By Drew Godsell
Alaska faces significant problems in delivering effective education, as evidenced by poor test results consistently near the bottom of nationwide student reading scores. While many issues contribute to these poor outcomes, an important factor is certainly Alaska’s struggle to acquire and retain effective teachers. Alaska is one of the states hit hardest by a nationwide teacher shortage but, even worse, faces an abnormally high turnover rate of teachers and administrators in schools. Alaska’s struggle to acquire and retain teachers leaves students with deficient educations and comes with serious social and economic consequences. Fortunately, while teacher turnover is influenced by a variety of issues, there are clear causes with measurable room for improvement.
A shortage of teachers leaves schools understaffed. If teachers in understaffed schools have too many responsibilities, struggling students may find it difficult to get necessary personal attention and learning difficulties may go unnoticed. When schools are understaffed, teachers may need to instruct larger class sizes, leading to struggles with discipline because teachers lack the assistance necessary to control unruly or disruptive students. These disruptions can hinder classroom learning. A shortage of teachers also leads to lower quality standards for schools in search of staff members. When there are few teachers to choose from, there is little competition between applicants, and schools often settle for teachers that are less than ideal.
Teacher Turnover in Alaska
While Alaska struggles to fill its classrooms with teachers, it faces an even greater challenge in retaining them. A report from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), using data from Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development (DEED), shows that annual teacher turnover in Alaska from the 2012-13 school year to the 2017-18 school year was consistently around 22 percent, while the national turnover rate in the 2011-12 school year, the report’s base year, was only 16 percent. Nearly one in four teachers in Alaska leaves their job every year, which is much higher than the national attrition rate.
High turnover rates fill Alaska’s classrooms with inexperienced and less effective teachers. The IES report found that the majority of turnovers are teachers leaving the state or the profession altogether rather than changing districts, which means Alaska must look to people new to the teaching profession to fill holes in school staff.
Excessive rotation of teaching staff can create a lack of consistency in structure, rules, and expectations in the classroom, which leads to misunderstanding or confusion and disincentivizes the building of routines and time management for students. The constant readjustment to new teachers takes up extra thought and energy away from students’ academics. Turnover also damages social and disciplinary structures within schools, creating a difficult learning environment and a frustrating teaching environment. Students quickly notice that staff come and go frequently. Knowing teachers often do not return the following year, students feel they cannot build relationships with or trust their educators, and students that struggle with discipline are not incentivized to respect or earn respect from their educators. The resulting educational environment in Alaska’s schools both hurts students and drives teachers away from the profession.
Teacher attrition in Alaska is a compounding issue that directly harms students and teachers. Poor standardized test scores, especially in reading, have been connected to schools with high turnover rates. Schools producing already poor test results often face the highest turnover rates, and since high turnover rates produce poorer results, the issue tends to compound itself. When teachers leave at high rates, it hurts student performance, leading to teachers feeling frustrated and abandoning the profession, which further hurts performance and traps weaker schools in a destructive cycle.
In addition to the consequences of poor educational outcomes for students, teacher turnover costs Alaska a significant amount of money. A report by the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research estimates that each teacher attrition costs $20,431 in separation, recruitment, hiring, and training. Applying this turnover data from 2008 to 2012, the report estimates that teacher attrition costs Alaska about $20 million every year. This is important to Alaska considering the current fiscal crisis, especially given that Alaska’s education cost per student, despite its poor results, is one of the highest in the nation. In 2018, Alaska spent $16,689 per year per student, the sixth highest in the US.
Causes of Turnover
Why is Alaska’s teacher turnover so high? Many states, including Alaska, have issues such as housing options, insufficient district administrative support, and a loss of interest in the profession, but Alaska also has unique challenges. A clear problem for some teachers, particularly those coming from the contiguous United States, is the location. Alaska is far from the lower-48 states, leading to new teachers feeling isolated or homesick. Travel to Alaska by friends and family members is both expensive and difficult, especially to more rural areas, and even remote interaction can be complicated by time zone differences. Alaskan cities and towns, both physically and culturally, are also an unexpectedly large adjustment for teachers trained in the lower-48. Shopping, entertainment, and other familiar sights are rare or nonexistent in many places. Additionally, rural communities often lack roads, running water, and plumbing, which can add challenges for those accustomed to modern amenities. It is difficult to incentivize someone living in a modernized area to give those things up long-term for a job they can get almost anywhere in the country.
Alaska’s cultural differences, given its large native Alaskan population, make adjustment difficult for outsiders, most noticeably in rural areas. Unfamiliar teachers often struggle to connect with native students due to differing cultural practices, religions, and upbringing. Some teachers mention resistance to discipline and lack of trust within these communities. Others mention rural students struggle to keep up with class material because they do not attend school regularly or classes consist of different grades, ranging from K-12. For non-native teachers, unfamiliar practices and traditions are difficult to understand and plan around, and teachers are not trained to teach classes with such varying age groups.
Unfortunately, Alaska struggles to produce “home-grown” teachers who may be used to Alaska’s unique qualities and have more reasons (such as family) to stay long-term. From 2008 to 2012, 64 percent of teachers in Alaska were hired from out-of-state. This has been exacerbated by the University of Alaska’s poor record in its education departments. The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), Alaska’s largest public university, lost its accreditation in 2019 because it failed to meet four of the five accreditation standards set by the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation (CAEP). This meant that education students graduating with an education degree were not eligible for a teaching license in Alaska. An education degree from UAA was determined to be so deficient that its recipients were not allowed to teach in Alaska’s schools.
“An education degree from UAA was determined to be so deficient that
its recipients were not allowed to teach in Alaska’s schools.”
Teachers can now complete certified education degrees at UAA, but only by supplementing it with courses taken through the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) or the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), a complication that disincentivizes obtaining an education degree.
UAF, Alaska’s second-largest university, was only awarded accreditation at the end of 2018. UAF, Alaska’s second largest university, was awarded CAEP accreditation in 2017, and was previously accredited since 2004 through other accreditation providers. The University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) troubled history with accreditation suggests it has struggled to produce effective educators or at the very least, to provide evidence of effectiveness. A visible struggle to meet education standards combined with uncertainty about UA education programs’ futures disincentivizes Alaskans who could be excellent teachers from pursuing an education degree or attending the university altogether. In addition, if the university is producing poorly prepared teachers, the teachers are more likely to become frustrated or overwhelmed with their careers and leave the profession. It seems logical that producing more and stronger teachers who already call Alaska home would create a more solid teaching foundation for Alaska’s schools. Alaska’s struggle to produce these “home-grown” teachers likely contributes to its high rate of attrition.
It is important to note that teacher attrition is a compounding issue. Teachers in high-turnover schools find it difficult to build trust, friendships, and community within their profession, leaving teachers and staff without much attachment to their school and making quitting easy when the opportunity or desire arises. As mentioned earlier, turnover also hurts the success of schools. Unsuccessful schools often leave teachers feeling hopeless, exhausted, and unfulfilled, causing further turnover. Fortunately, this means that solutions could also be compounding. Every attrition prevented saves schools money, preserves community between teachers and with students, and improves academic performance, incentivizing other teachers to stay.
Reducing the teacher turnover rate requires Alaska to lower the personal cost of teaching in Alaska and increase its benefits. Teaching in Alaska comes at an especially high cost for teachers trained in the lower 48 due to extreme cultural and geographical adjustments. For Alaska-raised teachers, however, this burden does not exist, so Alaskan teachers are far more likely to stay in their position.
A clear solution is increased production of Alaska-raised teachers accomplished through significant improvements to education programs at the University of Alaska. A critical short-term goal should be CAEP reaccreditation of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Lacking accreditation creates multiple problems for aspiring Alaskan teachers. While UA students can still attend Fairbanks or Southeast for an accredited education degree, attending in Anchorage would provide the amenities of a larger city such as jobs, access to health care, and a centralized location. Anchorage’s accreditation loss may also lead students to believe an education degree from the University of Alaska will be of low quality and encourage them to pursue a different career or become an educator in another state. Earning reaccreditation may solve some of these immediate issues and incentivize Alaskans to start a career in education.
In the long run, it may be efficient for Alaska to reconsider its emphasis on CAEP accreditation for university education programs and the state’s teacher licensing process. Accreditation for a university program is designed to certify the quality of a university graduate’s education, but research suggests that it may hurt more than help. It is assumed that the loss of innovation is a worthy exchange for good-quality control of higher education, but there is doubt as to whether accreditation reliably prepares students for the workforce. Ultimately, accreditation for UA’s education departments may come at a large cost with little benefit. Removing this burden could let the University of Alaska grow and innovate within its education departments and produce high-quality local teachers with incentive to stay long-term.
An additional solution to the shortage of local teachers might be to make teaching a realistic opportunity for expert community members, especially in rural communities. Currently, teachers in Alaska applying for initial two-year teaching certification must complete a state-approved education preparation program and pay $260 for an application, all of which discourages non-traditional teachers from teaching. Teacher licensure requirements narrow the pool of potential teachers and burden educators with onerous costs. Reducing this barrier-to-entry might allow local seniors, career-switchers, and others with extra time to step into a teaching role in their local school. This would create strong ties with the community and fill a space that might have been occupied by an out-of-state teacher that leaves at the end of the year. While community members and career-switchers may not stay in their position long-term, the students could receive valuable experience in the classroom with a community member. Opening the classroom to non-traditional teaching would be particularly helpful for communities in rural Alaska, as community members share cultures and experiences with their local students. They may be able to connect with the students and teach them more effectively than others could.
There are also improvements to make Alaska an attractive environment for non-local educators. Implementing a state program to fund education savings accounts (ESAs) may allow schools to break free from strict methodology and regulations that states impose, making room for teaching freedom that will benefit both teachers and their schools. A system in which Alaska funds students directly, allowing families to spend their education money how they see fit, would create demand for a diverse set of schools that cater to students’ more specific educational needs.
“A system in which Alaska funds students directly, allowing families to spend
their education money how they see fit, would create demand for
a diverse set of schools that cater to students’ more specific educational needs.”
A system like ESAs would allow teachers to come to Alaska to participate in a school where they can teach most effectively. Many teachers find themselves best equipped for a certain style of teaching, and in a public school system, teachers may feel forced into a teaching style dictated by regulations rather than student learning. Teachers often do their best to teach their own way while doing the bare minimum to satisfy administrative regulations. Instead of being “imprisoned” by their districts, broader educational opportunities could free teachers to teach to their strengths, creating a more productive, successful, and satisfying career for educators. Both West Virginia and Kentucky recently passed large education savings accounts, a system that allows families to pursue an education that fits their unique children. Alaska should join them, as it could become a major attraction for out-of-state teachers.
Despite Alaska’s already astronomical spending on education, some ideas suggest there could be room for teachers to be paid more, by reallocating state funding rather than increasing it. Frederick M. Hess in National Affairs recommends a teacher co-op system in which teachers can take on administrative roles, run somewhat like a partnership in a law firm. The savings from what would have been spent on expensive administrators could then be used to hire assistants to perform low-skill tasks, creating a division of labor that allows teachers to focus on high-value tasks like teaching and administration. Equity Project charter school in New York City, using this method, was able to raise teacher salaries to $125,000 – and that’s starting salaries. A study from Current Issues in Education also suggests that reallocating some of DEED’s funds towards teacher salaries and benefits may improve educational outcomes. The study found that school districts that spend more than 65 percent of their funds on instructional expenditures, mostly teacher salaries and benefits, produce significantly better results. Instructional expenditures currently only make up 56 percent of Alaska’s DEED budget, while the rest goes to support things such as large administrator salaries. While some teachers are often unhappy with administrative support, it is important to note that decreasing spending on administration will not necessarily decrease its quality. This study was only done for Texas, but it suggests that reallocating funds towards instructional expenditures could drastically change Alaska’s education outcomes.
Alaska’s high rate of teacher turnover is a significant problem for Alaskan students, especially considering their already poor performance; however, there are changes that Alaska can make to significantly improve its children’s educational outcomes. As of 2017, 90 percent of teachers worked for government-operated public schools. The essence of these potential solutions – increase home-grown teachers, reduce teacher licensure requirements, and expand school choice – is to allow schools, teachers, and students to break free of burdensome regulations and political barriers, giving teachers, communities, and families the flexibility to fit education to their needs. Addressing teacher turnover would make significant progress towards turning the tide on Alaska’s poor test results. Alaska’s reading scores for fourth-grade students are ranked last in the country, and studies show that students who cannot read by age nine are more likely to struggle with poverty or end up in prison. Turning this around will not only make schools an enjoyable environment for schools and teachers, but it will also produce successful students who will directly and positively impact Alaska’s economy and future.
Drew Godsell is Alaska Policy Forum’s Summer 2021 Policy Intern. He is currently studying economics and German at Hillsdale College in Michigan.