State needs to ensure teacher competency

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2005

Vantage Point By Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire.

Alaska's teachers aren't cozying up to the idea of having their competence tested before their state certificates can be renewed, and based on the testing method to which they're opposed, the state's Department of Education would be wise to consider an alternative.

As early as next month the state Board of Education may recommend new regulations that would change the process for teacher certifications as of next school year. Teachers say the plan would involve "untried and untested" methods, and want to see another plan put into place.

The Board of Education's proposal would have new teachers acquiring an initial teaching certificate good for three years, after which they could apply for a renewable professional certificate that would be valid for five years at a time.

The renewal process in particular is what members of NEA-Alaska are opposed to, primarily because obtaining a new certificate would be based on two 45-minute videotapes of their classes and their teaching techniques.

The trouble with that, teachers say, is that the measurements of a teacher's ability and/or competence might not be fair and consistent. What the teachers' union would rather see is a more objective, performance-based means of grading teachers, one that would provide ahead of time mentoring and help for teachers who may need it.

The state, for its part, wants to make sure teachers can deliver the content of their courses effectively, and I don't think anyone would argue the point that teachers should be capable, qualified and competent in their roles as classroom educators.

It would seem reasonable, however, that basing performance on two 45-minute classroom videos leaves room for error, or at least more subjectivity than might be included in another evaluation method. I had teachers in junior high and high school who had very little on-air appeal, but they were great teachers. Some others were outgoing and personable, but they weren't masters at teaching the courses for which they were responsible.

For the state, time and money are considerations, Education Commissioner Roger Sampson told Juneau School Board members last week. That's why the classroom-videotape component is being considered over a method that would include having experienced teachers visit each teacher's classroom several times during the school year. The financial constraints are understandable, but surely there are ways of better measuring performance even with a tight budget.

That Alaska wants to ensure the competency of its classroom teachers is a rather good thing, actually. Settling on the right way of doing that, without potentially losing good teachers along the way, should be a priority for the state Board of Education.

Other states have testing procedures in place for their classroom teachers. A good start may be for Alaska to model its initial efforts after a state that has done a good job with its program. If nothing else, the state could incorporate the best practices from another state into the testing procedure it will put into place for the 2005-06 school year. That model could then be changed for the better from one school year to the next.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com.



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