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Helping Guide Alaska Policymakers in Using Data and Evidence

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

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Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, and just six years later, we began to work with policymakers, researchers, and educators in the state on capacity building. We were known at the time as the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. As we begin to celebrate opening our doors 50 years ago, we are looking at our activities in each state in our region. This blog post comes from Terri Akey, who leads REL Northwest’s work with the Alaska State Policy Research Alliance (ASPRA).

Alaska covers a huge territory, but it is a small state when it comes to education policy. The circle of influence is small, and policymakers work together across agencies to frame policies that support education for all Alaska children. Over the last few years, policymakers have begun to seek out Alaska-based research and evidence to help inform their education policies. This change represents a growing shift from making policy decisions based more on stories, anecdotes, and personal agendas to looking at research evidence and data to determine what’s best for Alaska students.

REL Northwest has been helping a group of policymakers in Alaska make that shift. With an increasing emphasis across the country on evidence, accountability, and equity, Alaska wants to ensure that their education systems work for all students. Since 2012, we have supported ASPRA—a forum for Alaska policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders to explore methods for gathering high-quality data and applying research and evidence to decisionmaking processes. With ASPRA, our primary role is to bring people together, help them set their research agenda, learn about their data and research needs, and respond with Alaska-specific evidence and interpretation to help them formulate better-informed policy.

We support analytic work in the state by providing technical guidance and helping policymakers and researchers design studies that provide the right data to answer important policy questions. In early January, we were in Anchorage to present findings to the Alaska State Legislature from a new ASPRA study that examines the pathways of Alaska students as they pursue education and careers after high school. The study involved examining data from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Our role was not to conduct the study ourselves, but to provide technical expertise to help the two state agencies carry out rigorous analysis and think about how to present the results in meaningful ways. Through our role in ASPRA, we are not just providing research—we are also showing policymakers how to use the research to inform policy decisions about college and career readiness and postsecondary success in job training, college, and careers, with an emphasis on opportunities for Alaska Native students.

Evidence is also helping the state deal with emerging challenges. Alaska relies on revenue from oil production to fund schools, and the global drop in oil prices has led to a school-funding crisis. ASPRA is able to help policymakers use data and evidence when making difficult decisions about resource allocation and to increase accountability. In this context, we’ve been able to help superintendents use publicly available data to think about both local district policy and ways they can inform and influence policy at the state level. In the recent debate in Alaska about small schools, superintendents have been able to use maps and summaries of data that we provided about enrollment characteristics, overall performance, and factors related to success in these schools to demonstrate that simply closing them for financial reasons may not be the best option. Our hope is that by helping make data accessible and meaningful, superintendents will have a stronger evidence-informed voice in setting education agendas in the state.

As we begin 2016, we look forward to continue partnering with ASPRA to ensure that Alaska students are ready for the demands and opportunities of postsecondary education, careers, and community life.

Learn more about ASPRA on the REL Northwest site and our 2014 news article, “Mixing Research and Policy To Brighten Prospects for Students.”