Education College launched with aim to produce more Alaskan teachers
Alaska’s higher education leaders are overhauling their operations in an effort to ultimately improve the outcomes of the state’s youngest students.
The University of Alaska System debuted its College of Education this month, which system President Jim Johnsen hopes will provide better structure to teacher education programs statewide and eventually help the UA produce more homegrown teachers to fill vacancies in school districts statewide.
“I can’t say it enough, teachers are the single most important job in our state and in our society,” Johnsen stressed in an interview. “The touch or touched every single person in our state and their purpose, more than any other occupation in our society, is to support our people and to advance our people.”
Individuals with a solid educational background add to a skilled workforce, are more culturally aware, earn higher incomes, are less likely to be incarcerated and live healthier lives, Johnsen added.
School districts across Alaska have collectively had to look Outside for up to 70 percent of their new teacher hires each year, according to Johnsen.
UA College of Education Executive Dean Steve Atwater said more specifically, the system’s three main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — where the new Education College is located — graduate roughly 225 new teachers each year while school districts have to fill between 700 and 1,000 vacancies.
Atwater joined the UA System in 2014 after five years as the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula School District and time as a high school teacher and administrator in the Lake and Peninsula School District in Southwest Alaska.
Johnsen and other state education officials have long noted that it not only costs districts more to bring in teachers from Outside, but many of those transplants don’t stick around long either, particularly in rural districts. Often, they simply don’t acclimate to living in remote parts of the state.
While virtually unquantifiable, the whole challenge of keeping teachers is largely believed to be a fundamental issue underlying why Alaska’s students are routinely near or at the bottom of national performance indices for core subjects.
“Especially in rural Alaska, they have a very high turnover rate so there isn’t this level of knowledge, awareness, commitment, particularly to communities — unique communities — across the state that would make these teachers more effective in those communities,” Johnsen elaborated.
UA officials also regularly cite statistics that indicate up to 50 percent of otherwise high-performing Alaska high school graduates need remedial coursework once they enroll at a UA campus.
Johnsen and Atwater believe a centralized College of Education will help the state university produce more homegrown teachers who better understand the state and are more able to adapt their instruction to what their students need, which should translate into better student outcomes.
UA leaders have set a goal of producing 90 percent of the teachers Alaska school districts need to hire each year by 2025.
The men emphasized that the schools of education at UA Fairbanks and Anchorage will not go away just because the college is in Juneau at UA Southeast. The teacher education programs will remain at all three campuses and hopefully be strengthened through increased coordination, more consistent standards and the elimination of redundancies, according to Johnsen.
“There’s no effort to undue existing programs at the university; we’re not trying to narrow the focus or number of opportunities,” Atwater reiterated.
There is capacity for more students in the existing teacher education programs; and if those classes can be filled the universities will happily hire more faculty to provide more classes, he said.
The specific changes to the overall teacher education strategy will be led by the UA Teacher Education Council, a 12-member advisory body that Atwater chairs with representatives from each of the main campuses. The council doesn’t have the authority to eliminate programs — that power is held by the Board of Regents — but its recommendations will go through the channels of the system to become policy, he said.
Atwater said the system’s traditional teacher education programs are strong and generally need to be grown. However, an initial change that could be made is consolidating the two master’s level education technology programs in Fairbanks and Juneau. He said each has about a dozen students.
“Neither program is very well attended or enrolled and why do we have two? That’s low-hanging fruit conversation we can have,” he described. “Does it make sense to keep going independently from one another or should we combine them and just have one?”
Johnsen has spent the last several years implementing the system’s Strategic Pathways initiative, an effort to similarly overhaul and streamline mostly administrative operations to save money while improving results during lean budget years.
He said four years of cuts by the state Legislature to the system’s General Fund budget have amounted to a cumulative cut of about $165 million on a system-wide budget that peaked at about $922 million in 2014. In addition to the direct budget cuts, enrollment has fallen nearly 15 percent over the past four years, according to UA data, which has reduced tuition revenue.
Legislators added about $10 million to the UA budget for fiscal year 2019, a little more than $1 million of which will go to the College of Education, according to Johnsen.
He noted that school districts in Alaska generally spend $20 million per year recruiting teachers from outside.
“If we can spend $1 or $2 (million) more each year and at some point bring that $20 million number down that makes a ton of sense,” Johnsen said.
Some of the budget increase will also go to the system’s marketing and recruitment programs to attract more students, which have been scaled back significantly as well.
Part of that will be pushing the post-baccalaureate program that is an avenue for those already with a college degree to quickly become a teacher.
“In a year a person can have a degree in teaching if they come in with a baccalaureate degree; they can have a master’s degree and be a full-time teacher in one year,” Johnsen described. “It’s a super-cool program that we really want to expand.”
When it comes to producing more homegrown teachers, Johnsen said the college is employing the national Educators Rising program. Very similar to the wildly successful Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, known as ANSEP, in Anchorage, Educators Rising targets middle and high schoolers interested in teaching and enables them to earn college credits while in high school. It gives them a direct and cost-effective means to achieve their career goals.
Atwater added that teaching is currently a career path in about 25 school districts and UA officials want that number to continue to grow.
“We’ll have a much higher number of high school kids who are thinking in terms of becoming a teacher more seriously and actually taking some introductory-type classes to get them the real sense of what that’s about rather than just waiting for them to come and hoping they’ll enroll in a teacher prep program,” Atwater said.
He continued by emphasizing that elevating teaching at a societal level could intrinsically help recruitment in Alaska. In other places around the world teachers as doctors are revered in the United States, he said.
“The profession of teaching has to be viewed as really important or actually the most important thing and we as a state need to give the teaching profession the esteem that will draw kids to it,” Atwater said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].