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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Administrative Influences in Alaskan Native Education

by Ray Barnhardt
Cross-cultural Education Development Program
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Barnhardt, R. (1977). Administrative Influences in Alaskan Native Education. Cross-Cultural Issues in Alaskan Education. R. Barnhardt. Fairbanks, AK, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, UAF. I: 57-63.

Formal education of the indigenous peoples of Alaska has been criticized, scrutinized, and analyzed continuously since schools first made their appearance on the Alaskan scene, but all this attention has had little cumulative effect on the way it has actually been operationalized. Despite numerous innovative attempts to localize the curriculum, modify teaching methods, and improve teacher selection and training techniques, schools in rural Alaska still remain largely alien and ineffectual institutions. While some of the special programs and approaches that have been developed and implemented over the years have made noticeable short-term differences, few can claim to have achieved a significant beneficial effect over an extended period of time. The generally acknowledged unacceptable achievement level of schooling in rural Alaska continues to be the subject of heated debate, massive funding, and intense activity, all of which continues to result in little substantive improvement. Why does so much presumably sincere effort produce so little desired change? The purpose of this paper is to examine the implications of that question based on the Alaskan experience, and to pursue some potential answers to it, with a particular emphasis on administrative implications.

The remarks presented here are an outgrowth of six years’ observation of, and interaction with, schools throughout Alaska, as a University coordinator of a field-based program for the training of Native teachers. During that six-year period, I have seen numerous special programs come and go, some to be reborn, with little apparent recognition of past failures; I have seen schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the State-Operated School system and numerous local school districts, all coping with the same problems independent of one another, but with a similar lack of success; and I have seen school programs implemented by numerous administrators for widely diverse populations under highly varied conditions, with little noticeable difference in content, operational design, or effect. All of this has led me to examine the administrative styles and behavior of persons responsible for administering educational programs for people in rural Alaska, in an effort to determine the nature and extent of their influence on those programs. The impressions and analyses I present here are subjective and speculative, and thus require more systematic review before any serious attempt is made to implement alternative administrative approaches.

The Traditional Administrative Role

The prevailing role of an educational administrator in rural Alaska has been developed and established through a long tradition of the delivery of educational services from an external benefactor to an indigenous, and presumed indigent, beneficiary, the Alaskan Native. An inherent characteristic of this traditional administrative approach is a highly centralized process for definition and control of educational programs. Administrators are cast as authoritarian figures responsible for making decisions and seeing to it that subordinates follow through on the implementation of these decisions. The persons who hold these administrative positions are trained in traditional administrative practices which are an outgrowth of business and civil service concerns for uniformity and efficiency. The typical school administrator was described as follows, in a paper by Anthony Gregorc and Eileen Johnson, titled “Trespassing in the Holy Land: Relations Between Anthropologists and Administrators.”

Most school administrators are managers of bureaucracies. Their advanced degree work at the master’s and advanced certificate level is composed of courses which permit them to function well within their culturally-determined and reinforced roles. They therefore receive training in curriculum design, law, finance, personnel management, business procedures, and traditional leadership techniques. Rarely are options in the social sciences encouraged or sought. Social science data are not necessary when one focuses upon how people and strata are alike rather than how they are different. The nature of bureaucracies with respect to social arrangements encourages a likeness view by its concentration upon equal and fair treatment through rules; separation of people through specialization; and impersonalization through rank, stratified privileges, and seniority rights. Information about differences in people and pluralistic values is not needed nor appreciated when the administrator’s orientation is toward likenesses.

A key function of the administrative role described here is that of reducing the variables with which the administrator must cope, so that the program operation is manageable. Thus, the administrator “encourages a likeness view and either rejects as extraneous, or redefines in more manageable terms, those variables which interfere with or complicate established administrative procedures. This tendency on the part of administrators was also observed by Harry Wolcott, in a study in which he described the “variety-reducing” behavior of elementary school principals: “Their attention was directed at keeping things ‘manageable’ by drawing upon and reinforcing the existing system rather than by nurturing or even permitting the introduction of variation” (Wolcott, 1973). Such a “variable reducing” function is oftentimes necessary and is particularly adapted to operations where the end product is explicit and agreed upon, and the process for achieving the end product is understood and uniformly predictable. None of these conditions exist, however, in the field of public education in general, and efforts to achieve consensus on similar issues in the area of cross-cultural education have been especially difficult and frustrating. The effect of the traditional variable-reducing” administrator on education in rural Alaska has been to discourage (and sometimes subvert) attempts to adapt educational programs to the needs of the local people. Program changes which have not significantly interfered with established administrative procedures or power alliances (such as a new reading program) usually have been readily accepted and offered as evidence of receptivity to change. But program changes which have introduced new complicating variables or have posed a threat to established procedures and alliances (such as bilingual education, or the development of local school boards) have been, oftentimes, bitterly resisted without substantive counter-argument. The program changes related to curriculum, teaching methods, or teacher selection and training techniques, usually have been within-system changes and thus did not interfere with administrative relationships external to the system. But bilingual programs and school boards have introduced variables for which authority and expertise resides in the community, which implies a shift of power and control to a source external to the system.

For a person grounded in traditional administrative practices this can be a rather unnerving and threatening experience. The instinctive reaction is to seek ways to minimize the impact of the new variables. Only when he sees the writing on the wall,” will the variable-reducing type administrator adapt his position to accommodate the change, but then only to the extent that circumstances require him to do so. The community must, therefore, achieve a position of power and political influence to make its wishes felt, if it seeks changes which may affect the basic structure of the educational system, and there is no doubt that the Native people in Alaska are seeking such changes today.

The Problem

At issue then is whether or not an effort should be made to adapt the role of administrator to accommodate more directly to the educational needs of the people of rural Alaska, and if so, what kind of role should be developed? At first glance it would appear obvious that the administrative role should be adapted to meet the needs of the people, but needs are highly complex and constantly changing. If a new role is developed to address today’s needs, will the same role be appropriate tomorrow? Might a prolonging of the traditional administrative role generate enough frustration amongst the people themselves to cause them to exercise control and establish their own administrative processes, thus achieving an often expressed but seldom addressed goal? Can the function of a school be adequately accomplished under any other than the traditional administrative approach? While these questions must be seriously considered, other more persuasive issues indicate that an alternative administrative approach is indeed needed in Alaska today.

The most encouraging sign on the horizon of Alaskan Native education is that the Native people are no longer content to be passive recipients of educational programs developed by benevolent educators apart from Native community involvement. The Native people are actively seeking a controlling interest in the traditional educational programs intended to serve their communities, and they are, at the same time, bolstering their interests by establishing innovative programs of their own which threaten to supplant the ineffective traditional programs. Much of the newly acquired political and economic influence of the Regional Corporations, established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, has been directed to improving educational opportunities for the Native people. The variety of “bilingual-bicultural programs” that have sprung up around the state, and the several new institutions, such as the Tanana Chiefs Land Claims College, the Tanana Survival School, and the Inupiaq University of the Arctic are indicative of this growing trend. The Native sponsored programs have been developed outside the conventional channels and controls of the traditional educational machinery, resulting in some innovative ideas with considerable potential for success. The initial response of the Native communities has been quite encouraging and supportive, but the traditional programs have been slow to respond.

These efforts however, are not always as threatening to existing programs and institutions as they first appear. The step from the conception of a new idea to its effective implementation is oftentimes a very frustrating and difficult one, in part because the persons technically qualified and available to accomplish the task, Native or non-Native, are themselves products of the traditional educational system. Consequently, the new programs often end up functioning in essentially the same manner and suffering the same inadequacies as the traditional programs. This problem is becoming particularly acute as the move to establish local control of the federally and state-operated schools in Alaska frees local or regional boards to develop educational programs uniquely suited to their needs, with little concern for externally imposed policies and administrative guidelines. Some of the new “Rural Education Attendance Areas” are finding their initial enthusiasm dampened because the operational versions of their attempts at new and innovative programs are often barely distinguishable from the programs they replaced. The new programs are handed over to an administrator who unintentionally subverts their unique qualities and purpose by translating them into a traditional administrative framework. Given the rapid development of new educational programs, many with only vague and ambiguous purposes and previously untried processes for achieving those purposes, it seems imperative that a new breed of educational administrator be fostered to assist these new programs through the trauma of their formative stages. How then might such an administrator define his role?

An Alternative Administrative Role

Fortunately, with the influx of numerous new educational programs in Alaska, school districts are experiencing a variety of alternative administrative approaches. As the number of unconventional educational administrators working in schools and Native organizations throughout the state increases, some common patterns and processes will emerge amongst the varied approaches, and these will gradually evolve into new administrative styles and practices. Through careful observation of these approaches we may be able to determine some of the characteristics that can be associated with a successful administrative style and prepare persons accordingly.

If the circumstances described above continue to evolve as indicated, the type of administrator needed to operate educational programs in rural Alaska in the future will probably be similar to that described by Gregorc and Johnson in the article cited earlier:

An emerging view of a new-breed administrator is becoming evident. He is seen as an implementer, facilitator, and evaluator of education programs. He is seen as a synergist, teacher of teachers, an organizational designer, a political statesman, and an accountability monitor. He must be aware of interpretations of Equal Opportunity, program design, trends in curricular and personnel administration, and of local community mores. In this view, the school administrator is less a bureaucrat and more of a leader and facilitator. He is expected to understand individuals and groups and to utilize their individual talents rather than just manage an organization with fixed positions to be filled by replaceable, standardized parts. This type of administrator needs more than training in scheduling classes, disciplining students, increasing efficiency and managing an organization. He needs professional assistance in identifying and interpreting differences and likenesses among individuals and groups. Further, he needs guidance on how to organize collective efforts toward positive ends.

A key function of such an administrative role is to develop an administrative process that is capable of accommodating to the complex and dynamic quality of evolving educational programs. The administrative structure required for such programs must not only be able to support existing variables, but must be expansive enough to facilitate the development of new variables, allowing the programs to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. The new breed of administrator is, therefore, in a “variable-generating” role, and must possess the personal qualifications and expertise necessary to carry out such a role.

Since the variable-generating role implies an adaptive, innovative, flexible and loosely structured administrative approach, a person in such a role must, above all, possess a high tolerance for ambiguity. The educational problems in rural Alaska are oftentimes only vaguely defined with numerous variables responding to erratic forces in a generally unpredictable manner. Solutions to these problems are, therefore, often elusive, and at best, tentative. The programs designed to address such problems must maintain an open-ended, evolutionary approach, constantly seeking and incorporating new solutions as the significant variables become more explicit and better understood. The administrators of these programs must avoid seeking closure on an issue before it is absolutely necessary, so as to encourage consideration of all possible variables related to the issue. They must, therefore, be capable of tolerating the high degree of ambiguity inherent in such an approach.

Another characteristic essential to a variable-generating role is that the administrator be people-oriented. He must be sensitive to human differences and be able to build upon those differences. He must foster informal, open relationships and delegate responsibility through a decentralized and horizontally oriented administrative structure. He must insure the free flow of communications in all directions, and he must himself be tuned in and sensitive to formal and informal communication channels. He must be able to organize people in such a way that their diverse interests and collective efforts fuse and move in a desired direction. Instead of focusing on specific content intended to achieve an explicit end product, the administrator must direct his attention to the processes that will carry things forth in an implicit direction. His emphasis must be on establishing decision-making and problem-solving processes in which participants can themselves engage, rather than attempting to make all decisions and solve all problems himself. He must, therefore, understand the relationship between individual behavior and the social organization within which it occurs, and he must understand the nature of change processes.

If the above characterization does, indeed, adequately represent an emerging alternative administrative role for rural Alaska, what should be done about it? A traditional administrator, steeped in a variable-reducing approach, would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible to adapt to a variable-generating approach. Anyone who has worked under more than one administrator is aware of the integral relationship between personality type and administrative style. The personality of the administrator and his modus operandi are inseparable and, therefore, give rise to the need for careful selection processes to match the person to the job. The type of person required to fulfill a variable-reducing role probably would not be suited for a variable-generating role.

If we can assume, then, that different administrative roles require different administrative styles, and the need for a new role is emerging in rural Alaska, our first task is to make sure that administrators with appropriate styles are available to fill those roles. Local school boards should have a choice when they have the opportunity to select an administrator to implement their programs. Since existing certification requirements and administrator training programs are largely oriented to traditional administrative styles, little choice currently exists. More flexible requirements and alternative training programs should be developed to allow for the selection and preparation of a wide range of administrative types. Those boards and agencies responsible for selecting educational administrators should then be acquainted with the alternatives available, and allowed to proceed accordingly.

Although administrators are not the only ones responsible for the success or failure of educational programs in rural Alaska, they are the persons who most directly influence how the programs operate, and thus, determine their ultimate viability. While the above description of the administrative role is somewhat impressionistic and incomplete, I have attempted to shed some light on how alternative administrative styles can influence educational program development, with the hope that administrators will thus be able to more readily adapt their efforts to meet the needs of the people they serve. Maybe then we will begin to develop educational programs and practices that are flexible, sensitive, and adaptive enough to be truly applicable across cultures.



Centralized control
Formal relationships
Tight structure
Vertical staff relations
Information flows out
Managing role
Explicit rules
Restrictive communications channels
Content/product oriented
Converging focus
Resistant to change
Static structure and function
Impersonal relationships


Decentralized control
Informal relationships
Loose structure
Horizontal staff relations
Information flows in
Facilitating role
Implicit rules
Open communications channels
Process/direction oriented
Diverging focus
Receptive to change
Evolutionary structure and function
Personal relationships




Gallaher. A. "Directed Change in Formal Organizations: The School System," from Cultural Relevance and Educational Issues, lanni, F. and E. Storey, eds. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

Goodenough, W. "The Problem of Administrative Relations," from Cooperation in Change. Goodenough, W. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1963.

Horton, D. "The Interplay of Forces in the Development of A Small School System," from Anthropological Perspectives on Education, Wax, M., S. Diamond and F. Gearing. eds. New York: Basic Books. 1971.

Johnson, E. and Gregorc, A. "Trespassing in the Holy Land: Relations Between Anthropologists and School Administrators," Unpublished paper, 1973.

Spindler, G. D. "The Role of the School Administrator," from Education and Culture. Spindler. G.. ed. New York: Holt. Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

Wallace. A.F.C. Administrative Forms of Social Organization Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Modular Pub., 1971.

Wolcott. H. W. "The Elementary School Principal: Notes from a Field Study," from Education and Cultural Process, Spindler, G. D., ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1974.

Wolcott, H. W. The Man in the Principal's Office: An Ethnography. New York: Holt. Rinehart and Winston, 1973.



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Last modified October 6, 2008