Alaska Editorial: State can do more to nurture, keep excellent teachers

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alaska's state government should be doing a lot more to make sure new teachers are effective and keep good teachers on the job, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. Couple that report with the conclusions of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who has invested in education reform experiments such as creating smaller schools.

Gates says he's learned this: "If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school."

Smaller schools or different programs can make some difference, Gates said, but schools that improved the most did so by helping teachers do a better job in their classrooms.

Given that Alaska has poor graduation rates and dropout rates that are double the national average, the state should take note.

The Teacher Quality report has some good recommendations for Alaska to improve this critical aspect of education. It says Alaska should:

• Require high quality mentors for every new teacher. The state offers mentors, but doesn't require them, and they are not available everywhere, says Barb Angaiak, president of NEA-Alaska, the state teachers union. The Anchorage district offers mentors to every new teacher - but again, doesn't require them.

• Confirm evidence that a teacher is effective - such as proof of whether students are actually learning - is included in teacher evaluations statewide. Each district has its own way of evaluating teachers.

• Student progress under the teacher's guidance should be part of the equation.

• Support extra pay for hard-to-fill and more challenging jobs, such as teaching in a school with a high number of children from poor families. Those students should get experienced teachers.

• Set up stronger orientation programs to get new teachers off to a good start.

Other recommendations are more controversial. Tying teacher pay raises to strong performance is an interesting concept, but Alaska's first attempt at something similar - giving bonuses to staff at some high-performing or much improved schools - was rightly denounced as unfair. Optional schools that attracted high-performing students routinely won awards.

Mark performance pay as an idea to investigate.

Another recommendation: Make absolutely sure teachers are effective before they are granted tenure, then give them a big raise to encourage them to keep teaching.

The report recommends delaying tenure decisions until a teacher has taught five years. The rule in Alaska now is three. The part about making sure teachers are doing a good job before granting tenure seems critical; but three years seems long enough to tell if a teacher is heading in the right direction.

The idea of granting bigger than usual raises at tenure makes sense. Once a teacher is experienced, it's important to keep her in the classroom to share the benefits with students.

State education commissioner Larry LeDoux says he agrees the state needs to do more to help improve the quality of teaching.

It could, for example, increase the reach of the mentoring program, which definitely works, he says.

And it could assist in training new teachers. The teachers need training in the curriculum each district uses; they need cultural training; they need to know how to get extra help for students who need it. "We're looking at that," said LeDoux.

New teachers learn to be effective by trial and error. But there are ways to be speed up the process, and ways to encourage them to stick around once they've gained some experience. Alaska won't make much progress improving education if schools can't attract and retain good teachers.

We agree with the Teacher Quality report: it's time for the state to step up and take a stronger role.

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