Commitment to better schools a first step

Barb Angaiak

Last fall when invited to participate in the Mayor's Education Summit, I was concerned about the purpose of the summit. Across the country there has been rhetoric about education reforms and accusations that teacher unions are obstacles to progress in our nation's public schools.

There were two days of discussion on what the focus in Anchorage should be and four items were identified as being most important to emphasize. The four areas were:

• World class leadership: Invest in teachers and principals.

• Make the Anchorage community a true partner in K-12 education.

• Set great expectations for student success.

• Expand choice and opportunity for all.

In February, community conversations were held to gather greater input. The public and members of NEA-Alaska agree that high expectations are extremely important and they understand it will take concerted effort from the entire community to make great gains. We agree higher standards must be implemented and supported by high-quality training for teachers and principals. We agree school choice is important, but within the public school system, and there is almost no desire to support public funding for private schools. We agree on the need to incorporate a greater variety of participants in supporting schools than ever before.

During the "Capstone Summit," Mayor Dan Sullivan moderated the discussion regarding professional development. As a participant in the group, I was pleased to hear him state if we have higher expectations of teachers, we need to provide them with the tools needed to meet the goal and they must be paid more.

Did he really say that? Yes, he did!

The mayor understands the Finnish model, which focuses on getting the very best and brightest students to come into the teaching profession and believes it a worthy goal. There was much discussion in the group about attracting top students into teaching, developing more enticements such as student loan forgiveness, grants, and programs for high school students such as future teacher clubs.

We also had a full dialogue focused on National Board Certification for teachers and agreed the rigor and intensity is one we wish to encourage. It was refreshing to hear the mayor and other elected leaders acknowledge the need to provide greater compensation for teachers and principals if we are intent on asking more of them.

The group also discussed the misunderstood term "tenure," and there was acknowledgement that what we are talking about is fair dismissal, not jobs for life, as some would have the public believe. The mayor agreed with teachers in the group that the terminology is problematic. We discussed the need to place more emphasis on improving those teachers who are good or great, rather than spending energy on the tiny number for whom there is a process to be followed for improvement or exit from the profession.

Overall, NEA-Alaska is encouraged about the interest in improving our schools. There are differing ideas on how we get there, and what resources will be needed. I think everyone agreed we cannot expect this to be the end of the discussion and involvement. It will take a concentration of effort and focus on the ultimate goal to move forward if our schools will continue to improve what we provide to our students.

The mayor, Assembly members, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, business leaders and others are committed and now need to insist on making Anchorage and Alaska the very best public schools in the country. It is clear that policy makers and our unions can work together, and have a desire to collaborate to serve the public good that is stronger than ever.

Barb Angaiak is president of the National Education Association-Alaska, the union that represents public school teachers.