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Mayor Sullivan: Controversial comment about teachers was inadvertent

Dan A. Sullivan
OPINION: Recently, during a forum discussing issues facing Alaska, I made a comment that was taken out of the context of a broader discussion on improving school performance. Loren Holmes photo

May 6 was Teacher Appreciation Day, an opportunity for all of us to say thank you to our hardworking teachers for all they do to prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead. My wife Lynnette has taught for over two decades in the Anchorage School District and I know how hard she and her colleagues work and how much they give to our children every day.

Recently, during a forum discussing issues facing Alaska, I made a comment that was taken out of the context of a broader discussion on how other countries like Finland and Singapore have significantly improved student performance. Reporters are always looking for a "gotcha" moment, and the example of my friend, the engineering student who instead became a teacher, was the one comment out of a long discussion that made the press. I was certainly not trying to suggest that we don’t have many teachers who are top academics, chose to teach our children and are passionate about their careers.

However, the facts show that the countries that are outperforming the U.S. are doing a better job of consistently attracting top students into the teaching profession through a combination of strategies, including more rigorous and challenging college instruction and financial incentives for entering teaching as a professional career path. The point I was trying to convey is that we should examine those strategies and implement those that make sense and will help improve our student results.

I have worked diligently over my time as mayor to bring the discussion of how to improve student performance into the mainstream. It is a difficult discussion for some, but a necessary and long overdue one. Our state ranks last in the nation in fourth-grade reading and well below the average in eighth-grade math, two key indicators of future academic success. In addition, Alaska sets the fifth lowest bar in the nation for what we consider to be proficient when students are tested. It is obvious that we need to honestly assess how we can meet the challenges that are impeding better results. There are no simple answers.

To help chart a course towards better student achievement, I convened the Mayor’s Education Summit in 2011 and 2012. Nationally recognized education experts and 100 Anchorage residents representing unions, our universities, parents, students, the school district, business leaders, media, legislators and others participated. A nationally recognized firm, Viewpoint Learning, facilitated the event, and at its conclusion, the participants universally agreed that it was exceptionally productive and meaningful.

The strategies proposed include setting higher standards for student achievement, advanced teacher development, more educational choices within the district and maintaining a high level of community involvement so that the first three strategies do not lose their momentum. At the final session of the summit, specific initiatives of reading by third grade and pre-K instruction were also identified.

A new nonprofit, Education Matters, under the guidance of respected civic leader Cheryl Frasca, has been formed to continue the examination of best practices in teacher preparation and improving student performance. Last summer, the Minister of Education for Finland, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, and Dr. Ee. Ling Low from the Singapore Ministry of Education, presented at a colloquium here in Anchorage discussing how their countries approach teacher preparation and how their strategies might be applicable here in Alaska.

That effort continued last week with an Education Matters sponsored symposium featuring national experts in teacher development and included the deans of education from all three main campuses of the University of Alaska. The all-day session was intense, informative and thought-provoking. Many opinions were expressed, but all agreed that we need to keep improving how we are investing in and developing our most valuable human resource: our teachers and our students.

Dan A. Sullivan is the mayor of Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.