Just Thinking

Arizona Can Fix Schools By Addressing 3 Questions

by Richard Gilman

Arizona’s school system is messed up.

Our 4th and 8th graders are performing at the 42nd best level in the country.  That means we’re mired in the muck with the likes of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and, what do you know, California.

The good news is there’s a way out of the mess.

It involves asking three pivotal questions, answering them forthrightly and creatively, then doing what the answers suggest.  It’s as simple – and as surprisingly difficult – as that.

This process requires that we acknowledge some basic distinctions.  Educating children is no easy task regardless, but:

  • While all children are created equal, their success at school differs.  Any number of correlations shows it is more difficult to educate disadvantaged, minority children.  Arizona, like the other states listed above, has more of those children than elsewhere.
  • While all schools and school districts may be thought of alike, their challenges differ.  The A’s, B’s, and C’s grading their performance are highly dependent on the number of disadvantaged children in their ranks.
  • Contrary to education’s overall reputation, some districts in Arizona are in fact very good at what they do.

Distinctions Aren’t Treated As Such

These distinctions may seem patently obvious.  However, state policy does not treat them as such.   All districts must juggle the same basic formula for school funding.  All are graded against the same standards.  All are subject to the requirements that come out of the many federal and state attempts to intervene.

This one size fits all approach brings a mild protest from Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District on the southeast side of Tucson. Vail, which in 2011 was named the top large district in the state, is one of those districts that is extremely good at what it does.

“The reform efforts aren’t aimed at Vail or Kyrene or Scottsdale, they’re aimed at the low-performing districts,” he points out.  That, however, doesn’t exempt Vail from their provisions.

If we were really serious about finding real solutions to the education quandary, we’d take the opposite approach.  Rather than turn a blind eye to the distinctions, we’d make use of them.  Which brings us to the three central questions that need to be asked and answered.

Q 1:  What can be learned from the best districts to help everyone be more successful?

This question may also seem way too obvious.  One would have thought.

The state’s 500+ educational fiefdoms would be helped immensely if they could be guided by a manual spelling out “what the best districts do best.”   These best practices might encompass the setting and achievement of goals, methods of instruction and the curriculum, and how to develop a healthy organizational climate.  Superintendents suggest initiatives that lead to better schools.

Unfortunately, egos interfere. There has to be a willingness to give and to receive, and both are lacking.

While the superintendents I have spoken with seem quite willing to spell out what drives their success, I’m told some districts are reluctant to share their secrets.  For its part, the state Dept. of Education is reluctant to participate in anything that highlights some districts at the expense of others.  The districts that should eagerly devour the lessons presented may be too invested in their own approaches to give serious consideration to anything else.

But as the automaker Henry Ford once famously noted, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Let’s encourage the very best people to gather themselves together.  Pull the best thinking from each of them, accepting perhaps that all the intangibles can’t be readily defined.  Hammer out some consensus as to what are best practices.  Continue to refine those practices in a model district that can be studied and copied for years to come.  Twist everyone else’s elbow to follow the model.

Q 2:  What special assistance do disadvantaged schools need to overcome the special demands they face?

It’s one thing to educate well-equipped children.  It’s quite another to educate children who didn’t eat breakfast this morning, are coping with all manner of other issues, and perhaps speak another language at home.  The lesson taught by the state’s grading system is incomplete.

What should be expected of schools in these circumstances is a political minefield that at the moment is most prominently being debated in the Chicago teachers’ strike.  Some insist that educators should be held accountable regardless.  Some won’t even acknowledge a disparity exists, much less spend another dime on it.

But it’s wishful thinking to expect schools that educate lots of high-risk students simply to suck up the difference and perform at the highest levels.  If the state is really serious about remedying the education problem, it has to seriously address this question – perhaps above all others.

The Rand Corporation tackled much the same issue a few years ago for another state stuck in the muck.  Give Tennessee credit.  At least it asked the question.

Rand’s review of all educational initiatives found “states that focus more resources on 1) lowering the ratio of pupils to teachers in the early grades (grades 1 to 4), 2) raising teacher salaries, 3)providing teachers with adequate teaching resources, and 4) providing larger public pre-kindergarten programs – other things being equal – have higher achievement scores.”

Particular Bearing on Arizona

The findings bear particularly on Arizona.  The gains from these young-age interventions were found to be “most significant” in those states, Arizona included, with lower socio-economic status.  Sadly, however, we ranked near the bottom for each of the provisions the report recommended.  For instance, Arizona doesn’t fund all-day kindergarten, much less pre-school.  The goal here is to get by on as little as possible.

Schools do benefit from $300 million in federal Title I funding which is intended to help disadvantaged students.  While the amount sounds large, it’s less than 5 percent of overall spending.  And it doesn’t begin to cover the needs.

In the largely Hispanic, largely disadvantaged Rio Rico area, Santa Cruz Valley Supt. Rodney Rich figures he can get the biggest bang from his Title I allocation by devoting it all to boosting the reading skills of kindergarteners through second graders.  That leaves the cupboard bare for any other supplemental programs.  The experience in Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District is a case in point.

All the while the state continues to challenge districts to be more efficient.  It expects educators to fund a steady stream of additional mandates – most recently the new “Common Core Standards” for math and reading – by whittling elsewhere.

Rand’s proposed solutions, whether they are right or wrong, illustrate the discussion we should be having.  Let’s put the education disparity front and center, deliberately and rigorously examine what would be most helpful in overcoming it, and act on that.

Q 3:  How can Arizona education be organized to benefit as much from cooperation as competition?

Policymakers see lots of good, healthy competition in the state’s 200+ school districts and 300 charter school organizations.

Educators endorse the Balkanization for another reason.  They love their independence.

It’s hard to accept though that education can be delivered equally well regardless of whether a district is big (Mesa Unified, 66,000 students; Tucson Unified, 52,000 students), median-sized (Eloy Elementary, 1,000 students), or small (Skull Valley, 27 students).

Progress would be speeded if educators found new ways to unify.

Vail Unified, for instance, did a brilliant job of deconstructing the state’s abstract academic standards into a practical day-to-day curriculum called “Beyond Textbooks.”  Then Vail got really cheeky. It offered its program to other districts in the state!

Radical, but both efficient and effective.  Nearly one-third of the districts in the state have taken Vail’s offer, all thereby saving themselves from trying to re-invent the wheel.  No need for that.  Vail’s wheel turns smoothly, at least for those who buy in to its use.

No one elected Vail to the task.  It simply reached across its borders to help others.

School districts have some experience with collaborating on their business affairs.   Let’s use Vail’s visionary approach as inspiration to forge similar alliances on the instructional front.  Whether formally or informally, school districts ought to be able to work together to do better.

Getting out of the muck requires, in fact, that the state do much better.

We shouldn’t mark our progress just by handing out A’s, B’s and C’s, for they only measure what is.  We should mark our progress by how constructively we answer these three pivotal questions, for they promise what could be.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Phil Lopes on said:

    Clearly and concisely stated. As a former legislator, I lay the problems at the legislature’s door. They refuse to consider results of Rand study (bills to address student teacher ratios never got a hearing because they were introduced by Democrats). The majority’s approach is driven, in large measure, by competition between charters and non charters will solve problem, and teachers unions are too powerful resulting in teachers being lazy because of perceived job protection. What would it take to get districts to cooperate? Seems like such a slam dunk but it doesn’t happen. Keep up good work.

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