Arizona Mired Below ‘Education Divide’

Sept. 19, 2012

Arizona education is struggling to escape the bottom quintile.

Our 4th and 8th graders are performing at the 42nd best level in the country. That’s just one indicator of many.  No matter what facet of education is being measured, or by whom, the state almost invariably shows up among the worst of states.

We’re mired toward the bottom despite:

– Repeated attempts by the Legislature to intervene.  Going only by the results, even the most ballyhooed of their solutions – charter schools – aren’t necessarily helping.

– Increasing alarm from well-intentioned foundations, think tanks, and advocacy organizations – as well as some of the state’s most high-powered do-gooders – who plead for someone to, please, do something.  They fear an under-educated workforce unable to compete in the global marketplace will be economic suicide for the state.

The most recent report of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy characterizes the threat to the state’s economic health as “grave.”  The ASU-affiliated research organization, in following up on a similar report made 10 years earlier, suggests that “what was once an issue of concern for Arizona now approaches a crisis.”

The education system has been trying hard to respond.  Indeed, within Arizona, there are best practices from best school districts that – if they could be applied universally – would improve the state’s performance.

Unfortunately, however, educators are caught between a rock and a hard place.  While the advocates for improvement are insistent, the obstacles to improvement are even more resistant.

To begin to understand why, draw a line across the country from South Carolina to California.  Circumstances of earlier eras created the Mason-Dixon Line and the Missouri Compromise Line.  Let’s call this new line, located a little to the south of the others, the “Education Divide.”

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony Bustos

The states south of the divide all under-achieve on the math and reading tests for 4th and 8th graders that are the core of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the “nation’s report card.”  Of southern states, only North Carolina barely squeezed above the median of state scores for 2011.

The over-achievers are all north of the divide.  The north has a few laggards, but the preponderance of its states scored above the median.

The stark difference is explained by several factors.  Thinking Arizona’s analysis of the data shows these fault lines:

Family Income.  Under-achieving states are more likely to have a higher percentage of families that are economically disadvantaged, which the “report card” gauges by eligibility for the free-lunch program.  Arizona ranks 33rd in the number of students who can afford to buy their lunch.

Race and Ethnicity.  Under-achieving states are more likely to have a higher percentage of minority students. Arizona ranks down in 45th place in terms of students who identify themselves as Caucasian.

Education Expenditures. Under-achieving states are more likely to spend less per pupil.  The report card figures indicate Arizona ranks 47th in expenditures per pupil.  Other studies rank it even lower.  Arizona gets by on as little as possible.

Not A Good Combination

Combining all three of these conditions creates real problems.  Arizona is one of 12 states that fall below the norm for all three.  Eleven of those 12 score below the median on the achievement tests.  All 11 are south of the divide.

This is in stark contrast to the states that are more white, enjoy higher family incomes, and invest more in education.  Twelve are above the norm for all three.  Eleven of those 12 score above the median on the achievement tests.  All are north of the divide.

The result is devastating for Arizona.  In 2011, the state ranked 44th in 4th-grade math, 46th in 4th-grade reading, 40th in both 8th-grade math and reading.  The report card places states into one of three tiers for each test each year the tests are given.  Arizona is one of only six states – along with California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Nevada – that have never escaped the bottom tier on any of the tests since all states began participating in the biennial program in 2003.

The composite of the four scores puts Arizona 42nd in the country, one notch ahead of the 43rd ranking it held in 2003.  Arizona’s scores have increased in that time period, but it hasn’t gained much on the field because the other states have improved as well.  Maryland outdid everyone, leapfrogging from 31st to 5th.  Scores for all the states.

The pattern of haves and have-nots plays itself out in a variety of important ways.

First, the state pattern repeats itself down to the district and school levels.

Arizona’s version of the national movement to make schools and students accountable for learning certain basics at each grade level is called AIMS – Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.  The state Department of Education provides a comprehensive report of the test results each year.

Unfortunately the last time the state compiled the corresponding demographic information was for the 2005-2006 school year, indicating that the insights it contains  hasn’t been much of a priority.  But Thinking Arizona’s analysis of the 2005-2006 data shows the same distinct correlation at the district and school level as reported above at the state level.

How Arizona’s school districts perform on the AIMS tests scales up or down depending on how many minority – primarily Hispanic – and economically disadvantaged students they have. Districts with low percentages of those populations score well.  Districts with average percentages of those populations had average scores.  With very few exceptions, districts with high percentages of Hispanic and economically
disadvantaged students score poorly.

The graphs show that sample districts with more well-to-do, white kids cluster at the top end of the performance scale.  Districts with middling percentages of those kids cluster near the median.  Districts made up largely of less-well-off, minority kids tend to cluster at the lower end of the performance scale.

Even the best of the well-off districts don’t get all of their students to pass state standards.  In 2012, somewhere between 90 to 95 percent made the grade in reading, while at best 85 percent measured up in math.

But those numbers fall, particularly in urban districts, as poverty levels rise.  Only 60 to 70 percent met the reading standard in the poorest districts, while 50 percent made it over the hump in math.

The various correlations demonstrate once again it is much tougher to educate children who are beset with socio-economic difficulties and, frequently, a language barrier.  The real lesson to be learned from the state’s system of grading schools.

According to the latest available figures, Arizona has the nation’s sixth highest percentage of students who are, to use the official phrase, English Language Learners.  Even though the criteria have been watered down, they still represent 8 percent of students across the state.  But the figures range up to 30 percent in districts such as Alhambra and Cartwright, both in central Phoenix.  They may be even higher elsewhere.

Factoring those realities into the equation provides a more complex but better context for judging how well districts are doing in comparison with each other.  The fairest method of evaluating any district is not against all others but rather by judging how it does versus districts with similar demographics.

The test performance of the Alhambra and Sunnyside districts, for instance, falls far short of the Vail and Kyrene districts.  But the picture changes if one factors in demographics.  Alhambra and Sunnyside do well for districts that serve disadvantaged neighborhoods, just as Vail and Kyrene exceed the norm for districts in more privileged areas.  Santa Cruz Valley Unified beats the odds . . . almost.

Public and Charter Produce Almost Equal Results

In total, Arizona has 219 school districts.  The biggest has 66,000 students; the smallest has two.

The education effort in Arizona is then further fragmented by another 300 organizations that run charter schools.  Charter schools represent a far greater percentage of all Arizona schools – 25 percent, according to the “report card” data – than any other state.

Charter-school advocates espouse their benefits.  As the Legislature intended, they provide one form of “free-market” competition for public schools.  Some serve special student interests such as the performing arts or specialized methods such as Montessori.  And while some charter schools seek to skim off the best students, others are dedicated to helping the worst

Moreover, they give parents that many more choices for their children.  One though is sometimes left to wonder what they actually gain.

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony BustosThe test performance of charter students is virtually identical to the performance of public school students, according to Thinking Arizona’s analysis of AIMS data for 2011 and 2012.

The headline here is that 40 percent of both public school and charter students are not meeting the state’s standards in math, writing and science, and nearly 25 percent are falling short in reading.  But if anyone supposed that charter schools would lift the state out of the muck, they’re not.

The second major implication of the pattern of haves and have-nots is its lasting effects.

Students who don’t do well in their first years of school don’t miraculously recover from their deficit.  As a result, Arizona does poorly on any number of measures of what happens subsequently.  The state:

  • Ranks 45th in the Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI) index.
  • Ranks 47th in percentage of 18- to 24-year olds enrolled in college.
  • Ranks 40th in percentage of 25- to 34-year olds who have completed at least an associate’s degree.
  • In one piece of good news, does fairly well in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awards in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It ranks 28th.

Education Week does an annual report called “Quality Counts” which assesses each state’s performance on a variety of education measures.  Arizona’s overall rank for 2012 was 44th.

Even more alarming though is the report’s “chance for success” metric, which factors in 13 “cradle to career” indicators.  Included are a child’s early circumstances such as his parents’ education and employment, his school years from pre-school enrollment to high school graduation, and his eventual adult outcomes such as employment and income.

On this overall measure, Arizona ranks 48th.

The general public seems to greet all this not with outrage, but with a strange sense of apathy, even resignation.

“The problem hasn’t become real enough for everyone.  Most people know there is a problem with education, but a lot will say the education their own child is getting is fine,” said Pearl Chang Esau, the head of an organization named Expect More Arizona.  “How do we make this personal for people, convince them that this is their problem too?  It’s a million-dollar communications issue.

“Our challenge is deepening people’s understanding of what a world-class education looks like and whether their school is delivering that education.  We have a long way to go in educating people where the bar should be.”

Expect More Arizona and other organizations are trying to change that.  The think tanks take turns issuing recommendations.  The Legislature has its own ideas that it enacts in piecemeal fashion.

The backdrop is a national debate that has been fanned again by the teacher’s strike in Chicago.  Those outside education want teachers, and their schools and their school districts, to be held accountable for student achievement.  Teachers respond by blaming socio-economic conditions outside the classroom for what happens in the classroom.

Teachers, be they in Chicago or Arizona, shouldn’t be defeatists who are allowed to excuse their own performance to the circumstances around them.

Conversely, the facts don’t exempt the rest of us. We can’t rely upon accountability as the one and only solution to the problem.  There’s just too much evidence that student achievement is highly dependent on income and race.  The real issue is what more that citizens and legislators can do to help these kids help themselves.  Three questions we should be asking.

More Than a Report Card

Real solutions are going to have to be more holistic than handing out A’s, B’s, and C’s.  A general summary of interviews with educators makes clear that students, particularly the young ones, are pretty much at the mercy of their environment:

  • The involvement of their parents, and stability of their home life.
  • The involvement of the community around them.  It is said that the schools make the community, and the community makes the schools.
  • The quality of their teachers.
  • The direction and leadership of their school district.  Some districts perform better than others, even when one corrects for their socioeconomic differences.  The leaders of those districts can’t be cloned, but the best of their practices could be.
  • The support of the state.  One has to ask whether its policies and directives are part of the solution or part of the problem.

It’s hard to imagine any kind of transformation without all of the above operating in unison.

The fundamental question is one of will.  The decision that needs to be made is whether it’s important enough to the state’s future to give each of the above the tools they need – whatever that might require – to get the state out of the ditch.

– Richard Gilman



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