Task force calls for big changes in Alaska education system

REFORMS: Teacher raises, more parental involvement suggested.

March 10, 2011 

JUNEAU -- A special task force is recommending sweeping changes aimed at improving Alaska's education system, including calls for greater parental involvement, pay raises for teachers, longer school years and mandating a high school diploma or equivalency for everyone under age 21.

In all, the 20-member Advisory Task Force on Higher Education and Career Readiness, established to find ways to better prepare Alaska students for success in college or careers, made 63 recommendations, which are preliminary and the subject of hearings this week in Juneau. A final report is due to the Legislature by April 1.

The panel includes lawmakers and university system and education leaders, including the president of a major teachers' union. Its work is seen as one piece of an overall effort to improve a K-12 education system now marred by problems like high dropout rates and the need for many students who do graduate to undergo remedial courses once they reach college.

Gov. Sean Parnell has called for taking steps to transform the system, citing his proposal to give scholarships to students who complete a set curriculum at a certain achievement level as one way to spur change. He's also voiced support for ending the social promotion of third-graders who lack the skills needed to advance to fourth grade, a position also backed by the Republican-led House majority. The task force, in its early recommendations, said the Legislature should "act to reduce social promotion of failing students," while supporting efforts to help address students' academic needs as soon as they're identified.

The recommendations also include supporting efforts to get parents more involved in their child's learning; establishing a state-run voluntary pre-K program for 4- and 5-year-olds; raising teacher pay "by upwards of 50 percent to 75 percent," while scrapping or changing the concept of tenure; making the certification process for teachers and administrators more rigorous; and implementing term limits for local school board members.

They also call for lengthening the school year by at least 10 days and having the Legislature encourage districts to shift the start time for classes to around 9 a.m. to reflect what the task force calls a "growing body of evidence" of how sleep deprivation and hormonal changes in teens affect their ability to learn and be successful in school.

Some of the topics covered are already being discussed by lawmakers, including pre-K education, school meal funding and changing the compulsory age for kids to attend school. Currently, children must attend school from age 7 to 16. A proposal being weighed in the Senate would make school mandatory from age 6 to 18. The task force recommends lowering the start age further, to 5.

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