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Compass: Thank a teacher, but don't stop there

On May 7 we celebrated educators on National Teacher Day, and in Alaska public school educators are making a significant difference in the lives of children. Whether it is teaching math, providing special education services, or providing instructional coaching, educators are dedicated to helping all children be successful.

There are several indicators that demonstrate that Alaska's educators are making great strides. In the last decade, graduation rates have increased by 10%, three times faster than the national average. Alaska ranks third in the nation in academic growth between fourth and eighth grade. In addition, our high school students are outperforming the national average in ACT and SAT test results.

However, educators are also aware there is still much to do. With that in mind, NEA-Alaska members endorsed six principles for improving student learning.

• Make every educator a great educator. It takes time, resources and support for educators to become highly effective. Mentor and educator-coach programs are essential for all teachers. Alaska public schools should improve professional development by providing adequate time to accomplish it, by making it relevant to the specific needs and continue to support the growth of collaborative activities and professional learning communities.

• Create opportunities for innovative practices. Educators want to create opportunities to test practices that advance student learning, including such innovations as peer review programs that are sound and support continuous teacher development.

• Increase the amount of time that students spend learning. NEA-Alaska believes distracters such as excessive standardized testing, poor attendance and too many students in the classroom minimize the amount of time students spend learning. Educators invite a dialogue that addresses these concerns and explores other ideas for maximizing student learning such as alternative daily schedules or adding days to the school year.

• Create a quality teacher evaluation system. Educators do believe in reasonable accountability systems with multiple measures that help them strengthen their knowledge, skills and practice. We welcome relevant and constructive feedback and support that improves instruction. The public has a right to expect educators to be accountable, but it needs to be done in a fair way that involves factors within the educator's control.

• Reinforce effective family-school partnering. Educators know that parents have a direct effect on student learning and should have a rich variety of opportunities to be actively involved in schools. NEA-Alaska supports family education, advisory boards, and other methods of inviting parents and other local leaders into schools and helping them to become integrated into the learning process.

• Deliver a rich and varied curriculum. NEA-Alaska believe that the arts, sciences, physical education and humanities all help students become healthy, creative and innovative citizens. Schools must have the funding and resources to provide a variety of opportunities for students.

Education reform ideas that benefit all of Alaska's students can emerge from these principles. NEA-Alaska encourages policy makers who want to improve our schools to start with these ideas. Directing Alaska's resources and energy to these principles will provide substantial gains in student learning at a reasonable cost.

As the school year draws to a close, please consider thanking a teacher. Both inside the classroom and out, Alaska's educators are focused on student achievement and education policy that supports it.

Ron Fuhrer is president of the National Education Association -- Alaska, the statewide teachers' union.