ANCHORAGE - If President Bush's new school standards had taken effect this year, principal Andy Haviland of White Mountain School would be in trouble. And he'd have plenty of company in rural Alaska.
Starting in fall 2005, public school core classes must be taught by "highly qualified" teachers. By federal definition, that means high school teachers must hold a college degree in the subjects they teach, demonstrate proficiency through experience, or pass a test that indicates an expert's grasp of their subject matter.
Trouble is, many rural Alaska schools have three or fewer teachers. Unless those schools can find "superteachers" who can demonstrate proficiency in multiple topics, Alaska will be out of compliance with federal law and in danger of losing federal education money.
The school in White Mountain, 63 miles east of Nome on the Iditarod Trail in western Alaska, has just 74 students, from kindergarten through high school. The school has two high school teachers and one middle school teacher certified in language arts, science and math - but not in history, civics, arts, geography or other core curricula.
"With a staff this small and a requirement to teach that many things, I don't know how they expect people to meet them," Haviland said.
Alaska education officials have been wrestling with the law for more than a year.
"Since January 2001, it's been basically driving the lives of everyone in the department," said Eric Madsen, state administrator for federal Title I funds, earmarked for schools serving students from low-income backgrounds.
Alaska receives $41 million in federal Title I money, part of $63 million in federal dollars for education.
The "No Child Left Behind" law comes with so many rules that two states, Nebraska and Vermont, have discussed opting out of the requirement, Madsen said. Alaska agrees with the intent of the law, but says it needs help in implementation.
No Child Left Behind was passed out of concern that the current education system has not worked equally well for all students - working least well for children who don't come from mainstream America. One of the assumptions of the law is that educators teaching outside their area of expertise may not have a command of the subject matter.
According to the federal government's No Child Left Behind Web site, the law gives states and school districts flexibility to find innovative ways to improve teacher quality, such as allowing experienced professionals the means to become teachers faster, allowing merit pay to encourage good teachers to stay in the profession, and authorizing bonuses to teachers in high-need subject areas such as math and science.
But the size and far-flung distribution of Alaska's schools does not lend itself to one-size-fits-all education reform.
Of the state's 506 schools, 135 have fewer than 50 students. One hundred of Alaska's schools - 20 percent - have three or fewer teachers. Educators say it's unlikely they could meet the federal provisions as written.
"It's not impossible," Haviland said. "Improbable, yes."
In discussions with their federal counterparts, state officials have suggested an exception to the rules about what makes a teacher "highly qualified." In schools with three or fewer teachers, the state wants to let staff teach some classes even if they have only an academic minor in the subject. The state would still require those teachers to have a major in the subject they spend most of their time teaching.
Even that would be an imperfect system. In a high school with four teachers, Madsen acknowledged, lining up teachers with complementary majors and minors to cover eight core subjects would be difficult.
"The fewer the teachers, the more complicated it becomes," he said.
Finding teachers who want to work in rural schools already is a challenge for entities such as the Bering Strait District, which oversees the school in White Mountain and 14 other villages.
Department of Education spokesman Harry Gamble said that for now, the department is telling districts to continue to hire the best, most highly qualified teachers they can find and to not fire anybody based on the federal rules.
Haviland has been principal at White Mountain for five years and in the Bering Strait District for 20. Holding a college degree in a subject does not automatically make a great teacher anyway, he said.
"It doesn't necessarily mean they can teach and reach the kids," he said.
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