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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The More Things Change...ForwARd's strategic plan and previous education reform efforts

The French have a saying, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."  I was reminded of this truth recently when I ran across a 2002 article from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette detailing then Governor Mike Huckabee's proposal for improving education in Arkansas. 

As I read through the 39-point plan (yes, 39!), I thought of the work of the 30+ educators, business people, philanthropists, and community advocates who are currently putting together the ForwARd Arkansas strategic plan for education. How hard we've worked! How much we've studied and learned! How carefully we've tried to balance what is possible with what needs to be! How hopeful we are that this time, this time, we'll make a difference, we'll design the plan that will create the education system our children need and deserve!

So, Huckabee's plan? It was divided into eight categories. Under Professional Staff Accountability and Compensation, he wanted teacher pay tied to performance and to make it easier to fire teachers who "do not meet accountability criteria." He recommended additional pay for teaching in shortage areas like math and science or in academically distressed schools and professional development based on state standards/curriculum. He wanted to send high schools the bill for students who had to take remedial college classes. (Yes, Johnny sleeps through English and Math class and skips school three days a week but wakes up one day and decides he's college material. Let's make the high school pay for his remediation!) But don't let the students off scot free either. If a student doesn't graduate from college within 6 years (No matter what might happen in his life!) his scholarships should be paid back. 

Under Academic Standards, Curriculum and Teaching Methods, institute annual testing and track student growth, monitor schools to see that they teach the mandated curriculum, include mentoring as part of teacher preparation, allow state intervention when schools aren't performing well, require consequences for students who don't test well, increase high school course requirements, expand concurrent credit, make entry criteria for college more rigorous, offer remedial courses in two-year colleges only, and align  curricula between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Under Communicating Results to All Stakeholders, the Governor advised expanding the School Report Card system; providing performance data on students, grade levels, classroom teachers, and schools; providing school-to-school and district-to-district comparisons; establish guidelines for high school counselors for communicating needed information to students; and developing relationships between college recruiters and high schools.

Broadening the State's Charter School Law was seen as necessary to enhance school choice alternatives by increasing the number of charter schools, developing facilities funding for charter schools, giving charter schools flexibility while holding them to rigorous standards, and encouraging more authorizers of charter schools.

Financial Reporting would be improved by establishing spending categories, publishing results, and setting a standard for what percentage of funds would be used for classroom instruction.

Improved Pre-school and Health Care Access for Children contained the following recommendations:  Assure access to Head Start, ABC, or other education-based quality pre-school programs; increase phonics-based reading opportunities for pre-school-age children; increase adult literacy; and increase readiness to learn by improving access and utilization of basic health care, with attention given to visual, aural, and dental health as well as basic health care. (Note:  Few of these capacity building strategies have been implemented.)

Huckabee had a whole category for infusing the curriculum with opportunities for students to become proficient in art, music, theater, or other fine arts and another one for developing partnerships between education and business and industry.

Where did Huckabee's ideas for education "reform" come from? Many were proposed by the Murphy Commission in 1998, and others came from the 2002 reform flavor of the decade, the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission for Education. 

Some of Huckbee's proposals were good, some not so good. Several have been implemented; many were not.  Thirteen years later do we have an education system that will assure opportunity for all and a pathway that will lift children out of poverty and our state into economic prosperity? 

Obviously not, or we wouldn't need the ForwARd Arkansas strategic plan for education, which will be released in a few weeks and which will contain some of the recommendations of previous reform efforts as well as some new ones that are hopefully more helpful.

Maybe it's just that education systems, like people, have to continually change and grow. Or maybe we haven't invested enough yet to get the results we want. Maybe there are important areas that we have overlooked (like building capacity) while overly focusing on other areas (like accountability). 

Whatever it is, please don't let this plan be like those of the past, where only the easy parts or only the punitive parts or only the cheap parts were implemented and the ones that required investment and thoughtful, careful, collaborative development were neglected.  Please, this time, let us get it right, balance accountability with support, and invest what is needed. Our children are depending on us. Our communities are depending on us. Our state is depending on us. 

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