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ANCHORAGE - A recent national ranking that placed Alaska dead last for the number of highly qualified teachers in its schools is misleading and unfair, according to educators and union officials.
The reason: Alaska hasn't yet decided on criteria for determining what makes a teacher "highly qualified."
Only 16 percent of Alaska public school teachers - those teaching subjects they majored in - were counted as highly qualified, compared with better than 90 percent in several states that already had adopted other standards for identifying such teachers.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all public school teachers to be highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. National education officials and federal lawmakers have said the goal is to make sure students, particularly those in schools in the lowest-income areas, are being taught by people who know what they're doing.
To be highly qualified under the federal law, teachers must be fully certified, with at least a bachelor's degree, and have proved competency in the core subjects they teach. The law gives each state authority to create its own system for determining teacher competency.
But Alaska has not approved its system yet, said Cynthia Curran, who oversees teacher education and certification for the state.
Most states that scored high in the rankings already had teacher certification procedures in place that better tracked the federal requirement for testing competence in a single core subject. That's why so many teachers immediately count as highly qualified in states like Wisconsin, where the survey found 99 percent so designated, Curran said.
In Alaska, a teacher must hold a degree and pass a test, the Praxis I certification exam. That test covers everything from reading to math, but because it doesn't focus on one topic, it can't be used to say whether a teacher is highly qualified in a particular subject under the federal law.
Curran said the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development will propose regulations for defining highly qualified teachers to the State Board of Education in December.
"The fact that we're at the bottom of the barrel in federally qualified means nothing in terms of how well people can teach," said Rich Kronberg, president of the statewide teachers union. "It's an unfortunate bit of finger pointing that's going on that shouldn't be taking place at all."
While Alaska education officials know how parts of the state's system will work, there are still some unknowns.
Teachers with degrees in the subject they're teaching would make the grade. The state could also choose to say, for instance, that a math teacher who took a certain number of credit hours of math in college would be ranked as qualified.
But the federal law clearly says teachers must be competent in every subject they teach. So if math teachers also taught a history course, they would need to prove competency in that subject also.
Meeting that standard is going to be particularly tough in the state's smallest schools, where one person may teach several subjects, Curran said.
"It's difficult for a person in a two-teacher school and teaching the high school (classes) to be highly qualified in every subject taught," she said.
Another option for Alaska educators is passing the applicable portion of the Praxis II exam, another teacher certification test. Many teachers in Alaska have taken that test, Kronberg said, but the state probably will not decide what score is necessary to pass it until spring.
"They won't even have a passing grade for months," Kronberg said. "So it's impossible for the vast majority of teachers to be highly qualified" right now.