My wife and I taught school on the Venetie Indian Reservation in Alaska for eight years ("Cutting Class," HCN, 10/28/13). Arctic Village and Venetie are several hundred miles from the nearest road above the Arctic Circle. Our Athabaskan students were enthusiastic learners. The school provided a place to learn all the typical school subjects like math, reading and science, and gave the students a wider view of the world outside their village. However, that is only part of the picture. The school also provided opportunities for elders to reinforce traditional values related to the traditional Athabaskan culture. Students learned how to make traditional clothing, how to make and set a fish trap, and numerous other skills that cannot be measured by a standardized test designed by an urban-centric culture. It should not be a surprise to anyone that students raised in a rural village with totally different cultural values and expectations cannot compete on a standardized test that was designed for students raised in urban America. The data from such a culturally irrelevant test are flawed from the start.
The village school has become the focal point of isolated Alaskan communities. People flock to the schools for basketball games, dances, town meetings and celebrations. If standardized test scores are the only measure used to denote the value of village schools, then the bureaucracy is missing most of the point of education. The idea that students in rural communities would learn more from online classes is ludicrous. Without the guidance and direction of a dedicated teacher, most of the students would never get online, and ignorance would prevail. In many cases, the school may be the only source of reliable electricity to run the computers for such classes. The standardized test is a form of racism, even if that is not the intent. How would urban kids do on a standardized test written by rural Native people? Would it be fair to expect urban kids to compete with rural kids on such a test? Many things that can be measured have no value and many things of value cannot be measured. Closing village schools is just one more step towards the marginalization of Alaskan Native people.