Ed Reforms Draw Support, Skepticism

Payson superintendent fears ‘we’re moving in the wrong direction’

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Highly touted state education reforms have useful elements, but are mostly “moving in the wrong direction,” said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer recently appointed a 17-member group to the Arizona Ready Education Council. The group will monitor implementation of reforms that will grade every school based on student test scores, link teacher evaluations to test scores and boost the share of third-graders performing at grade level from 73 percent now to 94 percent. The reforms also aim to increase the high school graduation rate from 75 percent to 93 percent.

O’Brien said he supports the reform plan’s goals, the involvement of businesses and corporations in setting school standards and the use of test scores to track student progress.

However, he said the overwhelming emphasis on test scores in a few core academic subjects won’t make up for recent declines in teacher pay coupled with increases in class sizes and educational bureaucracy.

“I think we’re moving in the wrong direction,” said O’Brien, whose district last year closed an elementary school and raised average class sizes. Some grade levels went from an average of 22 students per classroom to more like 32 students per classroom, he said.

“I have some big concerns. A lot of research shows that we’re going counter to what has worked.”

Public opinion polls reflect the public’s qualms about K-12 education in Arizona. For instance, recently the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University released a survey showing that education ranks as the third highest priority among voters, behind immigration and job creation.

Only 6 percent of the public rates schools as “excellent” and another 39 percent as “good.” However, 30 percent rank schools as “poor” and 11 percent as “very poor.”

Two thirds of those surveyed said academic standards in schools aren’t high enough and a similar percentage said the schools should include more vocational education.

Some 70 percent of those surveyed rated pre-school and kindergarten programs as “very important,” although the Legislature cut funding for both this year.

O’Brien said, “I’m concerned that we’re cutting back on things that we know work — like all-day kindergarten and instead doing things we aren’t sure will work.”

The reform plan embraced by Gov. Brewer and state Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal attempts to address some of those concerns, with tough new standards and potentially serious consequences for schools whose students fail to hit the benchmarks in core subjects, mostly reading and mathematics.

The new state standards evaluate schools mostly based on student scores on the AIMS test, especially the progress made by the bottom 20 percent of students.

State education officials are still refining the rating system to include more weight for things like graduation rates, but schools essentially rise and fall based on student test scores in core academic areas.

Numerous national studies suggest that family poverty and education levels have a much greater impact on student test scores than does the curriculum, teacher training or even core variables like class sizes. The state’s child poverty rate has risen sharply as a result of the recession, especially in Payson where a daunting 70 percent of the children in the district now qualify for free and reduced lunches based on family income.

The new state standards have caused a decline in the rating of many schools.

That includes Rim Country Middle School, which went from “performing plus” to a grade of D, when the state changed the rating system. Once the new system fully takes effect, schools that get a “D” three years running would be considered “failing” and therefore subject to state takeover.

Gov. Brewer appointed former Intel Corp. Chairman Craig Barrett to head the new Arizona Ready Council, in addition to an array of business and educational leaders from across the state.

Barrett has said Arizona schools rank in the “bottom 10 percent” nationally, but rejected the idea that the state’s ranking had anything to do with being 47th nationally when it comes to per-student spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

He said schools should pay more for teachers with hard-to-find qualifications like math and science and emulate charter schools, which don’t have to abide by the rules concerning teacher training and credentials that affect public schools.

Some researchers say that on the whole, charter school students don’t do any better on standardized test scores than public school students, especially when school size is considered.

O’Brien said he supports the effort to get business leaders more involved in education reform, since they can help keep schools focused on the skills graduating students need to thrive in the job market.

He also supports the emphasis on ensuring students master basic skills in elementary school, based on research showing that most students who haven’t mastered core skills by third grade will struggle for the rest of their time in school and suffer a much higher dropout rate.

“It’s too soon to tell” whether some of the latest reforms will help, he said.

“But we’re also eliminating things we know work, like all-day kindergarten. And perhaps going from 20 to 25 kids in a class won’t make a huge difference, but going from 22 to 32 certainly will. It’s not just about money, it’s about how you use the money.”

He said the tendency to blame teachers often misses the point. “We need to raise the bar in terms of teacher preparation and standards and with that we need to raise the status of the profession and the compensation.”

He said international studies of countries with the highest rated schools like Finland and Singapore have generally concluded that those systems have high teacher standards and prestige, but relatively few other requirements and tests.

“Those systems rely very little on standardized testing, but have an extremely rigorous program for teachers. If they don’t measure up, they let them go — but they let the teachers perform. The idea that we’re just going to focus on punishing the weakest teachers isn’t going to make things better.”

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