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My Turn: Alaska's schools see quality for all

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2003

For a year our state has intensely negotiated with the federal government over how to implement the most sweeping federal school reform law in history - the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fortunately for Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski persuaded U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to visit some of our most remote schools to show how difficult it is to implement NCLB in Alaska.

Thanks to Sen. Murkowski, Alaska secured written federal assurance that children in remote schools not making adequate progress will be given supplemental services, such as tutoring and other after-school activities, in their home communities. The other NCLB option would have required some schools to fly children to school daily.

We are not trying to excuse Alaska from NCLB. We embrace the law and its aim - that all students in Alaska will achieve literacy in reading, writing and math. In my view, that is the primary mission of schools.

It is important for Alaskans to understand a few technical aspects of our NCLB plan.

In August, the Department of Education & Early Development will release a list of schools that are not making adequate progress as measured under NCLB. Student scores on state tests and several other measures will determine a school's progress.

Schools will appear on the list if they have fewer than 56 percent of students scoring proficient in math and fewer than 64 percent scoring proficient in reading and writing. Over the next decade, required student proficiency will gradually increase to 100 percent.

Schools will appear on the list if any of the following nine categories of students do not demonstrate proficiency: students with limited English proficiency; students with disabilities; economically disadvantaged students; African-Americans; Alaska Natives; American Indians; Asian/Pacific Islanders; Hispanics; and Whites.

A school can appear on the list by not making progress with as few as one category of students on one test or by not making progress with all categories of students on both tests. This means NCLB does not allow schools to hide the poor performance of a single group of students in overall satisfactory school performance. And it means it is possible for a school to appear on the list even though the school is doing an exceptional job with most students, but falling down with a single group of students.

Never before in our nation's history has our society set the achievement bar so high for students and schools.

A significant provision of NCLB that does not fit well in Alaska is the so-called "highly-qualified teachers" requirement. It says that each teacher must hold a college major, or pass a rigorous exam, in each subject they teach. One-hundred schools, 20 percent of Alaska's total, employ three or fewer teachers. Requiring these teachers to have a major in several subject areas is problematic. So is requiring them to pass a subject matter exam in each subject they teach. Since our children need high quality teachers in every class they take we are challenged to find a way to make sure all Alaska teachers are considered highly qualified. We are working on an approach that I hope to share with you soon.

While we have a big job ahead to successfully implement NCLB, Alaska is ahead of the game because we began school reform in the early 1990s. A lot of what NCLB requires is already in place - a focus on academic achievement, student and teacher standards, student testing, and an emphasis on community and parent involvement. Now we need to instill within our schools and ourselves a constant vigilance for finding better ways to achieve increasingly better results.

Success will require the involvement of every teacher, student, parent, school board member, superintendent and principal, and every politician, community and business leader.

We have an extraordinary opportunity to build real excellence in our schools and finally fulfill the promise of a quality education for all children. I look forward to achieving this goal with you.

Roger Sampson is commissioner of the state Department of Education and Early Development.



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