The Payson Unified School District board should “scrutinize” its teachers, curriculum and measurement of performance, the mother of three school-age boys told members at a recent meeting.
Patty Wisner decided to approach the board after reading about a Goldwater Institute researcher, Matthew Ladner, who addressed the Citizens Awareness Committee several weeks ago with a new policy report that compared Florida’s scores to Arizona’s on a national standardized test.
In 1998, Florida fourth-graders scored comparably to Arizona students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2007, 14 percent more fourth-graders passed in Florida than in Arizona. Critics of the test, however, say the comparison isn’t fair.
“There are and always have been pockets of excellence within the district,” said Wisner. She urged the board to focus on helping the lower-achieving students succeed and to “get rid of those teachers who can’t be bothered to make what they teach exciting.”
Board members did not discuss the mother’s plea at the meeting because the issue was not on the agenda.
In subsequent interviews, however, one board member said he was devoted to change, while another said he’d challenge anyone claiming Payson Unified isn’t already performing excellently. Others fell in the middle.
Some have begun calling for education reform in Gila County, and a group devoted to the topic is coalescing.
County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell started a list of interested people at the CAC meeting where Ladner spoke. A handful have signed up.
School board member Richard Meyer says he ran specifically to reform Payson education.
“We don’t have enough rigor,” he said. “We don’t have enough discipline.”
Some of Meyer’s ideas include implementing a more liberal hold-back policy for students not ready to enter the next grade and switching the school culture to reflect its responsibility to society and the business world — consumers.
Wisner also advocated making the school more consumer-friendly, but she believes parents are the consumers.
Not all school board members agree with Meyer.
Rory Huff said that the curriculum improves every year and the district prepares kids for college, which runs counter to Meyer’s basic premise that students graduate ill-prepared for the work world.
Huff counters, “We are doing an excellent job, and I’ll challenge anybody who says we’re not.”
Board member Matt Van Camp pointed to improvements Curriculum Director Kathy Kay has made, including synchronizing elementary-level education and minimizing academic gaps between grade levels.
Van Camp said he’s open to solutions. However, “I don’t believe in doing school reform just for the (purpose) of doing school reform.”
Board member Barbara Underwood, reached briefly by phone from Disneyland, said she left for vacation and had not reviewed Goldwater or Wisner’s material thoroughly. She did say, however, that she supported looking into the matter further.
Board member Viki Holmes directed questions to Rory Huff because he is the board president.
The Goldwater report compared the reading scores of fourth-graders in Arizona and Florida on a national standardized test.
Ladner attributed Florida’s dramatic rise to a series of reforms including holding back third-graders unable to read, greater incentives for teacher performance, heightened accountability and a robust school choice program which allowed students at schools that failed twice in four years the opportunity to attend another school.
Some educators say the test is not an adequate comparison because Arizona is not required to teach what the national exam tests.
Others, however, say the test is a good nationwide comparison.
Holding students who are not achieving back a grade upsets some, but advocates, including Meyer, say students will learn quickly that they must achieve or face the consequences.
“They wouldn’t get held back more than once because they’d learn,” he said.
Huff counters that retaining students would stigmatize them. “A lot of times you can catch a kid up as he matures,” he said, adding that students could move on with an “earmark,” letting teachers know the student needs extra assistance in a certain area.
The inevitability that different students have variable strengths and weaknesses spurred Meyer to contemplate moving to a collegiate format of teaching subjects instead of grade levels. For instance, a sophomore who excels in math but has difficulty in English could take a lower-level English class while taking a challenging math class.
“The grade structure that we’ve established is actually detrimental to our students,” Meyer said. He also advocates eradicating teacher tenure, which he said appears nowhere in the business world.
“If we will prepare our product, which is the student,” Meyer said, then those in the business world “will pay a premium to get a good product.”
If not, the global economy allows companies to hire foreigners, many of which come from schools outperforming those in the United States.
“I firmly, strongly, passionately believe in what I’m trying to accomplish,” Meyer said.
“I’m going to push harder and harder and harder until either it changes or they can convince me (otherwise).”