Two national experts who led off presentations at a conference Tuesday on how to improve Anchorage schools came at the topic from different angles, but both said this: The quality of the teachers is crucial.
Kids who have three strong teachers in a row soar no matter what, said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a national organization focused on closing achievement gaps for low-income and minority students.
Samuel Abrams, visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, has studied the success of schools in Finland, and said it's largely because they've elevated teachers as professionals, paid them well, and given them autonomy.
Mayor Dan Sullivan organized a two-day conference at the Anchorage Hilton, with visiting experts and about 100 invited local participants from college professors to school administrators to business people. The participants are to develop ideas for reforms in the session today.
Follow-up meetings for the general public are planned in February, and a concluding summit is scheduled in June. The conference costs are covered by private donations.
Sullivan said he got the idea for holding an education summit after similar public meetings on the city budget a year ago. "We overwhelmingly heard they wanted us to look at the education system as well."
As a Pacific Rim city, Anchorage needs to prepare students to compete internationally, he said.
Haycock delivered some bad news on how Alaska and Anchorage are doing now.
Alaska placed at the bottom among the states for fourth grade reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, though it scored in the middle for eighth grade math, she said. Within Alaska, Anchorage students outperform the state average in fourth grade reading, and match the average for eighth grade math, but score slightly lower than the average for high school math, she said. Anchorage high school students do better than the state average in reading.
"Demand more of kids," Haycock said. She supports new voluntary "common core" standards that most states -- not Alaska -- are adopting. Alaska is considering similar new standards of its own, said an Alaska Department of Education spokesman.
"Teachers are the single most important factor -- and there are big differences among them," Haycock said.
Abrams said Finland began upgrading requirements for teachers in the 1970s, first by imposing a new master's degree requirement, then by boosting pay.
Only one in 10 applicants is admitted to teacher training programs, he said.
The result of that and other changes is that Finnish students get top results on international academic tests, he said. Highly qualified teachers, he said, "are the main driver."
Other characteristics of Finnish schools: lots of arts and crafts, good and free lunches for all students, and 75 minutes of prescribed recess, he said.
The arts and crafts, such as woodworking and culinary arts, make schools enticing and "provide natural venues for learning math and science," said Abrams.
Haycock and Abrams were on one of three panels scheduled Tuesday.
In between, tables of participants talked among themselves, then summarized for the group.
Polaris K-12 junior Chelsea Parrocha said she thinks there's a lack of ambition among students.
Bajek Deng, executive director of the Southern Sudanese American Association, another participant, said in an interview that he's worried that a large number of Sudanese students don't graduate, and even if they do, they have a hard time finding jobs in the U.S.
Anchorage Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau sat at the same table with Parrocha and Deng for part of the day.
"How do we continue to educate all students?" she asked. "It has to be engaging for everybody. That's the challenge."
The conference resumes at 9 a.m. today. It is being broadcast live on GCI Channel 1, and on the city Web site, muni.org. People may also observe at the Hilton.
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4340.