Better support their learning in School

Want to solve Arizona’s education woes? We have students who are more burdened than most by socio-economic hardship, educators who employ nearly as many approaches as we have schools, and legislators who want to do it all on the cheap.  There has to be a better way.

Arizona’s student performance lags behind much of the country.  The “nation’s report card” shows our 4th- and 8th-graders rank low in math proficiency and really low in reading proficiency.

This even though we have some schools in the state that are recognized for their high achievement.

At the same time, however, a majority of our schools have lower levels of achievement.  This is not necessarily because they are worse schools or worse educators.  Nor is that their students have less potential.

The Achievement Gap

Statistics show (See “The Need”) that achievement goes down as the family income of students goes down.  Their performance in school is undermined by a variety of issues that aren’t directly related to academics.  Schools struggle to overcome the adverse circumstances.  The very best succeed.  Too many, however, do not.

The differences are likely to get worse with the introduction of the Common Core Standards – which our state has renamed Arizona’s College and Career-Ready Standards.  The new standards are a step forward for education in that they encourage students to think rather than simply memorize, but the new approach will be all the harder to teach.

State lawmakers wipe their hands of the achievement gap by telling parents they should go out and find better schools for their children.  But there are far from enough high-scoring schools, in urban areas much less in rural areas, to go around.

Kids Take Their Problems With Them

What’s more, pick-a-school does not solve the achievement gap.  It can help individual students in adverse situations, but it doesn’t change things system-wide.  Kids take their problems with them.  As a result, charter schools find themselves struggling with the same issues faced by traditional schools.

Their overall profile is the same.  Charter schools that cater to more privileged students score high on standardized tests.  Most of those that are dedicated to serving less privileged students score lower.  Add them all together, they score almost exactly the same as traditional schools.  In fact, according to one carefully done study, charter-school students actually learn less than their “twins” in traditional schools.

Open enrollment doesn’t the achievement gap; it only moves it around.  Real improvement has to start with acknowledging that the achievement gap exists and then addressing it head on, both inside and outside the classroom.

 

The system for making education decisions is grievously flawed.

Lawmakers pass down edicts without bothering to consult educators.  That’s a problem.  If they did talk with educators, they’d get a hundred different opinions.  That’s another problem.

Educators are an independent lot.  They jealously defend their autonomy at every level . . . district, school, classroom.   Each superintendent, each principal, even each teacher knows best.

The idea is that each of them should be responsive to local conditions and wishes, blending the needs they find with their own preferred approaches to develop an educational system uniquely suited to their respective communities.

It sounds good, until one starts to see the downside.  Design-it-yourself is much too subject to human frailties.  Equally or more important, its consequences are silently sapping the education system.

Best practices go ignored

Two examples show the opportunities we are missing:

The Benson Unified School District found good things can happen if one totally buys into someone else’s model.  Benson became the top-scoring district in the state by fully adopting the ultra-successful system that the Vail Unified School District, much to its credit, has offered to other districts.  Few if any though have had the leadership or the clarity to go all in as Benson has done.

And how many other districts have come to learn how Benson made this work better than anyone else?  Just two.

Meanwhile, up in Phoenix, an elementary school has achieved the gold standard by getting an “A” with low-income kids.  A dynamic principal found a model that works.  How many other schools in the same district have decided to copy the model?  None.  How many of those schools with similar demographics come even close to scoring as well?  None.

These are opportunities lost.  Nonetheless most schools are allowed, even encouraged, to do it their own way.  This fragmented approach to a very difficult task – educating challenged kids – doesn’t work.

No one speaks for the whole

In this balkanized world, educators are unable to speak up for the best interests of children.

They are not in a common place.  They do not have a common plan or set of priorities.  They do not speak with a unified voice.  They can barely fend off attack, much less put forward a counteroffensive.  They want more money from the Legislature but do not have a common proposal for how to spend it.

With something to rally around, we the public could be mobilized.  Without any such guidance, we scratch our head in confusion.

In this vacuum, legislators have a field day.  They are free to do either as they please or as they are urged to do by lobbyists, conservative think tanks, and special interests.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the results don’t represent a balanced view.

 

We need to push all our public schools to a high standard, by better enabling all of them to help children of all circumstances to succeed.

This is a multi-step process that will not take place overnight, which means we’re playing catch-up.  We need to get started now, by doing the following:

  • Change the belief that decision-making about our schools either must be entirely centralized (the feds or the state dictate what happens) or entirely decentralized (local units decide everything for themselves).  There’s a third, better alternative.  School districts or other local decision-making units can work together to collaboratively agree upon best approaches and then act upon them voluntarily.
  • Educators need to do just that to establish an overall plan and list of priorities.  A Vote for Substance Over Politics
  • Educators and legislators then need to work a deal.  Educators need to fully embrace their own collective recommendations in all schools.  In return, legislators will loosen the purse strings to fund top-priority programs that promise the highest return on investment.  The latter is by itself a concept that educators will be have to learn to accept.

In a state that chronically spends less per pupil than virtually every other state, there are many needs.  Just for example, here are three possibilities:

  1. Children who are unprepared for school need extra help in the first few grades or they will never catch up.
  2. Low pay and low regard for teachers is causing too many of them to leave the field, a fact not lost upon young people who don’t see education as a desirable profession.
  3. Remote areas of the state have an even tougher time attracting qualified teachers.

Any or all of these, or other programs like them, need to be melded into concrete appeals for assistance that we the public can be convinced to support.

 

 

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"Arizona: Where mediocrity is good enough. Not exactly the motto you want on your license plate. But when it comes to funding K-12 education, it’s honest." The Arizona Republic, Oct. 29, 2013