide historical context for Alaska’s current education policies from the perspectives of those who have helped to shape them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines.