A qualified teacher in every classroom is the No. 1 factor for student achievement in our schools. The Juneau School District and districts throughout Alaska are struggling to recruit and retain quality educators. But a new Alaska teacher-licensure proposal put forward recently by Commissioner Roger Sampson of the Department of Education and Early Development fails to promote these efforts.
First, the new licensure system would weaken Juneau's control over determining who teaches in schools. It would take decisions about the continuing employment of some teachers out of district hands and turn those decisions over to a bureaucrat at the state level.
Second, to be effective, any new licensure plan must identify quality teaching. Teachers across Alaska have no confidence that the state will be able to measure quality teaching simply by viewing two 45-minute videotapes showing teachers in their classrooms. The commissioner claims that "trained reviewers" can assess a teacher's ability to teach, regardless of content or grade-level knowledge. These anonymous reviewers would determine whether your child's teacher will remain licensed to teach in Alaska.
Yet quality assessment mandates that recognized experts in the same field and grade level should evaluate subject knowledge and teaching methods. Kindergarten-level experts should assess how a candidate's teaching methods comport with learning styles of young children. Master teachers in physics should assess physics teachers.
Third, any new system must be consistently applied and legally defensible.
Quality assessment also mandates that teachers have access to mentors, and to meaningful professional development to improve instruction.
None of these safeguards is in place.
Cost is another huge issue. Commissioner Sampson has already revealed that he does not have the funding necessary to provide mentors for more than a few new teachers each year. And the costs would be high for quality assessments by a large cadre of well-trained assessors in different fields. We fear these costs will be passed along to teachers, thereby dramatically increasing recertification costs for all teachers, yet another deterrent to recruitment and retention.
Four other states have adopted some version of performance-based licensure.
These states have moved ahead slowly and cautiously, taking three to five years to implement their systems. Alaska's proposal, by contrast, is being moved forward with the goal of having a new system in place by Sept. 1, 2005. Work on the commissioner's proposal began less than a year ago. His plan does not even include a pilot program to work out the bugs.
Such speed might be justified if there were some pressing need to change licensure systems, but that case has not been made. It appears that Commissioner Sampson is trying to rush his scheme through without first doing his homework.
National Education Association-Alaska has long been on record supporting, and fighting for, high standards for teachers. Teachers are passionate about maintaining the quality of our profession and enhancing student achievement. Accordingly, we are on record as supporting the concept of performance based licensure, but only if it's done right. Go to www.neaalaska.org.
The proposal as presented is 100 percent untested and poorly defined. It does not "raise the bar" toward a system of licensure with high standards but instead adds a stumbling block to districts' efforts to attract and keep quality teachers.
Because of Alaska's small population, we may never be able to grow more than 25 percent of our own teachers. We will always be in the marketplace competing with Outside school districts. A poorly conceived new teacher-licensure system would only make our districts' recruiting challenges that much more difficult. And in the end, it would undermine progress toward the goal that all of us share, providing a quality education for every child.
Alaska teachers accomplish great things in schools with students every day.
We expect that any change in Alaska teacher licensure should improve the system. The proposed teacher-licensure system does not. It is flawed and does not deserve our support.
Bill Bjork is president of NEA-Alaska, a union that represents more than 12,500 teachers and support staff.