Alaska falls behind national trends
Kate Hamre is a teacher at Inlet View Elementary in Anchorage.
Schools throughout the nation are facing a teacher shortage, and nowhere is this felt more starkly than in Alaska, where a large number of educators are recruited from the Lower 48. This, in addition to other factors including the remoteness of many of the state’s schools, the lack of a competitive retirement system, and legislative budget issues, makes recruiting and retaining skilled educators a monumental challenge.
According to Dr. Lisa Skiles Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, the situation has become even more dire in the last couple of years.
“We are in a national crisis in terms of an educator shortage, and what makes it even worse in Alaska is that we have historically relied on the Lower 48 to recruit teachers, principals, and other educators,” she explains. “Teachers used to come to the state from all over the nation to find jobs; the Alaska Teacher Placement job fair in Anchorage had lines out the door. Now, the numbers have fallen considerably; last year, 211 participants came to the fair, and a high percentage of those were already employed here as teachers and were looking to move to other districts.”
“I’ve been part of the Lower Kuskokwim School District for twenty-seven years, and the first job fair that I went to as an aspiring teacher there were 1,300 candidates,” agrees Daniel Walker, superintendent of schools for the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD). “Now 200 people is a large number.”
Alaska’s rural areas are especially hard hit, as teacher turnover is strikingly high. According to the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project’s website, some school districts in the state suffer from up to 85 percent turnover, which not only results in a lack of cohesiveness within the school community but also tends to result in poor student performance. While the Anchorage School District is one of the 100 largest in the nation with 3,000 teachers and 50,000 students, 135 of Alaska’s 512 schools have fewer than 50 students and 82 schools enroll 25 or fewer students.
An elementary school teacher works with students at Mount Redoubt Elementary in Soldotna.
“In 2016-17, the average school teacher retention rate in urban areas was 83.3 percent; in rural, remote areas, it was 57.1 percent,” says Skiles Parady. “The more remote you are, the higher the turnover.”
Principals and superintendents are not immune, either. “Last year, the principal turnover rate was 26 percent, and principals are second only to teachers when it comes to positive student achievement,” says Skiles Parady, adding that in the past five years, the total superintendent turnover rate was approximately 70 percent. “High turnover rates affect school stability, which affects learning.”
“Because of the teacher shortage, they can easily get hired somewhere else. We’ve created a massive incentive for people to leave the state by taking social security and retirement away.”
Why Teachers Leave
While some of the turnover can be attributed to teachers nearing retirement age, one of the biggest reasons that educators leave is the lack of a sustainable retirement plan, according to Tim Parker, president of NEA-Alaska. In 2006, the state switched from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, which puts those who were hired after that date—about half of all current teachers—at risk.
“The retirement program we had before that date included a safety net based on the number of years you worked; anyone hired after that date gets what is basically a 401K,” he explains. “The state puts in 7 percent and the educator puts in 8 percent, which, by state calculations, means that many people will be running out of money after about ten or fifteen years. We encourage people to save a whole lot more—like an additional 25 percent. But who can take an additional 25 percent out of their salary to put in a retirement vehicle?”
Educators in Alaska also don’t receive social security, and in fact are penalized through the federal government’s Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision, according to Parker. “If a teacher collected social security from a previous job, when they retire, their social security payment can be massively reduced, depending on the number of years that they worked in the private sector,” he says. “Teachers take a double hit; they have no security in their retirement account and their social security payments are reduced. They’d be better off from a retirement perspective to work at a gas station or a grocery store.”
One benefit to teachers—but not to school districts—is that they are vested after five years so that they can transfer their 401K to another state that has a defined benefit system. “Because of the teacher shortage, they can easily get hired somewhere else,” says Parker. “We’ve created a massive incentive for people to leave the state by taking social security and retirement away.”
Glenn Charlie works as a para-professional at William Miller Memorial School in Napakiak.
Even those teachers who come to Alaska and hope to stay may find that job uncertainty makes it untenable. New educators are especially subject to fluctuations in the state’s budget, which provides approximately two-thirds of the funding in larger school districts. And budgets that aren’t determined until very late in the legislative session can mean that teachers are laid off until the money comes through.
“When there is no forward funding, districts have to start handing out pink slips, which means that hundreds of teachers get laid off, so they head out of state,” says Parker. “Once the legislature figures the budget out in June or July, the districts try to rehire these people, but it’s too late. They need to lock up those jobs in January-April when teachers are signing contracts for where they’ll be working next year.”
Parker fears that this year teachers will be seeing more of the same. “The governor has proposed a cut of $20 million after schools already had their budgets, which would cause every district to lose additional money. Though things are still up in the air, the chance of getting a pink slip is going up, making teachers think that this is not the place to be.”
While other states are actually increasing teacher pay, Alaska is not.
“When I started teaching twenty years ago, Alaska was ranked in the top three in the country for teacher salaries, even factoring in the cost of living; now we’re in the middle of the pack at best,” says Parker, adding that the average salary in the state is approximately $60,000. “Nationwide, many other states are increasing wages dramatically; Washington State increased them by close to 20 percent, and Los Angeles teachers just saw a 6 percent wage increase. States are adding incentives and making sure that teachers are compensated as a way to deal with the educator shortage.”
While all of these issues affect teachers in both urban and rural Alaska, those teaching at remote schools face another challenge. “The number one reason for turnover in our district is distance from family, and unfortunately, we can’t control that,” says Walker, adding that, historically, LKSD has a smaller turnover than most other school districts around them, averaging between 18 percent and 20 percent.
LKSD is the largest of Alaska’s Rural Education Attendance Areas, spanning 21,000 square miles and including twenty-two remote villages and the hub of Bethel. There are 4,100 students across the district and 350 certified teachers, 27 principals, and 6 assistant principals. Approximately 60 to 80 teachers leave each year, and 4 to 6 principals.
“There are things we can control and things we can’t, so we concentrate on what we can do to make it a positive experience so that they want to stay,” says Walker. “We also make sure that we are proactive and intentional on the front end, selecting candidates that are the right fit for our circumstances—people who want to work in very rural areas that are 95 percent Alaska Native, who are seeking a very different cultural experience.”
Lower Kuskokwim School District students attending the ANSEP STEM academy.
Recruitment and Retention
Every year, Alaska loses about 1,000 of its 8,000 to 9,000 teachers, so it’s imperative that the state find ways to attract and keep more educators. According to Parker, it costs about $25,000 per teacher to bring them to Alaska, with about 1,000 being hired each year. “That’s a substantial amount of a district’s budget, so you want to keep them the best you can,” he says. “People still want to move to Alaska, so that’s a big pull; it’s their dream to live here, but from an economic standpoint, it’s not their first pick.”
The University of Alaska is working to train more teachers in-state, as well as to encourage high school students to go into the education field. Approximately 250 students graduate eligible for a teaching license each year from the university’s three campuses, with the majority starting their career in Alaska.
“Our program in Alaska isn’t like those in other states; the big difference is context,” says Steve Atwater, executive dean of the Alaska College of Education at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS). “We prepare the students to work in Alaska schools, which means that there is a strong cultural emphasis and a focus on using the local context to drive instruction.
Students working (and playing) in a Ruby classroom.
“Some of our students travel to rural schools to get student teaching experience, and these visiting assignments are often very nontraditional; they are teaching multiple grades as well as multiple subjects,” he continues. “It is a very different type of teaching than they’d do down south.”
Unfortunately, the program at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) School of Education was denied accreditation for its initial licensure programs earlier this year, which left the school and its students unsure of where things stand. Programs affected by the loss of accreditation are bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education, elementary education, secondary education, and the master’s degree program in secondary education.
“The state board approved UAA’s programs for students graduating this spring and in August; they will get their teaching licenses; beyond that, we don’t know,” says Atwater. In mid-February, the State Board of Education approved a request from the university to consider spring and summer 2019 graduates eligible for licensure and to show they have graduated from a state-approved program. Both UAS and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) still have accredited teaching programs, and a small number of enrolled students are currently transferring or have already transferred to other campuses.
According to Atwater, each campus has its own recruiting strategies, which include outreach to high schools. “We partner with Education Rising, which is a national organization that encourages senior high school students to go into the teaching profession,” he explains. “UAS has also recently hired a recruiter for the UA system, and the university is dedicating resources to help with recruitment and retention.”
The university also sponsors the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, which provides individualized support to first- and second-year teachers. Mentors visit with teachers monthly and speak weekly by phone, email, or Skype to make sure that teachers have the help they need.
LKSD recruits teachers through the Alaska Teacher Placement program and employs two former principals who live in the Lower 48 to travel to 80 to 100 job fairs each year.
“We also have a long history of growing our own educators; if we support people from our local communities to become certified teachers, they already have community connections and understand the culture and language issues they’ll face,” says Walker, adding that a large part of LKSD’s student population are English learners who still speak indigenous languages. “If we can recruit people from the community and support them to get a four-year teaching degree, we are ahead of the game. It’s one less person that we need to recruit from Outside.”
LKSD is also developing relationships with teaching colleges in the Lower 48 and will bring up student teaching candidates to spend a semester working at a rural Alaska school. The district recently revamped its Career Ladder program to allow students multiple pathways to become teachers—either supporting them while they study at UAF; enabling them to work full-time in their communities while studying at night via distance learning; or even paying them to study full-time.
“They work for us while they’re working to get their degree; it’s a very expensive program, but it gets them through the program sooner,” says Walker. “Every semester we pay for, they owe us one year of service.”
With so many obstacles in the way, it’s a wonder that Alaska’s school districts—and its students—are doing as well as they are.
“There are a lot of dedicated people here who have a passion for teaching; you hear over and over about how much they care about learning in the classrooms,” says Parker. “You focus on the kids and you try not to think about the economics. At the end of the day, a lot of successes happen and you feel good about that. It’s what keeps you going—connecting to the communities and the kids.”
Mentor Hal Neace surrounded by kids in Brett Stevens’ fifth-grade class in in Utqiaġvik.
A job fair for educators in Austin, Texas, in October 2017.
“People still want to move to Alaska, so that’s a big pull; it’s their dream to live here, but from an economic standpoint, it’s not their first pick.”