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Learning on the Last Frontier

The one-room schoolhouse is alive and well in Alaska

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By WILLY STERN
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Pay teachers not to teach. Burch must count his students every year in October to try to reach the magic number of 10 per school. If he is short, the state cuts off funding—for that same school year, which still has eight months to go. That makes it hard on the 9 remaining students. Meanwhile, Alaska law requires Burch to pay the teacher anyway, even if the school is shuttered. “If we count 9 students in October,” explains Burch, “I have the dysfunctional privilege of forking out a total salary, benefits, and housing package of $100,000 for the teacher, and then have to explain to the bewildered parents of the remaining 9 students that they aren’t entitled to this teacher as I’ll have to move him to a different school.”

Talk about dysfunctional: Burch is forced to spend far more time fretting over student counts than textbooks, curriculum, faculty, and core educational issues.

• Incentives to hire bad teachers. To find quality staff, Burch must hire teachers in January for the following academic year. But he often doesn’t know in January if he will get funded for the following year. That means he must gamble with the students’ futures. Burch can hire a first-rate teacher in January but then run the risk of the school being shut down. Or he can wait until summer and, if the school is a go, at the last minute try to hire one from the teaching dregs nobody else wanted. Neither option is a good one.

Of course, the resourceful folks at the Southeast Island School District have adapted to these perverse incentives. They invest in kayaks and mountain bikes. They have wonderful outdoor leadership programs. They do lengthy educational camping trips. They build trails and cabins. They find independent teachers who love the outdoors. How to compete in sports when they cannot even field a soccer team, much less get to another school? No problem. The district has won numerous state championships in archery. (Until the national level, archery meets can be held without travel.) The volleyball team has been known to hitch a ride with a passing fishing vessel to get to an off-island game.

Burch is always selling. “We concentrate on what we do well,” he says. “We are able to give individualized instruction with astoundingly low ratios of adults to kids of about 1:3. We have a wonderful place to raise children. We don’t have gangs, fights, detention rooms, vandalism, intimidation, or kids afraid to use the bathroom during the school day. We don’t have fences, metal detectors, or police in the schools. Yes, the sighting of a buck during hunting season has been known to empty a classroom.

“But parents here can have an impact on the education of their children,” Burch continues. “I like to think it’s because we care, but it’s also because we understand that we’re a service provider in a competitive market. It’s still a hard slog. Basically and perhaps quite reasonably, nobody much knows we’re here.” Well, at least now, a few more may know.

Willy Stern has written for The Weekly Standard from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Mali, among other places.

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