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Top-tier teachers hard to come by

Ohanian Comment: The truth of the matter is that few teachers are "highly qualified" when they enter the profession. They grow with the job but "qualification" doesn't come with a piece of paper stamped by some certifier. When I think of how unqualified I was for many jobs, I get chills, and when I think of how I qualified myself I am proud.

Don't you wonder what Alaska authorities are supposed to do to get "highly qualified" folk to move there?


By Katie Pesznecker

Alaska's education commissioner got a scary-sounding letter from national school officials Monday that threatens punishment if the state doesn't get all teachers up to snuff under federal qualification guidelines.

The threatened sanctions include losing an unspecified amount of federal education money.

Over the weekend, Alaska surfaced in a national story as one of nine states that face losing federal funds because they didn't try hard enough to comply on time with federal law.

Part of the No Child Left Behind Act says teachers must have a bachelor's degree, a state license and proven competency in every subject area they teach by this school year's end.

As of summer 2005, only about 35 percent of Alaska classes were taught by teachers who met these guidelines.

Most states have done better, but none will meet the deadline, federal education officials said. But they must at least write a new plan to reach that goal by the end of the next school year. Alaska -- along with Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington -- are moving too slowly, the feds said.

It seems the warning to Alaska may be more about paperwork than actual teacher quality.

The federal review, for instance, cites Alaska's lack of data about special education teachers. And while commending Alaska for "significant progress" on teacher quality guidelines, the report faults the lack of a "blueprint to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality teacher."

What does it all mean? On Monday, state education officials said they weren't sure.

While the letter and report to Alaska Commissioner Roger Sampson warn of "withholding funds," federal officials at a news conference last week said states like Alaska can avoid potential sanctions by filling in information gaps, according to transcripts provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

A meeting has been set for later this week between the feds and top-tier Alaska school officials.

A key to Alaska's problems with No Child Left Behind is a shortage of teachers technically qualified to teach all the subjects they actually teach.

State education officials blame this on the problematic nature of getting teachers in rural Alaska qualified under the rigid rules. Teachers in small schools often teach several core subjects.

"I don't think that we'll ever be able to reach the goal for our smaller rural schools," said Bill Ferguson, superintendent for the Lower Kuskokwim schools. "You're asking one or two teachers to be qualified in all content areas for high school, and that's just not practical at all. There has to be other avenues for reaching that goal."

In his district, for example, teachers in the hub village of Bethel, who are already deemed highly qualified in math and science, teach those classes to kids in remote villages by interactive video conferences. The teacher on site at the village school acts as an aide during those classes.

"And that's about the only way I could see our district meeting this goal," Ferguson said. "It's something a rural district needs to do to offer that quality education to our village kids as well."

Anchorage numbers are better than the state average: About 70 percent of classes in schools here are taught by a highly qualified teacher, said Rhonda Gardner, assistant superintendent of instruction.

The district and the teachers union have teamed up to help teachers get qualified, holding study sessions and offering help with test fees, Gardner said. Anchorage middle school teachers with teaching certificates in kindergarten to eighth-grade education are having the hardest time getting qualified because that degree generally doesn't come with a specific academic focus like math or science, Gardner said.

Those teachers typically have to either pass tests or take more college classes to get certified, and both of those take time.

"I think we're going to be able to get darn close (to 100 percent), I really do," Gardner said. "It's going to take some work, but we can get close."

Anchorage Daily News
2006-05-16


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