Union objects to testing teachers

Commissioner: State wants to ensure competence

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2005

The Alaska Department of Education wants to test the competence of teachers before renewing their certificates to teach.

The state's largest teachers' union opposes the plan, saying the state is rushing to impose an unfair system.

"Teachers' careers will be on the line in a system that is untried and untested, and that is untenable," said Bill Bjork, president of NEA-Alaska, which represents teachers and school support staff.

Next month, the state Board of Education may propose regulations that revamp teacher certification starting next school year. About 8,000 people teach in the public schools.

The state wants to be sure teachers can deliver the content effectively, Education Commissioner Roger Sampson told the Juneau School Board on Tuesday.

Under the proposal, new teachers would acquire an initial certificate good only for three years. After that, they'd have to apply for a renewable professional certificate, valid for five years at a time.

Additionally, the state would offer a renewable master certificate - to encourage higher achievement - valid for 10 years at a time.

To get a professional certificate, teachers would have to demonstrate, through two 45-minute videotapes of their classes, their ability to teach.

Teachers who want to renew their certificates also would continue to have to earn six college credits every five years. But the state might require some of those credits in courses that teach best practices as based on research.

Teachers now start with a five-year certificate in most cases. To renew their certificates, teachers must complete six "semester hours" at a college, including three at an upper undergraduate level. Two one-semester courses meet that standard, for example.

Under the proposal, current teachers will be placed at the professional level. They will not have to meet the proposed performance standards.

NEA-Alaska opposed the department's plan Jan. 29 in Anchorage during an assembly of several hundred delegates.

The union wants the plan to be formally piloted first. It thinks that any performance-based system should include mentoring and other help for teachers. And the union is concerned that the evaluators of teachers' videotapes won't be consistent, fair and well-trained.

"We don't believe you can measure these things looking at a videotape," Bjork said.

Tracy Rivera, president of the local teachers' union, the Juneau Education Association, said worries about uncertainty over who would assess teachers.

"If I had unlimited time and money, (the review) wouldn't look like this," Commissioner Sampson told Juneau School Board members.

The ideal would be a group of experienced teachers visiting each classroom several times, Sampson said in an interview. But the agency had to be realistic, he said.

Teachers decide which videotapes to submit. If they don't pass the review, they can receive a second review, and they can appeal a final decision.

"It's not a gotcha system," Sampson said. "It's a system you can effectively deliver."

The state intends to train about 100 teachers in how to score the videotapes. Applicants for recertification will be judged by the teacher standards in state regulations.

The performance review is a good first step and one that isn't common among states, said Kathleen Porter-Magee, the associate research director at a conservative educational think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C.

She'd like to see a more holistic evaluation of teachers over the course of a year. At the same time, teachers should accept that there would be subjectivity in any review.

Under the proposal, teachers who score high on the videotape review will meet new federal standards for being highly qualified in the subject matter.

That could be useful to rural teachers or special education teachers, who teach many subjects, Sampson said.

But it's possible that a teacher who was well-regarded by a school district could fail the state review and not be allowed to teach, Juneau School Board President Mary Becker pointed out.

Four other states have tied teachers' licenses to their performance in the classroom, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Those states assigned mentors to new teachers. Two required master's degrees for the second level of certification. They assessed performance in various ways, such as live observation of the classroom, or reviewing a professional development plan or a portfolio.

Sampson said the state offers free mentoring to many new teachers, but it's unrealistic to provide that to all teachers.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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