What Dissatisfied, Inspired, Optimistic People Can Do Together

By Michael Johnson, Alaska Commissioner of Education & Early Development

Remarks to Alaska’s Education Challenge Kick-Off Committee Meeting at Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center, April 20, 2017

“Here we go again. We’ve done this before. This could be a gigantic waste of time. All of this hoopla and we really won’t accomplish anything. We can’t do anything if we are not funded. A lot of talking and not enough doing.”

Point taken. Actually, let’s take each point.

1) Here we go again. Absolutely! Our kids are worth our persistence. Just because we had conversations about the education system in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have conversations now. And, for you younger participants, just because we are having conversations now, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them again later. So, yes! Here we go again, and I’m proud of it.

2) This could be a gigantic waste of time. All of this hoopla and we really won’t accomplish anything. That is entirely possible. Failure is an option. We all need to be looking over our shoulder. Distraction and divisiveness is, as always, creeping up behind us. We can easily get sidetracked into local issues and divide ourselves so much that we never conquer the systemic issues. So, yes, this could be a waste of time and not accomplish anything. We acknowledge that so we can avoid that. We know we won’t meet Alaska’s Education Challenge by accident; we have to be very intentional and we will.

3) A lot of talking and not enough doing. That person, her over there, him over there, that school district, that association. Yes. You will do a lot of listening. And yes, you will not agree with everyone or everything begin said. That’s a reality of life. Our students probably would say the same thing about the education system. There’s a lot of talk in school and not enough doing in school. That is one of the things I hope we transform with more Career and Technical Education.

Yes, there will be a lot of talking; but just as we expect our students to work together, learn together, and even play together respectfully, I am expecting the same of you. We can show them that the rules we taught them on the playground are still very appropriate when we grow up.

So, for all of those who have complained about this effort. For all of you who may have doubts. For all of us who have been tempted to become cynical, I say, bring it on. There is no objection that outweighs the opportunity that lies before us.

Commissioner Johnson gives opening remarks at Alaska’s Education Challenge kickoff meeting

Today, we are not talking about individual school districts. We are not talking about individual teachers. We are not talking about dollars. We are talking about the system, all the parts and pieces that work together so that kids in this state get an education.

When I think of systems, I think of an airport. Think of all the individual little systems that make up the system we call an airport. There are luggage handling, ticketing, security, ground transportation, ground control, air-traffic control, lightings, runway clearing, and on and on. Each one of those is its own little system that makes up the bigger system.

Public education is a system. It is made up by many smaller systems. Districts, schools, teachers, classified staff, food service, busing, funding, health and safety, sports, and on and on. Our challenge, the Alaska’s Education Challenge, is about the bigger system. Does it all work together for all of our students? The answer is no, it doesn’t. But we are going to work on that.

So I want to talk to you about three motivations that I think are imperative for that work.

We Should Be Dissatisfied

First, we need to be motivated by dissatisfaction. Let’s try to understand what dissatisfaction is by asking what the difference is between being dissatisfied and something being unsatisfactory?

The difference, is you. The breakfast you had this morning may have been unsatisfying, but only when you become dissatisfied will you pick something else for breakfast the next time. Being dissatisfied means that you will make all the difference in Alaska’s Education Challenge.

What will it mean for us to be dissatisfied? It means that we accept the responsibility for what has been unsatisfactory. Nothing will come of the Alaska’s Education Challenge if we, the people in this room, as Alaskans, are not dissatisfied with how our education system is working.

In 2003, Alaska was ranked 43rd in 4th-grade reading in the United States. In 2015, we ranked 49th. In 8th-grade math, we ranked 27thin 2003. In 2015, we ranked 33rd.

For some of us, it is hard to discuss our dissatisfaction. Our parents, our educators and legislators work hard, really hard, to make sure kids get a good education. Our educators, and in my opinion, our legislators don’t get enough recognition for the sacrifices they make for our students. Because of that, we get defensive when we talk about what’s not working.

Can you imagine if we were defensive when we went to the doctor or to get our car worked on? Well, how dare you tell me I have a sinus infection, I exercise at least three times a week. Or, how dare you tell me I have high blood pressure, you didn’t even take the time to ask if I floss. Or, I’m never going to that auto shop again. I just bought new tires and that guy is telling me my windshield wiper fluid is low. Moron.

If we had that attitude, pretty soon our bodies and our cars would not be in very good shape. Listen, being dissatisfied with our system of public education in no way implies that we have not tried and accomplished much.

Dissatisfaction keeps us going forward, it doesn’t diminish the work of those who have gotten us this far. It keep us moving toward something even better. Listen, we’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet. We have to be dissatisfied to keep us moving to something better.

The fact is, our system of public education isn’t working for enough of our student population. We have one of the largest achievement gaps in the county between our bottom performers and our average to top performers.

Tribal and Community Ownership Committee discussion

If you are in this room and would be satisfied if our system of public education would continue functioning as it is right now, then this is not the meeting for you.

We must no longer be content with the results we are getting statewide. We must no longer be willing to rank near the bottom in our country. We must no longer nourish a system that was designed in the early 1900s for a culture far removed from the reality in Alaska. We must no longer pretend that we got a good start to a public education system in Alaska. We can no longer refuse to break with a past that failed to recognize and respect indigenous cultures. We must no longer feel it is adequate for some of our students to perform very well while some of our students are disenfranchised. We must no longer be unworried that our system of public education does not cultivate in all of our students a vision for their own future. We must be dissatisfied. We will not change the status quo if we are not thoroughly, deep down in our hearts, dissatisfied.

But, listen, we won’t get anywhere if we are only dissatisfied. If that’s all we are, we will not move forward. Being dissatisfied means we have an idea, at least an inkling of what will satisfy us. If I take a bite of my apple and it tastes bad, then I must know what a good apple tastes like.

What vision of better have we seen that keeps up looking up and out, rather than down and back? In other words, what inspires us?

What Inspires Us?

So, clearly, we must be dissatisfied. Now let’s talk about what inspires us.

In war, peace inspires us. In sports, victory inspires us. In cooking, tastes inspires us. In parenting, character inspires us. In travel, our destination inspires us.

What inspires us in education? Is it fancy buildings? Is it the how much funding we get? Is it new curriculum? Is it technology? Obviously, it isn’t. What inspires us to improve our system of public education? Student learning. Students and learning, not just students and not just learning.

First, students. They inspire us because of their value. Our children are treasured just as they are. Whether they learn or not. But because they are learners, because they were created to grow, develop and learn, we are inspired to have a system of education that provides for their learning.

Our students’ lives have meaning and purpose. Each one is worth us knowing and believing in. Each one, every one, is worth you being here together in this room.

Right now, I want to pause my comments and allow students to inspire you. Please take a moment, right now, and think of a student in our state that you know, could be a current student, it could be a past student, and it could be a future student. But think of one. Now, I want you to inspire someone around you by telling them about that student. Talk about who they are. What they like. How they learn. Where they come from and where they want to go. Remember, you are talking about a treasure worth more than the whole world. You are talking about a life, with great meaning and purpose.

Here is the State Board of Education’s vision statement. It captures the value of our students and our inspiration to see them learn.

“All students can succeed in their education and work; shape worthwhile and satisfying lives for themselves; exemplify the best values of society; and, be effective in improving the character and quality of the world around them.”

Our students are of infinite value to our world.

Now, I want to talk about learning. Learning also should inspire us. After all, we are here because we value education. The system our constitution calls for should support our schools and teachers so they can answer five essential questions for every student every day:

  1. What do we want our students to know and do? (Answered through effective standards.)
  2. How do we want them to learn it? (Answered through effective curriculum and instruction.)
  3. How will we know if they’ve learned it? (Answered through effective assessments.)
  4. What will we do if they don’t? (Answered through effective intervention.)
  5. What if they already know it? (Answered through effective enrichment.)

I don’t know about you, but those questions and the opportunity to answer them inspire me. Does learning inspire you? Why? It is easy for us to explain why we are inspired by students, but can you explain why learning inspires you? Take a moment, find a new friend, and explain to them why learning inspires you.

Modernization and Finance Committee discussion

Knowledge is powerful. I believe that is as true now, in 2017, as it has always been. But I do think we more desperately need to believe it.

There are facts about the world that should be known. Facts lead us. Knowing that fire is hot leads us away from injury. Knowing that water quenches thirst leads us to drink. The point I’m making is, knowing facts and knowing truth leads us away from deception that causes great pain.

Learning history and math, reading great stories, learning to explore through science, art, music – – learning all those things teaches us about ourselves and the world we live in. Those things teach us how to live abundantly.

How do we make sure the system is nourishing and extending that kind of learning to all students? That’s why we are here.

If you have a hard time seeing the joy that comes with learning, then look at what happens when learning is not treasured. Our world is full of places and people that have not valued learning, and look at what it costs. It cost freedom, it costs joy, and it most certainly costs life itself.

And, can I say, because we are talking about Alaskan children and youth, we are talking about kids that are more mature, culturally grounded, respectful of nature, and aware of elder wisdom than many other kids their age. Because of our cultures, and because of our land and because of our people, Alaska’s students should be great learners.

Do you marvel at the potential of our students? Wonder changes things.

So, our dissatisfaction keeps us moving forward. Our inspiration moves us the in the right direction. But we need one more motivation if we are to harness the change happening around us.

We Must Be Optimistic

We are dissatisfied. We are inspired. But we won’t get very far if we are not optimistic that we can transform our system of public education.

First, I don’t assume that we are any more motivated that those that have worked hard before. I’m not here because someone didn’t do something. You are not here because somehow you have the answers those before you didn’t. We aren’t here because no one after us will convene a similar meeting or effort. They will.

We are here because there is opportunity now. We are not called to seize yesterday’s opportunities — that was their responsibility. We are not here to benefit from tomorrow’s opportunities. That will be their responsibility. We are here because we have opportunity now.

But unlike yesterday and tomorrow, today’s opportunities are unprecedented. The challenges we face as a state today open the door to opportunities for you that education advocates have not had before. You, if you will have it, can harness the winds of change in our state to take our public education system to places it has not been before.

This is not wishful thinking. Just ask our students. Especially our seniors. If you think our optimism is wishful thinking, please, attend a high school graduation somewhere next month. Graduation is the most optimistic event of the year in our communities. What you will learn at graduation is that our students’ optimism is not tied to the price of oil. We should follow their example.

You will either transform the education system in Alaska, or you will perpetuate the same system with a few tweaks and leave the job to a future effort. Do you accept that responsibility?

Educator Excellence Committee discussion

In 2017, we have tools and resources to extend the benefit of great teachers to more and more students that we have never had before. We have research and understanding about how students learn that we’ve never had before. Our students have access to content that we’ve never had before (students in Kenai were taught by a diver live from the great barrier reef in Australia). And, maybe most importantly, thrust upon us, as Alaskans, is a context in which most everyone is willing to talk about change.

And what is it that makes this opportunity; it is constraints. We have constraints that keep us focused, stimulate change, enable new dialogue, and free us from “we’ve always done it that way.” Just as the constraints of the womb allow new life to form and grow. Just as the constraints of our atmosphere allow us to breathe. Just as the constraints of truth give us purpose and meaning. Our constraints give us the opportunity to change the future of Alaska’s system of public education.

We don’t have money. We can’t take the easy way out. We get to think deeply about our system without the temptation to skip a dollar across the surface of public education.

We do have opportunity handed to us through a half-empty pipeline and $40 oil. We have some really determined and motivated people that are hungry to change. We do have a leadership. Look around. We have all we need to transform the education system in our state.

Let me say clearly, I’m not asking you to celebrate our challenges. No one is celebrating our fiscal situation, taxes, or reduced dividends. Or a system that is not working for all of our students. I’m not celebrating those things and I hope you aren’t, either. I’m not saying funding doesn’t matter, but I am asking, I’m pleading, that we meet those challenges in a way that allows us to see them for what they are: an undeniable opportunity.

We will get past this time in our state’s history. And, we will finish Alaska’s Education Challenge. And I am confident if we do our job here, we will get the money we need.

Will future generations of education advocates look back and find us individually resisting change, or will they find us celebrating together the changes we made happen?

If you are sitting here thinking of yourself, this will be very frustrating. If you are sitting here thinking of the legislature, and blaming them, this will be frustrating. If you are sitting here, thinking of obstacles, then this will be frustrating.

If you are here and need to have everything go your way, then don’t stay. If you are here and feel you have to challenge every comment with your own opinion, then don’t stay. If you are here, and feel you already know that you will only support your recommendations, then don’t stay. If you are here, and cannot support compromise and consensus, then, please, don’t stay.

Please, if you are here, listening to me, and do not see the potential of our unity, then please don’t stay. But if, if you are willing to work hard, support unity, then please stay, I need you. If you are here thinking of students, then this will be incredible.

Some people say it’s unreasonable to expect five committees composed of 20 people who only meet once face-to-face and follow up with four three-hour meetings to produce recommendations that will positively affect every student in Alaska.

To them, I say, what is unreasonable is to be content with where we are right now as an education system.

We can’t legislate, regulate, or dictate our way to a great system of public education. We must agree on what matters most and work together to achieve it.

I want good recommendations, but just as much, for our students, I want a room full of people that will join hands and show our students what a group of dissatisfied, inspired, and optimistic people can do together.

Will you help me do that?


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 and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.