Why do we need research?
In an increasingly global marketplace spawning increased competition for jobs and wealth, the United States has seen its public education systems move from the top of the list of the industrialized countries to fighting to stay above average. While students’ standardized test scores in science and math have stayed consistent or even improved in recent years, the scores of students in other nations continue to improve at an even faster pace, enhancing those nations’ competitive advantages and increasingly transferring jobs, and the wealth they create, away from the United States. (Compare country rankings from the 2009 PISA test results.)
Alaska faces very similar challenges. Nearly 20% of workers in Alaska each year migrate from outside the state. Some level of nonresident hiring is to be expected, but such high rates impose costs to the state, and emphasize the need to better prepare Alaska youth for high-wage employment opportunities in more highly skilled jobs. While this influx of highly skilled and trained workers has increased the proportion of Alaskans 25 years and over having at least a high school diploma—90% of the state’s population in this age group—the outcomes for resident youth are not as encouraging.
Alaska students often score at or above the national average in elementary and secondary standardized tests—those students who remain in school continue to be successful. (See the National Assessment of Educational Progress results at the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development website.) However, in the 2007-08 academic year, Alaska students dropped out of school before earning their high school diploma at the second highest rate in the country at 7.3% compared to a 4.1% national rate. (See the Public High School Graduates and Dropouts table at the National Center for Education Statistics.) Alaska also had the lowest percentage of students attending college directly from high school, less than 46% compared to a national average of over 63%. (Available through the NCHEMS Information Center.)
While these patterns are concerning, they are neither unavoidable nor irreversible. However, it will require concerted efforts by the spectrum of participants in the educational community, policy makers, and researchers to better identify their causes and to provide incentives and create programs to reverse them.
Given the current situation, it’s apparent that a large portion of Alaska’s students are not adequately prepared to meet the requirements of the jobs in their futures.
A study completed in 2008, Making Alaska More Competitive, focused on expanding access to postsecondary education, both collegiate and vocational, as being a key component to a strong future for Alaska citizens. Its five recommendations for addressing the challenges facing Alaska’s complete educational system – the educational pipeline that begins with preschool and continues through high school, on to college and vocational education, and into lifelong learning opportunities – included:
- Developing strategies that create a statewide college-going culture;
- Establishing a K-16 partnership environment among K-12, business, and community groups;
- Establishing a peer mentoring program to enhance college access;
- Building on AlaskAdvantage programs to increase awareness of postsecondary opportunities; and
- Requesting the Governor to focus cabinet-level attention on the issue of access to postsecondary education for Alaskans.
Since that time, important and substantive gains have been made in each of these areas, though challenges remain. In order to accomplish these recommendations, ACPE’s research unit has undertaken several initiatives, including:
- Identifying those questions most important to Alaska’s educators, policy makers, students, parents, and educational researchers;
- Creating with its partner agencies a statewide longitudinal data system, or SLDS, that houses educational data in order to increase the efficiency of sharing data across agencies and to increase the scope of the questions that can be quickly answered;
- Measuring the effectiveness of educational programs, including the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the AlaskAdvantage Education Grant programs;
- Identifying problems that the current educational system is experiencing and formulating potential solutions;
- Working with other educational partners, both in and out-of-state, to share information while at the same time protecting the privacy of students and educators.