New direction: Initiative is Adapting UA for Alaska’s Future Needs

By UA President Pat Gamble

The national higher education agenda is in transformation and is generating a powerful message that is being broadcast across the United States. At the University of Alaska, we interpret it to say: “The time has come to raise the bar, to shape a new vanguard of workforce that is trained, educated, and ready to benefit economically by meeting the demands that a resource hungry, environmentally conscious, digitally supported world economy will place on our doorstep.”  Or not.

Yes, we have a choice. We can demur and say, “No need. Nothing’s broken. What’s the urgency? We’re doing just fine the way we are.”  We can certainly choose that road. But, in my opinion, if we do, the consequences for Alaska become entirely predictable — and all bad.

UA is Alaska’s higher education engine, with three separately accredited universities comprised of 16 campuses stretching from Kotzebue to Ketchikan. Today, there are nearly 35,000 students enrolled in our universities and college campuses statewide. During the past decade, we have witnessed the number of students seeking post-secondary education continue to grow steadily. UA student enrollment has grown 8.8 percent just during the past five years, with students enrolled in high-demand Alaska career fields accounting for about 40 percent of that. Enrollment of first-time-ever freshmen during the same period has grown nearly 28 percent, with most of that group being Alaska high school graduates. The UA Scholars Program, available to the top-performing 10 percent of our students, has increased its enrollment by 12 percent. These are all unambiguous indicators that UA is winning the fight to recruit, retain and refine our state’s most precious natural resource — well-educated citizens.

We have been generally pretty good at building baccalaureate-level graduates — teachers, nurses, engineers, to name just a few. But we have much more to do. The competency bar keeps going up by itself. To meet the growing standards, we are going to have to focus on successful partnerships with Alaska’s industries so we can turn out specifically trained and educated employees where and when Alaska needs them. Associate degrees are rapidly becoming required, more than simply desired, because employers today want critical thinkers as well as technical experts who can manage their logistics and operate their technology.

Strategic course

To those ends, the university is in the midst of a major institutional directional change. We call it the Strategic Direction Initiative. Beginning about a year and a half ago, UA teams hit the road for several months, out soliciting the people of Alaska to help us chart a new course.  We were highly encouraged by their strong response, their passion and their commitment to support the work that they said we have ahead of us.

Our promise to them was that we will seek out and remove frustrating, expensive, bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student success that might have unintentionally grown within our university system. We intend to employ readily available technology to help open expeditious pathways for our many categories of students to move both physically and virtually throughout the UA system to meet their goals as quickly and affordably as possible without sacrificing learning quality or value. By asking ourselves why we do things the way we do, and answering honestly and objectively, we intend to create a culture of continuous improvement throughout the UA system.

Upon distilling the SDI outreach data down to its essence, we acquired a much higher degree of clarity regarding our purpose and need. Now, we plan to systematically unlock the potential energy that we observed within the businesses and communities all across our state and use it to help power our own higher education future. Our ability to parry the challenges lying in ambush along the way of progress links directly to our ability to foresee and then nimbly respond to the myriad of economic market changes trending throughout the Alaska workplace.

Our university system’s ability to adapt plays an essential role in this process. For example, after a decade, Alaska has reached a pivotal decision on oil and gas development. What is decided on paper will undoubtedly be hailed as a landmark achievement in our state’s economic history. But at the same time Alaska employs an aging imported oil and gas workforce that needs replacing.

Alaska has prospects brewing for several diversified industries. Alaska sits on the cusp of realizing significant new types of mining and oil and gas expansions. Alaska is center stage for international arctic environmental and geophysical research. Alaska is responding to a growing number of economic development inquiries that are being received as a direct result of our highly advantageous market location in a world of expanding globalization. In short, Alaska is potentially lead time away from confronting a substantial need for filling management and technical jobs that don’t even exist yet.

To accommodate the need without resorting to outside labor will require much closer interface with the Alaska Department of Labor, local industry and local communities. They will help us identify how many, where, and what those future jobs will look like so UA can get down to the business of designing, planning, engineering and resourcing all the customized workforce education and training programs we will need.

Alaska’s university

In Alaska, anyone eligible and ready for college essentially has an open door to enter our universities and campuses. The burden on a new student of making so many difficult decisions that typically come with enrollment can be quite intimidating. We believe our students deserve first-class personal service as they each seek out the best placement in order to transition academically (and affordably) from high school into and through the UA system.

To accomplish that tall order, we have to form a solid, trusting relationship with Alaska’s school districts — aligning curriculum, collecting student academic data from preschool to high school — making sure that teachers, principals, advisors, parents and students alike are all confident that their expectations for continued academic success are addressed and well placed.

Rural Alaska presents its own very important imperatives. We believe that the successful university education programs for rural Alaska are the ones that will prepare students for the analytical rigors of college through the use of culturally relevant social norms and curriculum. This idea is breaking new trail at the college level. We believe that students learning critical thinking in humanities, math, and science can thrive just as well academically by applying quantitative and qualitative reasoning to the lessons of Alaska history, culture and the learning ways of a subsistence experience deeply rooted in their Native heritage. After all, math and science in the Bush are the very same as that found in urban Washington, D.C.

We believe economic and infrastructure disparities in rural Native communities stand the best chance of elimination by returning well-educated, well-trained sons and daughters, who never lost sight of who they are during the process of becoming academically prepared, back to their villages as leaders and educators.

Focus on students

Clearly, our state lawmakers want the same things we want: a systematic reduction of institutional barriers so that Alaska’s students can easily and cost effectively transition into, through and out of higher education.

For example, students and parents alike have come to expect that the basic core courses taken at any one state campus should transfer to any other, regardless of the method of instruction used, such as the increasingly popular eLearning methods. We agree. This saves money, time, and eliminates a major source of student and parent frustration. Reducing the “hassle factor” would undoubtedly encourage increased enrollment, contribute to better retention and enhance faster graduation.

Additionally, our student-centered community focus needs to be reinforced by similarly progressive attitudes throughout UA itself regarding the system’s co-equal responsibility to provide high-quality, timely, student personal service, world-class academic and financial advising and a genuine inviting and pleasant overall student campus experience inside and outside the classroom.

Students want choices and flexibility. They want expanded eLearning opportunities and custom course offerings that allow for family schedules commonly required by our “non-traditional” working students. To that end we are looking at more non-traditional classroom hours, supported by universal Internet access and broadband upgrades. We are dialoging across the state with Alaska’s business communications leaders. Off-the-grid students desperately need access to high data rates that can enable the latest software applications, regardless of where they live in Alaska.

When it comes to our role in providing for a student’s success, a cursory look at the rate of change occurring around the nexus of leading edge communication, teaching and learning clearly demonstrate that we can’t rest on our laurels. The university has an obligation to maintain the best environment we can for student success, upgraded regularly at a rate commensurate with the high tempo development of their commercial personal technology, and with the expected tempo of the business and scientific advances we are teaching them about in the classroom. Anything less is akin to the illusion of Michael Jackson’s famous “moonwalking” — backward progress disguised as forward motion.

Bottom line

Alaska’s communities told us clearly that their future is deeply invested in the entire education continuum, K-16. Every Alaska school district, business and community is a potential partner, beneficiary and contributor toward UA’s comprehensive effort to meet state education and workforce development challenges.

SDI, our university system institutional shift in strategic direction, is a comprehensive initiative to pursue much improved and measureable student outcomes at every level, to create greater academic and economic value and to stimulate a greater state return. SDI is about UA adopting a philosophy of system-wide continuous improvement as an enduring cultural tenant. That is what a top-line university system should be all about.

We are Alaska’s university. We are all about UA graduates who not only succeed in their higher education aspirations, but also succeed in their life’s calling. For we Alaskans will all assuredly depend on them someday.

UA Aims to Produce Good Teachers and Help Keep Them in Alaska

By Regent Mike Powers

Mike Powers is secretary of the University of Alaska Board of Regents and CEO of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and Denali Center. He has worked as a high school teacher, newspaper reporter and VISTA volunteer in Alaska and Wisconsin.

Coming from a family of educators, few things mean more to me than teacher preparation and retention. My parents were teachers and all five of us children became teachers, yet only one of us still remains in teaching. This personal experience with the teacher retention problem came down, in my family's case, to a lack of support we as teachers received. This leads me to believe that a cultural shift needs to happen within the Alaska school system, beginning with the university creating a real support system for the teachers it produces.

During my two years as a regent, I have learned that the challenge of teacher preparation is central to the educational mission of the University of Alaska. The support given to teacher preparation has a direct spin-off in the classroom for our children growing up in the Alaska school system. Teacher preparation has to be a combined effort created through productive partnerships between the university and the greater education community in the state. These partnerships are key to solving teacher retention, recruitment and preparation problems.

Recently I presented a report on teacher preparation, retention and recruitment to the Alaska Legislature on behalf of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. Part of this report demonstrated how the board has worked to reach out and build on important relationships with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and other entities in the state. Within these relationships, we are creating a common vision for the future of education in Alaska, a vision being carried out on all of our campuses.

Through the University of Alaska Teacher Education Consortium, we are engaging in dialogue about the issues our teachers and our administrators are facing in our rural, suburban and urban K-12 classrooms. We will continue this focused collaboration. We are committed to reporting back to the people of Alaska about our progress, with the hope that all Alaskans will join us in this very important conversation about our most precious natural resource: our children.

Teaching is the bedrock of our society with the goal of creating, developing and growing good citizens. It is a noble profession, similar to nursing. Teachers in the classroom are the backbone of a school, just like nurses at the bedside are the backbone of a hospital. In order to have an engaged and informed citizenry, we need to have supported, expert teachers in place. That is why the university has programs like Future Educators of Alaska, to help guide high school students who want to be teachers, and the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, which is proven to increase teacher retention.

We believe in growing our own educators and our campuses share in that vision. One such example is the University of Alaska Southeast PITAAS (Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools) program, which provides scholarship funds for Alaska Native students who plan to teach in Alaska public schools after graduation.

These steps and partnerships work toward improving the quality and quantity of our teacher graduates, getting them placed and mentoring them for success. These steps also include increasing the number of high-demand special education teachers, hiring experienced and dynamic education leaders and listening carefully to our statewide education partners and employers.

But there are many factors outside the university's control that impact recruiting students into the education profession and placing graduates into teaching positions. These factors include teacher salary and benefit packages, teacher layoffs and challenging living conditions for teachers in rural areas. To be truly successful in improving the quality and quantity of teachers in Alaska, we need to build on our partnerships with Alaska's schools. We also have to recognize that there is no simple solution: All of us have a role to play in making a substantive and measurable difference.

Partnerships between the state and the university will fulfill our responsibility to educate, train and develop Alaska's citizens. Teachers are the foundation of that effort. Properly applied, these efforts and partnerships will make progress in the problem of teacher retention, recruitment and preparation.

Studying Our Schools: As Costs Grow, Districts Need to Know What Works

By Diane Hirschberg

Diane Hirshberg, of Anchorage, is the director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research as well as an associate professor of education policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The center was established in 2011 to conduct nonpartisan research on education policy issues at all levels of education.

State and local policymakers need to make tough decisions on how to strengthen Alaska schools. Often, we hear them citing anecdotal information about what works or doesn’t work in our schools. Too many students are not graduating, especially in some of our rural communities. Not all of our high school graduates are ready for college or work, even though they’ve earned a diploma. At the same time, resources are tight. Sometimes solutions are suggested based on what works in the Lower 48 — some of those programs work well in Alaska, others are not appropriate. So what can we do?

Recently, the University of Alaska Board of Regents presented to the state Legislature “Alaska’s University for Alaska’s Schools 2013,” a report detailing efforts across the university system to support Alaska’s schools through teacher recruitment, preparation and retention efforts. Recent news reports have focused on the report’s discussion of the gap between the number of teachers produced by the university system and the need in our schools, the difficulties the state faces in recruiting Alaskans to become teachers and difficulties retaining teachers in rural schools.

What has garnered less attention, however, is a key way in which the university is helping educators and policymakers address educational challenges in the state: research.

Across the state, university faculty and researchers are studying some of the most vexing issues and also evaluating the success of some innovative attempts to address Alaska’s education problems. For example, the Legislature supports a new teacher mentoring program in an attempt to improve teacher success in the classroom and reduce teacher turnover. Now, researchers in the UA Office of K-12 Outreach are using federal funding to both expand the number of teachers served and conduct a study of how mentoring affects early career teachers’ effectiveness and their students’ achievement. Education faculty statewide are tackling a broad array of education research questions ranging from how best to evaluate classroom teachers to whether culturally responsive math programs result in better outcomes for Alaska Native (and non-Native) students.

At UAA, researchers at the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research (CAEPR) are engaged in a number of research projects on education policy issues. This month, in collaboration with UAF Assistant Professor Ute Kaden, a statewide survey is being launched of teachers to explore the factors contributing to teachers’ job satisfaction and their decision to stay or leave their current position. This is the first survey of its kind in the state, and there is hope it will shed light on what school leaders can do to retain more high quality teachers and strengthen practices in Alaska’s schools.
CAEPR researchers are studying the cost of teacher turnover in Alaska; no one has ever quantified what districts spend on replacing teachers and how budgets might benefit from reducing rural community teacher turnover.

Finally, a pilot study will be launched of how school districts across Alaska spend their general funds. Policymakers are asking whether these funds are being spent effectively. Researchers will explore where districts’ spending aligns with or diverges from research-based practices, in order to help district and state leaders decide how best to allocate resources. Researchers are collaborating with district leaders across Alaska, with guidance from a broad array of educators and stakeholders statewide.
During the next few months, results of this work will be released. In coming years, tight budgets increasingly will force difficult discussions about what is and isn’t working and what needs to be changed. Good research — a key part of the university’s mission — can help everyone contribute to substantive discussions that result in effective solutions.

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