Q&A with Betsy DeVos and Michael Johnson

February 2020

with Betsy DeVos and Michael Johnson

Get to know Deborah Gist of The Line Editorial Advisory board


Alaska’s education landscape is unique. In a state with about 130,000 students, more than 10% of students are homeschooled through the public school system. About 60% to 70% of students are located in the state’s five largest districts, and the remainder are spread out over a vast geographic area. Some districts have a student population that is almost 100% Alaska Native, some where it’s 20% and everywhere in between.  

Alaska’s remoteness, high rate of teacher turnover and cultural diversity are only a few of the state’s educational challenges, but technology and innovation are proving to make a difference.

The Line Editor-in-Chief Hanna Skandera spoke with Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about the Secretary’s visit to Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. The two discuss Alaska’s career and technical education, innovative curriculum offerings to students, and how technology is expanding opportunity.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Commissioner Johnson, as you think about Alaska and the education landscape there, what’s your vision for delivering on the promise of education? What are the priorities that you and Governor Dunleavy are focusing on to make that promise more real for all of your students?

 Commissioner Johnson: My vision for delivering on the promise of education and really for delivering anything I do as commissioner is to work with families and their elected representatives to provide an excellent education and excellent educational opportunities for every young person in our state.

What we’ve done the last couple of years, in collaboration with many of our partners, is we’ve identified five measurable goals that we can work on to improve student outcomes in our state. We’ve worked with Alaskans across the board — the current governor, the previous governor, education associations, educators and families.

First in those five priorities is to support all students to be able to read at grade level by the end of third grade. Our average fourth grade scale score on the NAEP assessment puts us at the very bottom of the country and nobody is below us.

Second, we’ve increased career and technical and culturally relevant education to meet student and workforce needs. The unemployment rate in Alaska is high. Yet there’s many, many jobs that could be filled. So, we know career-focused education opportunities will make a big difference for kids.

Third, close the achievement gap — we have one of, if not, the largest gap in the country.

Fourth, prepare, attract and retain effective education professionals to work in our schools, and to provide those opportunities.

And lastly, improve the safety and wellbeing of students. We have a lot of issues in our state and in our community that impact student learning and we need to address those too.

Q: While visiting Alaska, Secretary, what stood out as the top priorities as they are committed to strengthening their public education system?

 Secretary DeVos: Commissioner Johnson has articulated them very well, and in my observation and experience of being able to spend that time with him, these are indeed the things that they’re focused on really delivering on behalf of the students in Alaska. I take the cue from the leader in the state as to what their unique challenges are. So, the focus on really recognizing those challenges and addressing them in ways that are responsive to the realities of the geography and of the experience of Alaska Natives is very much in line with where they want to go and need to go to ensure students are best prepared for their futures.

Q: In Alaska, there are many different avenues and opportunities in education. How does Alaska stand out?

Secretary DeVos: Alaska is unique among all of the states that I have visited in that many of the students are so remotely located that you must fly to get to them. There is no way to drive or walk. It is literally flights to get from one community to the next. And as I was in the smallest of the villages we visited, I thought about how different the challenges and the opportunities are for students there than in Miami for example. It’s as geographically disperse as you can possibly get in America. The upper northwest corner of the country, down to the far southeast tip — how different those challenges are. And then thinking about the role of the federal government in there. And how often intrusive it’s been in what states need to be able to do to address the needs of students in their unique circumstances in their state.

Q: Commissioner, to account for Alaska’s cultural and geographic diversity, tell us about some of your state’s innovative approaches to education and your commitment to that.

 Commissioner Johnson: We as a department are trying to be innovation friendly. When a district proposes an idea that has been vetted by their families and by their local school board, we try to remove any bureaucratic impediments to that innovation.

For example, we had a district that wanted to try and innovate a school calendar based on the subsistence patterns of the tribes in their region. So the goal is to be more efficient, improve attendance and provide learning opportunities within the culture and outside the traditional classroom. We did our work to make sure that we could approve that request.

Another example is the Anchorage School District, which is using the ECHO Project to deliver high-quality staff development to their own leaders and teachers and other districts around the state. ECHO is a project that originated out of the University of New Mexico, and we’re using that method and technology in cooperation with the district and the University of Alaska to deliver professional development. This use of technology is designed to equip educators and communities with the right knowledge at the right place at the right time to be able to deliver good educational opportunities.

Q: Secretary, when you were visiting, were there any specific visits that stood out in particular around their innovative work? What struck you about it?

Secretary DeVos: One of the schools we visited, Mat-Su Central, was originally a correspondence school for families that were living in remote situations. It has continued to evolve and, now, is very much a school that services literally thousands of homeschooling families through providing access to a multitude of different education providers. They basically can customize their students’ experiences and come in and interface regularly with teacher advisers and put together individual learning plans for each of the students involved. This, in my view, was a very innovative and creative approach, and one that continues to iterate and embrace new opportunities as they become available.

Another of the schools that we visited was a technical high school, King Tech, that is really helping students experience different kinds of pathways to pursue. We visited soon thereafter, very briefly, the Alaska Tourism Board. I heard how they were working together with schools like King Tech to continue to offer students opportunities to have apprenticeship and internship opportunities to explore what they may want to do to further their own education.

The nature of the challenges and opportunities in Alaska really lend itself to being innovative and creative on behalf of students.

Q: Commissioner, you mentioned ECHO, which sounds very powerful and impactful particularly for reaching across rural and remote areas in Alaska. As you think ahead, is there a unique role for technology in Alaska, even greater than you’re already experiencing?

 Commissioner Johnson: The great thing about technology and the time we live in is that we can extend the benefit of great teaching to more and more students. So often in the conversation about technology, people will fret that technology is going to replace teachers. I currently live in Juneau and I often use this example. Juneau is surrounded by mountains. So, flying in here can get tricky sometimes because there’s often low cloud cover. A friend of mine, who is a pilot for Alaska Airlines, has said that he can land now in weather that 20 years ago the FAA would’ve said was unauthorized. And that’s because technology allows him to do things that he couldn’t do before. It doesn’t replace the pilot, but it extends the benefit of a good pilot in more and more situations.

So, in Alaska, when you have the average high school — outside the big five school districts — the average school size is 150 students. There are many schools that have 30, 40 kids. When you only have one, two or three teachers in those schools, that really limits what you can offer students. It limits how students can arrange their schedules to have those opportunities. But with technology, we can multiply the class offerings and opportunities we have for students and that includes courses in lots of disciplines. I see students in Alaska taking foreign language courses that they would never be able to take in their small community.

While the Secretary was here, she visited a career and technical school up in Nome and got to use a heavy equipment simulator. And the students there, they use those simulators that are a partnership between the school and industry to get certifications, so that they can have employment.

Technology opens up huge opportunities for students that otherwise truly would not have those opportunities. They couldn’t drive to another town. They couldn’t just go to another school in their own district. The opportunity would not exist if technology wasn’t available.

Secretary DeVos: I was going to mention that experience in Nome, Michael. It was really interesting and exciting to see the students’ interest and engagement in those simulators for heavy equipment. There were also aviation simulators and simulators that would allow for piloting of vessels and ships. There’s no way the school would be able to stand alone and provide for them all of those important public-private partnerships that are allowing students the opportunity to explore careers.

In another classroom that I visited while at Eielson Air Force Base, there were about eight or 10 students, each of whom was taking a completely different course of their choice virtually. Several of them were taking different foreign languages. Another student was taking a course in government that was not able to be accessed at the school. A variety of different courses that the school couldn’t offer to each of those students, but they had the opportunity because of a course choice availability.

Q: Equity of opportunity and equity for our students is always a passionate part of education for so many of us. And, Commissioner, tell us how you and your team are addressing equity in education for your students in Alaska.

Commissioner Johnson: One of our five measurable goals is to close the achievement gap. One specific strategy as an example for achieving that goal is really being led by our Alaska Native community. This reflects the effectiveness of their leadership in the area of health care. By providing native-led and native-provided health care choices for their tribes, they have improved health outcomes, including life expectancy, in their tribes. So, I’m confident that the same will be true in education as we work with them to implement native-led education choices through charter and tribal compact schools. Student achievement and student success outcomes will improve as they are able to make choices regarding local education opportunities.

I’ll add that our geography can be seen as a challenge. But I think when we look at that diversity, the most important thing we need to do is see our diversity, whether it’s geographic or cultural, as a huge opportunity rather than an obstacle. When making sure there’s equity, the challenge of diversity quickly becomes a blessing of abundance when it’s allowed to flourish in the education system. So that’s why I think education freedom is so important in Alaska. Our communities are so far apart and so different from place to place that one size truly does not fit in such a vast area. Alaska is so fortunate to have many rich cultures and traditions and unique lifestyles influenced by our geography that can help shape learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom. We see the promising nature of diversity and then we focus on new and amazing ways that, now made possible with technology, we can deliver equitable education that wasn’t available even just a few years ago.

Q: Commissioner, while you’ve been in your leadership role with your governor, what is Alaska most proud of so far?

 Commissioner Johnson: Alaska is proud of its students. We’re proud of their successes. I think in a time when the political process and our state and our country is so immature and negative, Alaska’s students really demonstrate character and the ability to work together in many settings, including academic, athletic and cultural settings. We’re proud of our students.

We’re also proud of their patience as we work with willing partners to improve an education system that has not worked for many of them. There is a growing, and I think, a healthy unwillingness to accept our current outcomes in Alaska. We’re proud of our students who show up at school to learn each and every day in order to be part of the solutions now and in the future for future students.

Secretary DeVos: I share that pride in Alaska’s students and also pride in the opportunity to be able to work with Commissioner Johnson. His leadership there is unafraid and unabashed with advancing students’ needs and what’s best for kids. That focus on doing what’s right for students is so consistent with everything that I’m trying to do at the Department of Education. I could not think of a better partner in that at the state level than Michael. And I was just really grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Alaska and spend time there and see so many different ways that Alaska is really putting the needs of students first.