Anchorage School District teacher contracts include updates for ‘academic freedom.’ What does that mean?

The priority plan and lesson script for Nicole Holta’s second grade reading lessons. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Anchorage School District teachers have a new contract after months of negotiation. While there’s been a lot of focus on the salary increases, many teachers are just as interested in a change that allows for more flexibility in developing lessons.

Nicole Holta is a second grade teacher at Scenic Park Elementary School. She has more than a decade of experience teaching reading to her class. She says she’s always followed a curriculum, but she used to have the freedom to introduce activities or supplemental materials to focus on individual student needs. A year ago, the school district mandated a new reading curriculum — which includes priority plans and scripts for the lessons. Holta says there wasn’t a lot of room for interpretation.

“When we were trained on the materials, it was the expectation that we follow them,” Holta said.

The district implemented the changes in an effort to boost reading test scores in the district. District-wide, about 54 percent of Anchorage students had below average reading scores during the last statewide standardized test.

Holta’s colleague Jennifer Kueter understands the idea behind the new curriculum. But she says in practice, it wasn’t working for most of her first grade students.

“So, your high [performing] students, this is a skill they already know, are forced to sit through it and get bored and get antsy,” Kueter said. “And then your struggling kids, they just kind of tune out because they know it’s gonna be hard. And they’re just gonna let the high kids choral answer, it’s all choral answer, we all repeat together. Well they just don’t answer.”

Kueter says there were some benefits to more deliberate curriculum. But she lacked the freedom to adjust her lessons to individual student needs.

The priority plans list out, to the minute, how each class should go — complete with the exact language to use with students (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Superintendent Deena Bishop oversaw similar curriculum changes when she was the superintendent of the Matanuska Susitna Borough School District. On standardized tests the district went from being the worst performing district among the five largest districts in the state, to the highest performing for the last two years.

Bishop says the Anchorage curriculum was made with participation from about 60 teachers from around the district.

“When we discussed the issues, it’s about are we teaching kids the standards for which they need to learn to move to the next grade level,” Bishop said.

The lesson plans and scripts received a lot of backlash from teachers. During public testimony at Anchorage School Board meetings this fall, teachers spoke for hours about the negative impacts they felt they were seeing in their classrooms. During one meeting, teachers staged a walkout to illustrate their frustration. All of this was happening while the Anchorage Education Association, the union that represents teachers, negotiated new contracts with the district.

Union president Tom Klaameyer says that the new contracts do a better job of providing academic freedom to teachers.

“We got specific language in here to make sure that teachers can modify curriculum according to their students learning styles and needs, and respond in real-time, right now, to what the students need at the moment,” Klaameyer said.

The contracts add language that says teachers have more freedom to frame their lessons. The curriculum isn’t different, but teachers have a little more flexibility to add different materials that relate to their lessons, or do more small-group exercises to focus on individual student needs.

Additionally, a new section of the contract allows for committees to be created that would present new academic recommendations to the Superintendent. The committee would be made up of union-appointed teachers.

Superintendent Bishop is happy with the changes. She says the new contract allows for a better balance between the art of teaching and the science of learning.

“It’s honoring and understanding that art of teaching and people bringing their profession and their expertise to the table. And also looking at data of kids,” Bishop said.

Scenic Park teacher Jennifer Kueter say she’s optimistic the new contracts will help give teachers some much needed flexibility.

“The academic freedom doesn’t say, I can do whatever I want to,” Kueter said. “I mean it really is small in what they’re saying, but it is allowing us to have some choice. And it is allowing, I’m hoping, to work in small groups, to do some of those things we’ve always been doing.”

Most of the new contract changes will start to kick in once students and teachers get back from winter break next month.