The University of Alaska regents are expected to approve a new elementary education undergraduate degree that emphasizes academic subjects and experience in public school classrooms.
The regents, the university's governing body, are meeting through Friday in Fairbanks to consider that issue and others, and to approve an operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Proponents hope the proposed bachelor of arts degree in elementary education will get more teachers into the classroom quickly, and better prepared them to teach to new academic standards.
"The issue that a lot of folks have with elementary education is that elementary teachers are expected to teach a broad spectrum of subjects," said University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh. "The problem has always been, how do you give people a broad enough background?"
The proposed degree, which will be offered at the Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses and through distance-education programs, will meet the standards for teacher preparation established by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. The state Board of Education has required NCATE accreditation for all Alaska teacher preparation programs by 2006.
The council requires accredited programs to show teachers know the subjects they will teach and how to teach effectively. Its standards emphasize content knowledge, practical experience in classrooms and knowing how to teach to all students.
"We are focusing much more heavily than ever before on the performance of the (teaching) candidates - what do they know and what are they able to do with that knowledge," said Jane Leibbrand, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.,-based accrediting council.
Under the proposed UA degree, students will take more courses in math, science, English and social studies than under the former bachelor of education degree, UAS Dean of Faculty Mary Lou Madden said.
"In some cases we were turning out teachers who didn't have enough background to actually teach," she said.
Students will take fewer courses in teaching methods. But they will start training in grade school classrooms in their freshman year and spend all of senior year in the schools.
The new degree replaces a bachelor of education degree. It also replaces a plan to require prospective elementary teachers to get a liberal arts degree followed by a fifth year getting a master's degree in teaching.
The fifth-year requirement made it hard to recruit education students out of high school, Madden said. And the master's program was competing against all the jobs available for people with liberal arts degrees, Pugh said.
The university will continue to offer the master of arts in teaching, both as a requirement for prospective secondary teachers and for people who have a bachelor's degree in another area and want to change careers.
The master's program, which attracted older, focused students, has shown the value of hands-on experience in learning how to teach, said Dave Newton, principal at Auke Bay Elementary. He said it also helped screen out people who shouldn't teach.
He said there's a need for the four-year degree and the master's degree as ways of producing teachers.
The state university doesn't produce many of Alaska's new teachers now. Out of 1,065 new teachers hired in Alaska in 2000, only 176 were UA graduates, according to Alaska Teacher Placement, a job clearinghouse based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As many as 88 teaching positions, mostly in special education, were unfilled at the start of the 2000 school year.
"Absolutely 100 percent, we're in support of (the new degree) and see it as a viable opportunity to increase the enrollment in the field of education," said Melissa Hill, director of Alaska Teacher Placement.
Rich Kronberg, president of NEA-Alaska, said the teachers' union supports the new degree program as long as it complies with national standards. But he said the degree program won't solve the teacher shortage unless schools can keep the teachers they have now.
"I continue to see high-quality people leaving the system just because it's discouraging," he said, citing stagnating salaries and the greater expectations placed on teachers under a standards-based system.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.