The War for Education

These are some pretty heady times for primary education. The Obama administration rolled out its “Race to the Top” program to improve primary education, while, along with Congress, he virtually terminated a promising voucher program in Washington D.C. The citizens of Arizona voted to keep the “First Things First” program. The state legislature has outlawed the controversial “Ethnic Studies” program in the Tucson Unified School District, to which some teachers have responded with a lawsuit.

As I look at the battles, I am saddened to see that many of the participants do not simply disagree on policy, they seem to live in different worlds. In one world, “Ethnic Studies” promotes inclusion of Latino students while increasing their academic success, while in the other, Latino students are cut out of the rest of the students and taught separatism, and anti-Americanism. In one world, “First Things First” as a valuable preparation for kindergarten and beyond, while in the other it is a way to warehouse children of middle-class mom’s who prefer to go to Yoga class at the expense of the economically disadvantaged.

No progress toward some kind of resolution can be made without some common ground.

I decided, therefore, to avoid the fracas and try to gather some inside information from someone in the field. In these days of networking, I decided to check my address book and found a Democrat friend of near thirty years who runs an “Excelling” charter school in Tucson. His name is Gurumeet Khalsa and he is a director of the Khalsa Montessori Charter School. I’d like to reiterate that I’m presenting one educator’s ideas, not arguing for or against charter schools here.

Mr. Khalsa describes himself as an “education radical”, much of his thinking is indeed outside the traditional box.

The Montessori method itself, as he described it to me, is a departure from the traditional methods which “came out of the industrial age of the 1800’s when it was convenient to do that for political reasons and for reasons of scale”, referring to everybody doing the sme thing at the same time. The Montessori method focuses on the individual child who progresses at his own rate, with his own study plan. The teaching “follows the child.”

Mr. Kalsa is not a big fan of standardized testing, including AIMS. “Good test results doesn’t mean that they are getting educated. It means that they are able to regurgitate facts and take the silly little bubble tests.” He also mentioned that, “US News called University High School the best high school in the world, and the state of Arizona said it was a failing school – all in the same year.” He added, “They don’t judge character, they don’t judge artistic values, they don’t judge critical thinking, it’s quite a poor test they give the kids.”

I asked if there could be any valid measurement devices for kids or schools. He said that parents really must be involved with the school. He put the issue in perspective this way, “Everybody wants insurance in our society, everybody wants Social Security, everybody wants insurance, everybody wants to be taken care of, nobody wants to have any faults, and that’s what we’re stuck with. No risk.” He added that touring professionals would be helpful in rating schools, “but they would have their own biases about what they think a school should look like.” He said that parental participation is very high in his school, and the school encourages it. Some parents actually withdraw their children from the school because they ask them to participate too much.

Mr. Kalsa is big on school choice. “We have hundreds of millions of people in our country and I don’t think that they are all going to go in one direction. I think sometimes that the people who really squawk about it perhaps have a monetary stake in it, they don’t want to see parents have a choice. I think it’s important that families have a choice in what they want to do.”

Now, I disagree with my friend on many of his points, on some I agree. I was a bit surprised at some of common ground we shared, and that some of his perspectives were new to me.

We really should openly discuss ideas more before we draw the battle lines in the war for education.

At one point I asked Gurumeet, “So how’s your football program coming?” We both had a laugh.

Arizona Education, Is It All Just About the Money?

Arizona is part of a group of about eight states that are 49th out of 50 in education spending. Others include Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Louisiana, Utah, and Pennsylvania. How can that happen? It’s all in how you combine the data sets. Anyway, the point is that states are competing to be at the bottom. Why is being at the bottom better than being at the top? There are few better arguments for increasing spending than being at the bottom. It’s all about the money. The stated goal of increased spending is to improve the quality of education, but does quality vary concomitantly with spending?

Here is what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) says in its Nation’s Report Card about 4th grade reading achievement, “In 2009, the average score of fourth-grade students in Arizona was 210. This was lower than the average score of 220 for public school students in the nation. The average score for students in Arizona in 2009 (210) was not significantly different from their average score in 2007 (210) and was not significantly different from their average score in 1992 (209).” 4th grade reading is critical because when the skill is substandard, students tend not to catch up, they can’t read their textbooks in middle and high school, they become frustrated, act out, and drop out.

Now let’s compare Arizona’s spending to our rather flat level of achievement. According to Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee, public school per student spending went from $6,497 in 2000 to $9,698 in 2009. After adjusting for inflation, the net increase is slightly over 20 per cent. Again, the increase is the per student rate – the total increase is much more. There is a bright side to this situation. Achievement levels are, after all, not going down; and we are not alone, California has also increased per student expenditures with virtually no change in outcomes. So, what is the money doing? Who knows. The important lesson is that something is stuck, and money is not shaking it loose.

If money does not have the desired affect, what will? Florida, which has many of the same demographic challenges as Arizona and California, has made some dramatic strides in education. NAEP scoring placed Florida comparable to Arizona in that critical area of 4th grade reading during most of the 1990’s. In 1998, Florida took off and is now scoring well above Arizona. The success has been disproportionally enjoyed by Hispanic and Afro-American students. Hispanic students went from a score of 192 in 1994 to 218 in 1996 while Arizona’s total students hovered around 205-210 during the same period. Florida’s Afro-American students went from 181 in 1994 to 208 in 2007, matching Arizona’s total students.

Yikes! What did Florida do? Florida took a two pronged approach. It instituted programs that allowed parental choice, and rated individual schools based on performance through a program of high-stakes testing. A synergy developed between the principles of choice and accountability. The performance data available to the parents helped them to make good choices which led to the better schools expanding, and the failing schools contracting. This improved the quality of education across the state, which is reflected in student performance.

Meanwhile, Arizona has made some modest gains in the area of choice. It has one of the best charter school laws in the country. Charter schools, along with magnet schools, fill the choice bill. They tend to be diverse, are over-represented in schools that excel, and are under-represented in schools that are failing. Parents tend to be much happier with charter schools since they can choose the one that matches their educational vision.

Alas, accountability is another story. Arizona developed the AIMS test to ensure that graduating students were educated to a high school level, and to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind program. The test was “dumbed-down” over time, primarily by continuously lowering the cut-score. The “cut-score” is the minimum score required to pass. In 2003, the cut-score for 8th grade reading was 73% for “proficient”, in 2004 it was lowered to 59%. In this way, the state was able to show improvement without actually having to achieve it.

Speaking of choices, Arizonans have a big one to make: do we want to continue spending more and more money for the same level of mediocrity, or do we want to fight the status quo, and those who appear willing to do anything to maintain it?

Losing our AIMS

Governor Napolitano signed into law a bill that will allow government school students to boost their AIMS test scores with good grades. This brings us back to the world as it existed before the test was a gleam in Lisa Keegan’s eye.

We are now full circle because the original problem was artificially good grades, and social promotions. Those problems persist, and now that those grades trump, or “augment”, the AIMS test score. It seems that there is no longer any hope for government schools.

This sordid story goes back to 1995 when then State Schools Superintendent, Lisa Keegan, got the ball rolling on a high school graduation test. The hope was that, by setting statewide standards, a high school diploma would indicate that the student had a basic grasp of reading, writing, and mathematics. A year later, the Board of Education set the standards, and the Arizona legislature made passing the test a requirement for graduation.

So, the government education establishment rolled up its sleeves, stepped up to the plate, and made seeing that every senior could pass the test its main goal… right?

Well, not exactly. Though the requirement was to be phased-in over a five-year period, no serious attempt at compliance was made; rather, energy was spent fighting the test. The year that the requirement was to go into effect was pushed from 2001 to 2002, then to 2006. Pressure was put on Superintendent Tom Horne in 2003 to dump the test. He refused, but promised to water it down. It was in 2006 that two advocacy groups sued to remove the test as a graduation requirement, a Superior Court Judge in Maricopa County tossed it out. Now, with Governor Napolitano’s signature, the test scores can be inflated just like the grades; in fact, using the grades, and to the same ends.

The education establishment wins, the students loose. If that is not bad enough, think of the message the educator’s example sends to the students. Imagine a guy with a shiny suit, two-tone wing tips, and a pencil thin mustache with slicked back hair approaching your kid as he leaves school. He puts his arm around your kid, leans over, and says, “Hey kid, don’t worry about all that AIMS stuff. It don’t matter. Yeah, you’ll hear them say stuff like ‘accepting the challenge’ and ‘achievement’ and all that crap, but you know that stuff’s for chumps – they can’t touch us. Do they think they can make you learn? Think you gonna be an engineer or something? Just keep doing what you’re doing, those punks will cave.”

That is just what happened, the punks caved.

However, all is not lost. While the documents were on their way to the governor, George Sanchez of the Arizona Daily Star reported that, “Tucson’s BASIS Charter School is heralded as the top public school in the United States in the new issue of Newsweek magazine.”

Charter schools, if you do not already know, are privately owned schools which contract with the state board of education, and the local school districts, to provide education services. They charge no tuition, and are paid by the state per pupil – much like the government schools, but at a lower rate, and they have no freely provided infrastructure.

I will certainly admit that the populations at the charter and government schools are different. Clearly, the charter student parent is, generally speaking, more engaged than the government parent. After all, the charter parents concern themselves with their children’s education at least, while many mouth-breathing government parents are just glad that the kids are gone for the day, and someone feeds them lunch. Parental involvement is, by far, the most important factor in a child’s educational success.

Charter schools are considered “public” schools, though they more accurately described as “government contractors”. Government contractors have long been employed to do what the government itself just can’t seem to get done internally – usually because, from top to bottom, the employees know that “the punks will cave.”

By the way, passing AIMS is a requirement for graduation at charter schools. It’s part of the contract.