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Alaska must prepare, attract and retain quality teachers to secure its future

  • Author: Norm Wooten
    | Opinion
    , Lisa Skiles Parady
    | Opinion
    , Sarah Sledge
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 20, 2019
  • Published May 20, 2019


Alaska has high teacher and principal turnover that not only harms student learning and school success, but also wastes money. Some disturbing statistics:

- The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) reports teacher and principal turnover rates averaged 25%-30% each year since 2013.

- An Institute for Social and Economic Research study estimated the minimum cost of teacher turnover to a district is $20,000 per teacher.

- The Learning Policy Institute estimates the cost of principal turnover is $75,000 per principal.

A more alarming fact: The teacher and principal turnover rate is nearly twice as high in rural Alaska compared to urban Alaska.

Why is this constant churn of personnel detrimental? Consider what it takes moving to a new community; making friends, getting settled, feeling connected, and cultivating a sense of belonging. Now consider a young child who attaches to a particular teacher, only to have that teacher leave after only one year. This scenario repeats year after year. How does this instability affect the child, classroom, school and community?

Constant employee turnover takes time, money, and energy away from educating young people. Administrators in high-turnover schools are in a perpetual recruit-hire-train mode, complicated by a national educator shortage, which takes them away from the primary mission of fostering a positive environment for learning. The endless stream of new teachers is a drain on seasoned teachers, who must continually mentor newcomers, taking them away from teaching and leading to burnout. Not all turnover is bad. New ideas and fresh faces can energize any organization. Yet the high turnover levels we experience in Alaska leave substantial room for improvement. Causes include living and working conditions, leadership, workload, compensation, amenities, cultural differences,\ and other factors. Solutions for one community might not work in another.

Only 30 percent of Alaska’s teachers are “homegrown.” The rest come from Outside, which means most new teachers are grappling with adjustments like challenging weather, remoteness, darkness, higher cost of living, less access to health care and steep cultural learning curves.

Of the teachers who leave Alaska’s rural schools each year, 80 percent leave the state entirely. Only 10 percent switch to urban schools. Research shows teachers educated in Alaska stay in Alaska. We strongly support the University of Alaska goal to triple the number of homegrown teachers by 2025 and the Educators Rising program, as well as additional educator supports now under legislative consideration, including national board certification for public school teachers (House Bill 128) and limited teacher certificates for instruction in languages other than English (House Bill 24). What would a comprehensive statewide plan focused on preparing, attracting and retaining qualified teachers look like? It would be collaborative and include teachers, district leadership, the university and DEED. It would involve communities where parents and employers have a vested interest in fostering stable, high-quality schools. It would be a worthwhile endeavor.

With budget cuts sucking up all the oxygen these days, let’s not take our eye off this critical long-term goal.

Norm Wooten serves as executive director for the Association of Alaska School Boards. Lisa Skiles Parady, Ph.D., is executive director for Alaska Council of School Administrators. Sarah Sledge serves as executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity.

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