Education officials grapple with ill-prepared UA students

  • University of Alaska and state Education Department officials are crafting new efforts to address a recent report that shows far too many high school graduates are entering the UA system in need of remedial coursework in basics like math and English. (Photo/iStock)
  • University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen delivers his State of the University address to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 16 in the Hangar Ballroom. (Photo/James Brooks/Juneau Empire)

A recent report documenting poor preparation for college in Alaska’s high schools has sent shock waves through the state’s education establishment.

While many educators have criticized the report prepared by University of Alaska Anchorage professor Herb Schroeder, others agree that the large number of incoming freshmen at the university required to take remedial classes — about 50 percent — is too high.

Students pay for the remedial classes but don’t receive credit. Many get discouraged and drop out.

Schroeder’s study, released in early February, found that up to 74 percent of graduates from five Alaska high schools, including one in Anchorage, have had to take remedial classes at the university, mainly in math and English, even though their high school grades showed them passing courses with flying colors.

The ruckus kicked up by Schroeder’s study has been a big embarrassment for educators and has caused the university and the state Department of Education to rethink how things are being done.

In an interview, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said he and state Education Commissioner Michael Johnson are tackling the problem in a two-pronged approach: for the Education Department through better teacher preparation working with school districts, and for the university more effort in helping freshmen students when they arrive.

The model UA is considering, Johnsen said, is not to segregate students with weaker skills into remedial classes but to keep them in regular classes with extra support, an “intensive advisory” approach that is being done at some universities like Georgia State and Ohio State.

Providing extra support within the university is also one of the keys to the success of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, or ANSEP, at University of Alaska Anchorage, which works with students from rural schools and is headed by Schroeder.

The university is asking the Legislature for extra funding in next year’s budget to support more intensive student coaching, but whether money will be made available in the current budget environment in Juneau is uncertain.

However, ANSEP has also found that the most important factor is preparing students before they reach the university so they don’t need remedial work. This can be done by beefing up high school instruction and supplementing it, if needed, with summer academic camps.

ANSEP does this with rural high schools it works with, the result being that no high school student going through ANSEP requires remedial work when they begin college.

This costs money, though, and ANSEP’s high school outreach is largely supported by major corporate and foundation donors who are impressed by its success.

Johnsen said several non-rural school districts are following a similar path by putting an emphasis on integrating senior-year high school curriculums with lower-level college courses.

“None of those kids require remedial work when they reach the university,” he said.

The Anchorage and Kenai school districts have similar initiatives underway.

As for the dismal performance noted in Schroeder’s study, Johnsen said there could be other factors at play, such as a mismatch between what’s being taught in high schools with what the university requires of its incoming students.

This is also being addressed, he said.

On the teacher training front, Johnsen said one key to improving is in increasing the number of teachers trained in Alaska through the university’s school of education. This would help ensure a uniform skill-set among new teachers.

Currently only 30 percent of new teachers hired each year are from Alaska, Johnsen said. Also, most new teachers hired from outside Alaska go to rural schools and many leave after one or two years.

Turnover rates for many rural schools reach 40 percent per year, creating not only extra costs but disruption to the continuity of instruction.

It’s no coincidence that, except for students in ANSEP’s programs, the rural high school graduates entering the university are the most likely to be required to do remedial work, and also have the highest dropout rates.

Johnsen said the university believes it can increase the ratio of Alaskan teachers to 90 percent by 2025. Many can be drawn from rural communities, he said, so they would be familiar with local living conditions and the cultural environment.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is already working with the Lake and Peninsula Borough schools with locally-recruited students who take classes on-line and at the Bethel regional university campus.

Despite these initiatives, the university may be hammered again on its budget this year. The Senate Finance budget subcommittee for the university has recommended a 5 percent cut to the university’s budget, which would work out to about $309 million in state general funds, down from about $325 million in the current budget.

The budget subcommittee was chaired by Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, and follows directions from Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, for a 5 percent cut to the largest state agencies including the university.

These are funds appropriated by the Legislature. Student tuition also provides support and the university receives large amounts of research funding, mostly federal.

Gov. Bill Walker proposed status-quo university funding of $325 million in state general funds in his budget, and the operating budget agreed by the House Finance Committee, and set to pass the House, has a similar number to the governor’s proposal.

Johnsen said the university has already undergone severe belt-tightening. The current year funding is $53 million less than the $378 million in state funds the university received three years ago in fiscal year 2014, he said. The Senate subcommittee proposal would cut another $16 million next year.

The university’s regents are recommending a more gradual ratchet-down for the university’s budget, on a downward slope toward a goal of $312 million in state funds in 2025, at which time the university hopes to have developed revenues from other sources, such as from university lands.

If the regents’ gradual wind-down schedule were adhered to this year, then the amount of state funds appropriated for fiscal year 2018 would be $341 million, Johnsen said.

The university has a tough job dealing with the reductions and sustaining not only its three main campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, but also 12 smaller campuses around the state.

The smaller campuses operate like community colleges, Johnsen said, with curriculums centered on vocational and career education with two-year degrees and industrial certification programs.

Some of the smaller campuses also act as “feeders” from two-year degree programs to four-year programs at the main campuses, he said.

Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].

03/15/2017 - 10:01am