Committee seeks teacher recruiting, retention solutions

BRIAN WALLACE/ THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
Bunde.jpg Research has shown that an excellent teacher is a vital factor in a student’s academic success. Unfortunately, school districts across the country are experiencing a severe shortage of quality teachers, especially in the areas of math, science, special education, foreign languages and support service positions such as school counselors, speech-language pathologists and nurses.

Districts are also having difficulty keeping the teachers they do have because of factors like retirement and job dissatisfaction. Regrettably, Alaska is sharing in these problems.

More than 30 years ago, when my wife and I began teaching in Anchorage, the school district recruited about 300 teachers every year, and virtually all were hired from outside Alaska. Salaries were high compared with those in the Lower 48. Now, estimates put Alaska’s average teacher salaries at sixth or seventh out of the 50 states.

A decade ago, 30 new teachers were required for a new school and the district received thousands of applications. This year, schools statewide started the school year with 80 teaching vacancies. Thirty positions still remain vacant.

Teacher retention is just as important as recruitment, and is just as much of a problem. In some rural districts, there is 30 percent to 50 percent teacher turnover each year. In the Anchorage School District, 52 percent of those who left the classroom last year did so in the first four years of their teaching career.

As chairman of the House Special Committee on Education, I recently conducted hearings around the state to investigate the specific causes of these problems and to identify ways the Legislature can help districts recruit and retain excellent teachers. The committee visited school districts in Kodiak, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Anchorage and Kotzebue. We also held a statewide teleconference.

Education professionals testifying before the committee said there were several reasons for the state teacher shortage:

First-year teachers feel unprepared for the challenges they encounter in real classrooms; Alaska school districts are unable to compete with the salaries, benefits and incentives provided by districts down south; Rising health insurance costs are eating away at school and family budgets; Salaries are inadequate to support the cost of living in rural areas; Adequate housing can be too expensive or nonexistent; Teachers are dropping their certifications in high-need areas due to the high cost of renewal; and Qualified teachers from other states find it too expensive and time consuming to apply for jobs in Alaska.While those testifying were clear about the problem, they were also eager to offer suggestions on how to enhance teacher recruitment and retention, including: Improving teacher preparatory programs to better equip new teachers for the challenges of today’s schools; Supporting effective mentoring programs for new teachers, both for professional skill and cultural awareness; Expanding mentoring programs for new teachers in more districts; Streamlining the certification process and repealing duplicative fees and paperwork; Establishing a student loan forgiveness program; Hiring more Alaskans; Instituting a state health insurance pool for all teachers to increase benefits and lower costs; Working with Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to provide low-interest housing; Hiring retired teachers as substitutes and full-time teachers and as mentor teachers; Increasing salaries; Making the state’s teachers exam, the Praxis, more effective to help more people become eligible for certification; and Working to increase respect for the education profession.Every state in the nation is trying to solve its teacher shortage in creative ways. Alaska must remain competitive in this very important market, support our teachers, and ensure that every student has an excellent teacher.It has been invaluable for the education committee to hear from those "in the trenches," and I am grateful to the education professionals and community members who shared their ideas with the committee. These hearings provided an important framework for further discussion and new legislation next session.Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, is chairman of the House Special Committee on Education. He can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).
Updated: 
11/11/2001 - 8:00pm