Top Rim Country school officials listened to a pitch on educational reform last week, as they braced for an avalanche of contradictory commands.
Superintendents of the Payson, Young and Tonto Basin districts heard briefings from the governor’s office and the state department of education on changes that will base school ratings, teacher salary and principals’ jobs on standardized tests in reading, writing and arithmetic.
Next, the educators heard an appeal to shift to science, technology and vocational approaches that are more project-based and emphasize critical thinking skills — exactly the kind of stuff you won’t find on the AIMS graduation tests.
“They’ve got some wonderful goals,” said Payson Unified Superintendent Casey O’Brien of new state standards intended to ensure all students can read fluently before they leave the third grade and the creation of data system to track student progress.
“But will these changes get us there? My concern is where is the research base that indicates a direct correlation between standardized test scores and student improvement and teacher evaluations.”
Gila County Superintendent of Education Linda O’Dell hosted the half-day conference to preview coming changes and the discussion of how schools can improve science and technology education and focus on students’ critical thinking skills.
The speakers mostly acknowledged the plight of schools asked to embrace change and dramatically increase student performance in the face of budget cuts and rising class sizes — but nonetheless insisted the state can’t succeed if its schools fail.
An educational reform plan endorsed by Gov. Jan Brewer’s office calls for doubling the number of college degrees awarded by 2020, while increasing the high school graduation rate from 75 to 93 percent, increasing the number of 3rd graders reading at grade level from 73 to 94 percent and increase the number of 8th graders performing at grade level nationally in math and reading from the present 67 percent to 85 percent — despite a continuing decline in per-student spending.
In addition, the state recently unveiled “move on when ready,” a plan to push districts to offer a way for bright high school students to pass all the standardized tests by their sophomore year. Students who passed the standardized graduation tests early could spend the next two years getting a jump on college — perhaps by taking community college courses for dual credit toward their high school graduation.
“We realize right now it looks like a bunch of unfunded mandates,” conceded Rebecca Gau, director of the governor’s office of educational innovation.
“But the question is how do we do a better job in sending students to where the jobs are,” she added, noting that despite the state’s 10 percent unemployment rate Microsoft says it has 5,500 jobs for anyone with a Microsoft Certification in Arizona right now.
Kathy Hrabluk, association superintendent for high academic standards for the Arizona Department of Education said the nation’s schools once led the world, but have fallen to 23rd internationally.
“This is a pivotal time. We have a window of opportunity. The entire landscape of public education has changed due to technology. If we’re preparing students for jobs that won’t exist when they graduate, we need to rethink things.”
Sweeping state-mandated changes now loom on the horizon for the state’s schools, just as state support has dropped significantly.
In essence, the state has embraced Florida style reforms that held back more than a quarter of the state’s third graders based on low reading scores and gave schools letter grades from A-F, based mostly on student performance on standardized tests. Studies show that students who struggle with reading in third grade are four times as likely to drop out before finishing high school.
The Arizona Department of Education hopes to implement similar reforms despite deep cuts in state support that have left the state near the bottom nationally on per-student spending.
The Legislature last year also eliminated all-day kindergarten, which some educators say would have made it easier to ensure all students can read by the time they finish third grade. Finally, the Legislature also significantly reduced funding for vocational and technical education, the topic of the second half of the Wednesday meeting held in the Best Western conference center.
Payson schools have struggled to maintain key elements of the reforms touted during the conference, but have been forced to scrounge for money in the deep shadow of teacher layoffs and school closures.
For instance, the district decided to keep its Response to Intervention Program going this year despite the loss of federal funding provided as part of the stimulus package. Despite nearly a million dollars in budget cuts last year, the district found money to continue identifying struggling students and providing extra tutoring.
The district this year used money donated by a parents group to launch a new project-based science, technology and engineering class in the high school.
“We launched the program with private funding,” said O’Brien, “and we’re very excited about it. And I’m not saying it’s all about money, but unlike Florida not only do we not add any resources, but we no longer have all-day kindergarten and we no longer have funding for freshman vocational classes and we no longer have funding for response to intervention. To simply say we’ve raised the bar without some support could simply backfire.”
The conference also focused on the benefits of the kind of project-based learning that lies at the heart of Payson’s new engineering class series.
Such classes develop the very critical thinking skills so essential in modern careers – and so hard to measure in standardized tests, which favor rote learning and tightly controlled curriculums.
The difference in emphasis was underscored by the recent transformation of a Frito Lay manufacturing operation in Casa Grande, said Caroline Vanlngen-Dunn, manager of SFAz STEM Initiatives, a group that supports science and technology programs and schools and training for teachers using millions in funding from Arizona corporations.
She said the old assembly line involved 20 people repeating the same bag-stuffing operations over and over. The new assembly line involves three people who monitor the assembly line robots.
“When something goes wrong, those three people have to figure out what happened and fix it,” said Vanlngen-Dunn. “We have to teach our students how to learn. We have to get our kids engaged.”
She said her group has moved from focusing on providing training for teachers to seeking partnerships with schools to support comprehensive, science and technology programs that embrace a creative, project-based approach — with a special emphasis on rural schools.
A handful of business leaders invited to the conference embraced that approach, while noting that the current system too often turns out students without the work ethic and critical thinking skills they need to succeed in the modern workplace.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the agricultural sciences vocational program he attended at Yuma High School produced a host of brilliantly successful graduates, something hard to measure on standardized tests.
“What we measure is not parallel with our outcomes. If you used the AIMS test as the standard for those students, maybe you’d say ‘what a bunch of dummies.’”
Jerry Myers, head of the Northern Gila County Economic Development Corporation, said, “I’m going straight from here to meet with a local employer who can’t find anyone to fill two IT (computer) positions he has open. But I need information from you all to show employers the benefit of getting involved in these efforts.”
“You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize,” said John Stanton, head of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I was so pleased when Casey (O’Brien) told me about the engineering program. The question is how do we make the kids understand that the day they leave high school — they’ve really left high school.”